Requiem for Kentucky Courts
Hosted by Jim Myers
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 2, 2001; 1 p.m. EDT
Back in the late-1950s, building the Kentucky Courts public housing project near Capitol Hill seemed like a good idea. And, for the most part, it was: It provided much-needed living space for people displaced by slum clearance and other public works. But by the early 1990s, Kentucky Courts had fallen into complete disrepair and become a squalid home for drug dealers and murderers.
Jim Myers -- who chronicled Kentucky Courts' descent into mayhem in a
cover story in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine -- was online Monday, July 2 at 1 p.m. EDT to field questions and comments about the article.
Myers is a Washington writer. His most recent book is "Afraid of the Dark: What Whites and Blacks Need to Know About Each Other."
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Jim Myers: Good afternoon. I've got some interesting questions here. Let me get into them
Mr. Myers -- excellent article! The road to hell is certainly paved with good intentions. Would excellent, instead of horrible administration been enough to "save" Kentucky Courts?
Jim Myers: One frustration in dealing with Kentucky Courts over the years was that solutions to many problem seemed so simple, but you couldn’t get them done. If the pigeon problem had been addressed in a timely way, it never would have turned into the ridiculous situation it became. If a few problem tenants had been shown the door, Kentucky Courts would have been a much more peaceful place to live -- and probably still open and functioning. But none of these actions were taken, and you've now read about the results.
Fascinating article, thanks.
I wonder: Since so clearly the majority of the Kentucky Courts residents were not involved in crime and desperately wanted it to stop, how do you think the domination of the complex might have been averted, as a lesson for future ones? Was it a matter of it not being mixed-income? Or an architectural problem that perpetuated those in crime to seek it out? Obviously, it was a combination, but how can we better plan to make public housing available and safe to those who need it?
Also, doesn't mixed-income housing carry its own problems?
Jim Myers: I'm afraid you have to enforce the rules and the law. That's a start. I also know that the leases in public housing are much stricter now -- and you can get evicted for law breaking under the Fight Back program.
I also know that nobody will build housing like Kentucky Courts these days. The nicest aspect of the design, the courtyards, is a no-no. You don't give people a public space to congregate. But I don't blame the design, because I see 60s-era garden apartments elsewhere that didn't turn into hell.
There were no rules at Kentucky Courts for many years.
Do you believe that mixed-income housing (as a replacement for Kentucky Court) will prove to be a long-term solution for this community?
Jim Myers: I am very hopeful. We have a mixed income site on Capitol Hill in the former Ellen Wilson project. It's beautiful.
The downside at Kentucky Courts, some might say, it that the number of subsidized units will be limited to about a quarter or a third of the total. So the 45 original family units at the Courts will be replaced by 40 units divided into townhouses and apartments, of which 12 or so will be subsidized.
The upside will be that the families in the subsidized will get excellent housing in a safe environment -- a place for children to grow up. That's my bottom line. In a few short years around Kentucky Courts I saw kids grow up at Kentucky Courts only to die on one of the nearby corners. I don't want to see that happen again.
I thoroughly enjoyed your article on Kentucky Courts. What do you think the of the future of public housing in the District? Also, could you comment on Natalie Hopkinson's Outlook piece on keeping D.C. a "chocolate city"?
Jim Myers: The landscape of public housing changed greatly under the receivership of David Gilmore. Many of the worst sites are no more – some redeveloped as mixed-income projects, where subsidized and market-value housing exists side by side.
Elsewhere in DC, public housing management appears to be more effective; they’re enforcing the rules and maintaining the premises better. But all this is a quiet change that many people don’t know about, because the don’t visit public housing.
As for Ms. Hopkinson’s article, I recognize that many white readers took exception to her views, but, I suppose, I was somewhat more sympathetic.
I recognize, too, it is hard to establish the historical “ownership” of many DC neighborhoods by race, because they were once white, then black and maybe are now turning white again. (Or other variants.) My neighborhood on Eastern Capitol Hill was mixed with white blocks and black blocks under segregation; my block was black going back to the early 1900s. But in recent decades many middle class black families have forsake neighborhoods like mine for the suburbs, and been replaced, in some cases, by white residents. And this occasionally leads to the claim that "whites are taking over"
I, personally, wish Ms. Hopkinson had chosen to move into my neighborhood. My wife, who is black, also wanted to live in a black neighborhood, which is one reason why we live where we do. I would also assume the Ms. Hopkinson, as a neighbor, would become an ally in community efforts to help our school – Payne School across the street -- and improve our neighborhood in other ways that make it a good place to live.
In fact, I’m much less interested in why people chose a neighborhood than in what they do when they get there. Do they get involved? One of the biggest problems currently in my neighborhood, which is still strongly black majority, is getting people involved. I wish someone would write an Outlook piece about that dilemma.
Where are many of the former Kentucky Courts residents now? Have they gone to other D.C. public housing complexes? Or left the public housing system entirely?
Jim Myers: They also started off in Section 8 housing in the District and in one case in Maryland. Some found very nice row houses; others picked privately owned garden-apartment complexes. A few residents picked Southern Courts on Southern Avenue, if anyone know that site. It looks a bit like Kentucky Courts. A few residents who moved out just before the decision to close Kentucky Courts felt left out, because they ended up trying to make it on their own without the Section certificates. As to where they all are -- a few are still in the Capitol Hill area and the rest are all over the city.
I was surprised to read about the architectural consideration that went into the building of Kentucky Courts. I live near there, and I have always found those buildings ugly, cheap-looking, and inappropriate for the architecture of the surrounding neighborhood. I was surprised to read that a lot of thought went into those ugly buildings.
Jim Myers: I'm afraid that the compatibility of the design with other buildings was not a grand concern in 1960. And the buildings always puzzled me because they looked the worst from the outside -- what everybody else saw. The environment was much more pleasant in the courtyards, and that's about the nicest thing I can say. The apartments tended to be small and utilitarian. Some were very well kept by residents anyone would welcome as neighbors.
Excellent piece in yesterday's magazine. But I worry about naive optimism over blended communities where some of the housing is subsidized and some is not. Won't the people who work all week to pay the, say, $1,500 monthly rent get resentful very quickly toward those whom they perceive to be getting a handout in the form of the same apartment for only $500 a month? Seems like such a plan is asking for trouble.
Jim Myers: Please, take a look at the Ellen Wilson site, which is between 6th and 7th Streets SE at about E Street, if I remember correctly. Your concern was expressed about that project, too, but I don't hear it now. I'm told the concept works -- here and in other cities. Remember, too, that the residents in the subsidized units are also likely to be hard working; they just don't make as much.
Excellent article in the Magazine yesterday. The main thing I came away with -- it seems to be implied in the article -- is that the problems at Kentucky Court are a result of a combination of bad management, lack of long-term maintenance and an invisible police presence at the time that the crime wave there really started. Do you think that one of these things is more to blame than the others or are they all equal contributors? And if public housing in D.C. -- or for that matter anywhere in the U.S. -- is going to get better, that we as taxpayers need to be much more vigorous about getting these things fixed than we have been in the past?
Jim Myers: I agree that all these factors were at play -- and probably others. We had these horrible situations in DC because many agencies collapsed at the very time that the crack epidemic was taking hold and violent street wars were breaking out.
What still bothers me is that we have generations that grew up in the middle of this.
Then, too, we had many people -- the so-called good citizens -- who tended to look at public housing as if from across the Grand Canyon. Public housing residents became isolated, and too often their voice wasn't heard.
I found your comment about black resentment toward whites interesting. I am white and moved into a house previously occupied by a black family. Thankfully I have not experienced this resentment myself. Then again there were serious drug dealers using the house for years, so it was a huge relief when someone else moved in. People actually stop when they're walking by and thank us for moving in -- one woman said she hadn't waliked down that block for years because of the drug dealers out front, and she feels safe again. That was nice to hear.
Jim Myers: My experience is that in the long run newcomers, white or black, are judged in terms of their involvement in the community. I have a lot of interaction with my neighbors so I hear about all these attitudes but I hardly take them personally. If I have any prejudices, they tend to be against people who don't get involved.
Mr. Myers: a second question, which I may have
missed in your article. How difficult is it
for such entities as "Kentucky Courts" to get
rid of "problem" tenants?
Jim Myers: I gather it is easier now than it was. The lease agreements are much stricter, and the efforts to remove problem tenants are more real -- at least, that's what I hear.
Thank you for the excellent update on your story from the Atlantic. How has the drug/crime scene changed in the blocks surrounding Kentucky Courts since the complex was closed? I have been told that the commercial strip one or two blocks to the east is still very risky, especially after dark. I have recently waliked past the Kentucky Courts during the day, though, and did not notice a marked difference between those blocks and many nearby areas of Capitol Hill (at least the area east of around 12th Street SE, and much of NE Capitol Hill).
Jim Myers: I expect the big difference will come when the redevelopment starts at Kentucky Courts. Word is that the existing family units will be torn down later this summer of in the fall. Along 15th street, there is still a problem of crack and heroin sales, and if you want to see some of the people who used to gather at Kentucky Courts, in recent weeks, they have been gathering in the late afternoon and early evening at 15th and C Street SE.
I enjoyed your article. Where can I get a copy of the Moynahan report of 1965?
Jim Myers: The Moynahan Report seems hard to find. I found it in the Library of Congress on microfilm, because the first copy I asked for came back marked "missing." Interestingly, it is a Department of Labor report, and Moynahan's name appears nowhere on it.
Let's follow Arlington County's lead. Rather than supply affordable housing, we make sure we price the lower-income criminals out of the market. That means they at least wind up in the District, if not back in their home countries. Thank God for the pro-developer staff in the Arlington County government.
Jim Myers: Several questioners seem to be raising the same point: Where will the "problem" families end up?
In my experience, much of the problem boiled down to drug use. The worst apartments were the ones where drug use was the most disruptive and the families the most dysfunctional.
Meanwhile, in my neighborhood, too, there are many people who would like to "price" the problems out of the picture, which means that the advocates of affordable housing will need to think about solutions for the drug plague, too; otherwise all communities will adopt the same strategy.
The family-destroying drug problem is still out there on our corners.What are we going to do about it?
Jim: in your (excellent) piece in yesterday's magazine you mentioned Cabrini Green, and as a former Chicago area resident I believe that the area has experienced some revitalization due to the emerging of big businesses such as groceries and coffee shops, which provide employment opportunities for the residents. Yet I don't think that commercialization of residential areas such as Capitol Hill is the answer to such housing problems as Kentucky Courts, but I'm wondering if it has it's place in future subsidized or mixed income projects? Thanks.
Jim Myers: As I understand it, the redevelopment in Chicago is recreating neighborhoods, almost from scratch. Hence, we're talking about larger areas, where stores and commerce make sense. Right now, most residents on eastern Capitol Hill view corner stores as the places where problems gather, so there is a momentary prejudice against commerce. Maybe, that will change as the neighborhoods change; for the time being most people want to emphasize the residential aspects of the neighborhood over anything else.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
Thanks so much for the article on Kentucky Courts. I lived two blocks away in my first apartment after college, and would walk past on my way to the grocery store. My roommates and I stopped and bought lemonade and watermelon every weekend, and chatted with the kids. They were great, and we weren't aware of all the problems going on there. It was a great, enlightening article.
Jim Myers: I'm thrilled to hear from a former customer of the lemonade stand -- and all the way from LA! Some of the kids -- now much bigger -- come by and say, "That was my first job." So maybe the efforts served a good purpose.
Thanks for the great article. My concern w/ mixed -income and section 8 is that it's just spreading the misery out over a broader area. The problem seems to be with a few criminal-types who just won't behave no matter where they are. When they are kicked-out under the new rules, where do they go? When they're not in jail, can't we designate "special" public housing for them?
Jim Myers: Many people seem to focus on "criminals," which is understandable. I tended to focus on the kids; I wish we could focus on solutions for the youngsters. When all was said and done, very few actual criminal lived at Kentucky Courts. And in some cases, the problem was they were drug users. Please remember that the overwhelming majority at Kentucky Court were fine neighbors. In fact, I miss having them close by. It was a loss in my life when they moved away.
Kentucky Courts is why economic segregation through zoning is so popular. Who wants live near something like that, even if 95 percent of the people there are decent folks?
The Washington area is full of the effects of poor-avoidance: sprawl, traffic, public servants who can't afford to live in the jurisdiction where they work. But can you blame anyone who doesn't want a Kentucky Courts in their neighborhood?
In researching this story, did you learn about any tools or strategies to keep poor areas from becoming havens for crime?
Jim Myers: We need housing that's well run. We need policing that considers my neighborhood in Southeast to have the same rights to peace and quiet as the more upscale neighborhoods elsewhere in the city. And we still need an effort to minimize the impact of drugs.
That said, the last murder in my immediate neighborhood was in November of 1999; I'm knocking on wood. All around you see little signs of positive change, so I am actually very optimistic.
I am from a small, rural town. I was a congressional intern in 1997-98 and lived in a townhouse between Kentucky Courts and the school. At the time, I had no idea of the problems that plagued the area. I can remember several evenings when police helicopters hovered, police cars surrounded, and police bikes peddled to the scene. Officers waliked through our backyard, wading through the ivy "looking for someone who shot at a cop." I guess one story that hasn't been told is that of us young "Hill" staffers who were looking for affordable housing and ended-up in the middle of something terrible. It was a very traumatic time in my life. I can remember lying in bed at night and hearing the sounds of gunfire, hoping that it would not hit me in bed. I can remember thinking, "Should I get on the floor?" But I had things to accomplish and I wasn't going to let fear for personal safety stop me from doing what I came to D.C. to do. But, I never knew it was that unsafe! I guess it was probably a good thing that I didn't know!
Jim Myers: The horror stories of that period were all too real. Unfortunately, we sent many people away from Washington thinking it was like a perpetual war zone. We hope things are getting better now.
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