At city's McCulloh Homes, the emphasis is on `home'

Longtime residents are wary of a proposal to demolish one of Baltimore's first public housing projects.

September 17, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

June Johnson and the women relaxing on a sofa in her tiny, trinket-stuffed living room don't refer to the cluster of squat brick buildings they live in as "a project."

"What is a project?" asks Johnson, a 72-year-old who has made a home for the past 13 years in a one-bedroom end unit at Watty Court, part of the McCulloh Homes public housing in midtown Baltimore. "I don't feel this is a project. This is a community."

Home. Project. Community. Whatever anyone wants to call it, state and city planners consider McCulloh Homes to be a pivotal component of a development opportunity, a chance to transform 110 nondescript acres of town into possibly the city's largest planned community.

To fulfill their vision of a "Eutaw District," the state and city would need to raze the 25-acre State Center office complex and the 31-acre McCulloh Homes.

The combined sites are sandwiched between Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill and atop a gold mine of transportation options. Government planners consider the spot ripe for building 3,200 homes, 571,000 square feet of retail space - including a movie theater and a boutique hotel - and a 4-acre park.

Though city planners say they are nowhere near ready to move on the McCulloh Homes, Maryland's Department of Transportation will begin looking this month for developers who can tear down the State Center and replace it with new government offices integrated with places to live, dine and shop.

That means Baltimore planning and housing officials have to decide soon whether McCulloh Homes will be part of the development.

If Johnson has any say in it - and Planning Director Otis Rolley III says she and the 800 or so tenants will have all the say in the decision - the answer is a firm no.

"We don't want any demolition," she said flatly.

According to the planners' draft report, they would like McCulloh Homes - apartments and towers that rose in the early 1940s as one of Baltimore's first public housing projects, one exclusively for African-Americans - to be "reborn" as McCulloh Village.

In place of the boxy, red-brick structures, all clotheslines and courtyards, there would be townhouses and lofts, places for people of all income levels to live - not just the poor. Planners would season the residences with amenities, making sure people have dry cleaners, day care, health clubs and supermarkets on site.

New home guaranteed

According to Rolley, every McCulloh Homes resident would be guaranteed a new village home.

Though Johnson and her neighbors, Arlene McCain, who's 48, and Joyce Louise Roundtree, 61, have nothing against convenience, they have little faith in government declarations and even less desire to give up a familiar place for a hazy promise of something better.

All of them are old enough to remember what happened when the city demolished other public housing complexes, how more attractive new homes were indeed built, but not enough of them and not necessarily at prices everyone could afford.

McCain, who lived at the Murphy Homes high-rise before it was razed to make way for Heritage Crossing townhouses, guesses it's not so much the McCulloh Homes that officials want out of the way as it is the people who live there.

"They're not gonna tear down Bolton Hill. They're not gonna tear down Mount Vernon. They're tearing us down, 'cause it's the projects," she said.

Johnson, who leads the McCulloh Homes tenants association, attended a few of the Eutaw District planning meetings, feeling alone and confused as the officials rattled off development strategy details.

She understood the part about how the site is near-perfect for building a transit-oriented community, with Metro and light rail stops right there and Penn Station only blocks away.

That, the schools and the churches is why she wanted to live there, too.

"For the very same reason they want these rich people here," she said. "I know they want mixed income but why are they doing it on the backs of poor people?"

Roundtree told of how she moved to McCulloh Homes in 1969 with her four boys. After more than 35 years, it's the place she identifies as home.

"To see them come and tear this place down," she said, "it would hurt my heart. I got a lot of memories here."

A part of city history

The complex, all three ladies agree, is a strong symbol of black history in Baltimore. "Why," McCain asks, "are you gonna take something that's truly a part of us?"

Adds Roundtree: "June was telling me when the bulldozer comes, she's gonna be in front of it. I'll be with her."

"Me, too," said McCain.

The Rev. William C. Calhoun Sr., pastor of nearby Trinity Baptist Church, understands the fear that public housing residents might feel when officials mention plans in which they could be displaced. Particularly, he said, when they don't have a prominent seat at the planning table.

Calhoun, who is also president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said he hadn't heard about the proposal.

But, unlike Johnson and her friends, Calhoun sees few redeeming qualities in McCulloh Homes. Letting them go, he allows, might just lead to something better.

"Come on, it's run its course. Just look at them. What's attractive?" he said. "There comes a time when you have to ask what progressive things are going to help the health of future generations. Sometimes, substance will overrule symbolism."

`Just fix us'

If the city wants a vibrant new midtown community, and if the aging McCulloh Homes won't look right in the middle of it, Johnson would prefer the city to renovate the buildings rather than raze them.

Do something to make us blend in, she said. Give us A-line roofs. Maybe steam the bricks. Put better windows in and new doors. Give us central air. And shine up the two statues that stand at the community's threshold, the little bit of class and culture the community is so proud of.

"Just fix us," she said.

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