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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map