Residents' unity stands as complex is set to fall

Claremont Homes to make way for $118 million project

October 19, 2006|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN REPORTER

It was a tradition that began many years ago. About 50 Claremont Homes residents would gather every three months at the complex's auditorium for an extended family dinner.

"The parents would have to come with their children and serve them," said Anna Warren, who has lived at the East Baltimore public housing development for 47 years. "We tried to show kids a different part of life. And they used to love it. We'd make chicken, roast beef, string beans, everything."

It is one of the fondest memories of the community for Warren, who will be on hand today for the start of demolition on the 292-unit complex near Erdman Avenue and Sinclair Lane.

Developers are scheduled to raze Claremont Homes to make way for Orchard Ridge, a $118 million, 470-unit mixed income development. Freedom Villlage, another complex that shared the 60-acre site, was torn down two years ago. Orchard Ridge is expected to be completed by the end of 2010, developers say.

Orchard Ridge will consist of two- and three-story townhouses for rental and ownership. Plans call for a new community center/clubhouse, recreational open space and wooded area at the center of the site.

Claremont Homes opened as a whites-only complex in the 1950s when racial segregation was legal. Over the past decade, it became a virtually all-black community, former residents said.

The strong sense of togetherness felt by Claremont Homes residents persists. Lillian Easley has lived in the high-rise apartment building in the 4300 block of Clareway for 18 years. Many of the residents living in the soon-to-be-demolished homes moved into the high-rise within the complex, which will remain but could be torn down and replaced once the project is complete. Other former Claremont residents have moved to neighboring public housing developments.

"I miss them. We had just a happy feeling around here," said Easley, 71.

The Orchard Ridge project is one of the city's most extensive undertakings, said housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, who likened it to the Uplands and Barclay redevelopments. Graziano said the razing of the homes was necessary, and the community had been dealing with gas problems and similar issues that occur that decrepit homes.

"It was unlivable," Graziano said. "It was one of our oldest developments, and it was in serious need of redevelopment. ... It's going to be a massive shot in the arm to the Bel-Air/Edison neighborhood across the street."

The relocated residents of Claremont will get first crack at moving back into their old community and reuniting with neighbors, many of whom have known each other for decades.

For some, that day cannot arrive soon enough.

Margaret McDanielf had been a Claremont resident for 48 years before moving to O'Donnell Heights more than a year ago. Her assessment?

"I hate it," McDanielf said. "They're not together like we were in Claremont. They don't have activities."

McDanielf said she will be one of the first residents to sign a lease in Orchard Ridge in the winter of next year. Tenants are expected to move in around the middle of the summer.

Demolition is expected to be complete by the end of this year, developers said. Patrick Wagner, the development officer for Pennrose Properties, says his company has finished asbestos abatement and will do everything possible to keep dust down for the residents living in the apartment building.

"The only stated concern from the residents is the rodents," Wagner said. "But we've already done rat abatement."

Doors on the units at Claremont are boarded up, and windows are filled with cinderblock instead of glass. Furniture, clothes and trash litter the grassy areas, while the streets remain relatively quiet. Yellow police tape cordons off many of the units, one of which had "This use to be a happy home" spray-painted on the outside.

Warren, who serves as the tenant council president of Claremont, is eagerly awaiting the day when her old neighborhood no longer resembles a ghost town.

She expects most of her former neighbors who did not use certificates to buy houses in surrounding counties to move into the new complex. Once that happens, Warren expects life, and the Claremont spirit, to return to normal.

"We did a lot of things back then," Warren said. "We had Christmas parties. We gave food away. Claremont was very different from others. We all worked together.

"This was a happy place. And it's going to be a happy place once we get everybody back."

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