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City on the road back from a high-rise hell: America keeps an eye on the toppling towers of poverty

A MILLION-DOLLAR view from hell: that is what you get if you live in a high-rise public housing tower on Baltimore's east side. The panorama of the Inner Harbor, just a few blocks away, is breathtaking. But outside your door, drug dealers wield Uzi machine-guns and children play 'Dare' in the elevator shafts, leaping from one immobilised cabin to another.

The Inner Harbor - 10 years ago, a crumbling and dangerous wasteland, but now a waterside jewel of promenades and shopping pavilions - is Baltimore's pride. But the towering Flag House, clad on one side with chicken wire to prevent suicides, attests to what has failed in the city. In six months, however, it should be gone.

Baltimore, America's 13th largest city and among its most violent, is once again searching for ways to tackle the urban deprivation at its heart. The noble hopes that the Harbor development would provide prosperity for all the population have evaporated. In neighbourhood after neighbourhood, the litany of decline is overwhelming: soaring violent crime, drugs, rising school drop-out rates, and dire poverty.

'We have to find a new balance,' says the mayor, Kurt Schmoke. 'It's clear that those investments have not uplifted the lives of people in some of our poorest neighbourhoods. We'd like to concentrate on improvements in education and housing so that everybody will feel that regeneration.'

Several new projects are now under way, which, if they work, may become models for the country. The simplest, conceptually, is a plan to dynamite Flag House and seven other similar high-rise blocks, and to relocate their residents in low- rise housing elsewhere. The aim, the mayor explains, is to break the 'concentration of poverty and racial segregation' that has grown up in the towers. The residents are almost all black and on welfare.

Baltimore will be the first American city to demolish high- rise public housing wholesale. Its appeals for federal funding drew no response from Washington until the arrival of the Clinton administration. A grant of dollars 50m was approved earlier this month. Mayor Schmoke - at 44, already a star among African-American Democrats, an Oxford Rhodes Scholar and an old friend and ally of Bill Clinton - says: 'The President did not come up with a whole lot of new money. He just said, 'Here's the money - use it the way you think it makes sense.' '

New, almost revolutionary thinking characterises another project that has stirred interest nationwide and drawn visits by the President and several members of his cabinet.

Mayor Schmoke, in partnership with a retired millionaire and philanthropist, James Rouse, has singled out perhaps the most rotten of the city's neighbourhoods, Sandtown- Winchester on the west side, and set about salvaging it. Not only will it be physically rehabilitated, with new and rebuilt housing, but networks of social servicing, including health clinics and adult training centres, are also being put in place.

With the project already in its third year, the neighbourhood - just 72 square blocks with a little over 10,000 residents - is visibly on the way up. Where a derelict bakery once stood, there are 227 new houses, subsidised with government funds and for sale at affordable weekly mortgage payments of dollars 275. Children's playgrounds have been given new equipment. A mural known as the 'Wall of Pride', depicting black American heroes from Bob Marley to Martin Luther King, has been repainted. But on some streets, houses remain boarded up and, even in daylight, drug dealers wait on every corner for customers. It is still one of the city's most active drug-sale areas. 'This is the most important thing I've undertaken in my life,' says Mr Rouse, 79, whose own firm, the Rouse Company, from which he retired 13 years ago, designed the shopping pavilions of the Inner Harbor.

Now he is chairman of the Enterprise Foundation, dedicated, he said, 'to ensuring fit and equitable housing for everyone in America within a generation'.

As a mission, it seems wildly ambitious, but what happens in Sandtown will be a first test. His foundation has given about dollars 40m in privately raised funding for the Sandtown project, and provided much of the design and management expertise. Earlier this year, however, the programme was handed over to a development corporation, majority-managed by Sandtown residents.

Mr Rouse is passionate about his mission. 'There is a steady regression in life in the American city. Poverty rises year by year, numbers in jail are the highest in the world. It's an incredible billboard for the country. The conditions exist because of a pervasive state of mind that nothing can be done about it. We have to demonstrate that it is correctable, and I believe it to be correctable'.

Still, there are some who wonder at the amount of energy and money being poured into one fairly small area.

'There are 20 neighbourhoods at least in Baltimore just as bad as Sandtown,' says Arnie Graf, who works with Build, a church-led organisation for neighbourhood renewal, which withdrew from Sandtown after complaining that Rouse was moving too fast.

'Where are you going to find all the other people with the energy, the commitment, the money of Jim Rouse?' he says. And people in other neighbourhoods have begun muttering to the mayor's office that too much is being lavished on Sandtown.

Walter Sondheim, now 84, was the leader of the effort in the Seventies to create the Inner Harbor. He expresses pride in its success, but admits to distress over the despair that exists so close by. 'Has this done all we expected it would do? I should say not. I think a whole crowd of us should be hanged, drawn and quartered for what has happened to the cities.'

Still acting as an adviser to Mayor Schmoke, Mr Sondheim praises the efforts of his old friend Mr Rouse, but also has his doubts.

'Sandtown is somewhere where everything is being brought together to make the community work. I believe it'll work. What worries me is the costs that are going into it are very, very great. It's a fair-sized area, but it's inconsequential when you set it against the size of the whole city. It shows what can be done with huge infusions of money. But can you duplicate that all over the country?'

(Photographs omitted)