David I. Gilmore holds forth from behind his fortress of a desk, piled high with documents and cluttered with keepsakes from the public housing wars.

The whole scene is framed by a huge poster from "Les Miserables." Gilmore says the epic musical of revenge, redemption and revolution in 19th-century France moves him to tears. But the urchin on the poster peering down at him leads the court-appointed boss of the District's public housing to a confession.

"I am occasionally a tyrant," he says.

His top staffers not long ago bought the chief a holiday gift -- another poster, this one from "The Caine Mutiny." They superimposed Gilmore's face over Humphrey Bogart's as Capt. Queeg.

Remember those silver balls Queeg kept rolling obsessively in his hand? Gilmore has a rubber band stretched from one index finger to the other, and he's pulling it tighter and tighter as a metaphor for his management style.

"I try to stretch them," he says of those in his employ, "as far as they will go without breaking."

"And right when they're at the breaking point," he says, letting the rubber band go, "you hug them and stroke them and tell them that you love them. In the final analysis, it works well. They know I love them, or they don't stay. The ones who remain know they will have a loyal supporter forever. And the ones who don't usually think of me as a total tyrant. And it's an image I don't do anything to allay."

D.C. Superior Court Judge Steffen W. Graae, the man who determined the city was no longer capable of running its own public housing program, still remembers his first luncheon meeting with Gilmore at La Colline in the summer of 1994.

"It took me about three minutes to decide he was right for this job," Graae said. "I liked his directness. I liked the way he talked about tenants, the residents -- what it was all about. I just liked his whole orientation -- that we have a simple job to do, provide decent housing for the people we're serving."

Graae also remembers that Gilmore seemed bored running the high-achieving Seattle Housing Authority and lusted after the kind of graffiti-marred, boarded-up hopelessness one finds in the District of Columbia.

"This is what he does, fix broken housing," Graae said. "And I don't think you could find an agency any more broken than this one."

Gilmore loved the very things about the District that terrified other bureaucrats.

He was brash enough to take on one of the worst public housing agencies in the country: 11,000 units, many of them unfit for human habitation; 24,000 tenants, who had been abused for years by a dysfunctional city bureaucracy. And he was cocky enough to want the visibility of the nation's capital, where he could try to work a miracle in full view of Congress and the federal government -- and maybe help restore faith in public housing all across America.

Gilmore, 55, had something else that set him apart from some of the District's other high-profile reformers: He had a track record.

Andrew F. Brimmer, a noted economist, had never run a municipal department, much less a city, when he became chairman of the D.C. financial control board. Julius W. Becton Jr., a retired Army general and small college president, had never led a school system when he took over the District's failing public schools. Both called it quits recently, embattled and disliked by the public.

But when Gilmore took over the public housing program, he'd already made his mark as a turnaround specialist in Boston and San Francisco. And he knew -- unlike Brimmer and Becton -- that he wasn't going to succeed here without strong support from the people he was brought in to serve.

Bill Knox, the D.C. Housing Authority's rehab director, says his boss combines the qualities of a social worker and a Marine officer. "He always accomplishes his objective and he never leaves his wounded behind," says Knox, himself a former Marine grunt in Vietnam. "But he still has that social worker heart. You might get mixed reviews around the country, but nobody will say this guy doesn't care about what he does and the people he serves." The Problem Solver Gilmore sits, gavel in hand, at the center of a semicircular dais, a quorum of one in public session. Tenants face him from a witness table across the room and fire away.

There is no place to hide.

He started these biweekly public meetings at the housing authority's headquarters on North Capitol Street to send a message to tenants who'd been treated with disdain by most of his predecessors. And the message, that there was somebody downtown who cared about tenants, spread quickly through the District's 50 housing projects.

They make their appeals to Gilmore, the social worker. And then they watch with delight as he morphs into a Marine commander, summons members of his senior staff to a microphone on the floor, and demands to know why the tenants aren't getting the service they deserve.

He set the tone for these sessions early on when Khadijah Watson, a resident at the Woodland Terrace development, appeared a few days after New Year's in 1996, feverish and coughing.

A flood in the basement of her building had knocked out the boiler just before the long holiday weekend. A housing authority inspector came and looked at the problem, she said, but never did anything to get the heat back on.

When she finished her tale, Gilmore was livid. He summoned the inspector's boss, the agency's chief of mechanical operations, Gregory Matthews, to the microphone.

Why hadn't anyone fixed this woman's heat, he thundered.

Watson would later remember how Matthews smirked and had no answers.

At which point Gilmore recessed the meeting, directed Matthews into his office and fired him. (Matthews maintains he retired.) Then Gilmore returned to the meeting room and told stunned staff members that they better beat Watson back to her building.

"And when I got home," Watson recalled, "I had all the heat I wanted."

Asked recently whether he really had to fire Matthews, Gilmore nods.

"Yes, it was necessary," he says. "He felt it was okay to leave people for an entire holiday weekend without some creature comfort called heat -- and in doing so he sacrificed his right to earn a living here." Crossed Off the List The public schools may not open on time, and the police department may lack radios and computers and fax toner. But the District's public housing projects -- long the most blighted, dangerous neighborhoods in the city -- are showing signs of life, feeding off the raw energy of this short bearded man in dark shades and a scuffed leather jacket.

"David Gilmore is the manager par excellence in this city," says Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "I think every manager in the District bar none should ask him to put on a series of seminars -- he's got management skills, skills with tenants, skills with employees. He leaves everybody else in the dust."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officially announced two weeks ago that Gilmore had succeeded in taking the D.C. Housing Authority off HUD's infamous "troubled" list for the first time since the federal agency started rating housing authorities in 1992.

Gilmore produced what HUD called "dramatic improvement" through an array of reforms. He created a housing authority police force to fight crime and evict drug-dealing tenants. He started a program to renovate every occupied unit in the system. And he's reinventing the District's most blighted developments in tandem with private developers, hoping to replace boarded-up shells with new mixed-income neighborhoods.

He also plans to implement a new admissions policy that sets aside 50 percent of all vacancies for working families and bars certain classes of criminals, a policy that bears the imprint of both the social worker looking to help people and the Marine code of responsibility. It's part of a national trend in public housing, a move from passively fostering government dependence to actively encouraging tenants to make their own way.

"I have a confession to make," Gilmore told a group of employees and tenants at the recent opening of a job training center at the East Capitol Apartments near the Prince George's County line. "I grew up in a liberal family, with liberal values. But we forgot about the dignity that comes along with self-determination. Let's be frank with each other -- let's talk a little bit about dependence, because that's what we liberals have been building." Out of Brooklyn Gilmore, the son of an accountant and a secretary, grew up in a middle-class, mostly Italian and Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn in the decades after World War II.

"I wanted for very little in my life, but we were not a rich family," Gilmore says, describing a safe, nurturing neighborhood that was in many ways the antithesis of the modern housing project. (He now earns $147,000 a year.)

Gilmore's first exposure to social issues and the integrationist ideals of the civil rights movement came as a volunteer at a community center serving two public housing developments near where he lived. An aunt, a "rabid liberal," he recalls, helped organize the center.

Because of that experience, he now realizes, he would never feel handicapped as a white man working in public housing, where most tenants are black. "People recognize respect," he says. "People recognize sincerity. And if somebody is available to help solve a problem, they recognize it -- and they don't give a damn {what race} you are."

He earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 and immediately fell in with a band of liberal firebrands at the Philadelphia Housing Authority. They were intent on organizing black tenants, eradicating slum units and building new, integrated public housing. And they all got fired when former police chief Frank Rizzo rode a tide of white working-class resentment to the mayor's office in 1972.

Unemployed, he followed his cohorts to Boston and held a series of public service jobs before taking a year's leave of absence from a position at the University of Massachusetts to help a court-appointed receiver remake the horrible Boston Housing Authority.

"Six months into it, I knew I was hooked," he recalls. "Once the self-satisfaction of changing lives takes hold -- the sense of power, the ability to see whole systems change before your eyes -- it is very addictive. Over time, you start to see the turnaround take place. Anybody who can turn away from all that is pretty coldhearted. There's a sense of accomplishment, a sense of power, a sense of urgency and mission. My one year turned out to be 10."

He finally left Boston as deputy director in 1989 to continue his salvage work for Mayor Art Agnos in San Francisco. He had separated from his wife in 1985 -- they have three children -- so the move west felt like a chance to set out on his own, personally and professionally. But two years into his tenure, conservative former police chief Frank Jordan unseated Agnos and declared holy war on Agnos's brash public housing manager.

Gilmore enjoyed strong support from the city's housing commission, the only body empowered to terminate his contract. But when a HUD audit questioned $53,000 in spending for "unallowable entertainment" -- money that went for entertaining local politicians and taking kids to ballgames -- Jordan and other critics pounced.

Gilmore left to run the Seattle Housing Authority in 1993, loathed by some and loved by others but generally regarded as having done a good job: San Francisco was off HUD's troubled list when he left.

"He was a dictator -- absolutely hierarchical," says Barbara Meskunas, a San Francisco civic leader who fought him over a project he ultimately rebuilt in her neighborhood. "I think he was interested in physical improvements to the properties -- but cared very little about the tenants. That's why they ran him out of town -- and I'd like to think I was part of that."

Gilmore dismisses her criticism as tendentious and uninformed, after having provided her name and telephone number during an interview, knowing that she would trash his record. He does not deny, however, making mistakes in San Francisco.

"My arrogance, for which I am well known, got in the way," he admits. "Clearly, I did not work with the tenants in San Francisco the way I am now working with them here -- it's an evolutionary thing." Turnaround . . . The first time Gilmore saw Benning Terrace, a bedlam of rundown brick walk-ups off Benning Road SE near the Prince George's County line, it struck him as "an open wasteland." His driver wouldn't even turn into the complex on his first tour of the projects Gilmore had come to save, scared off by "three of the meanest looking dudes I've seen anywhere" sitting outside in lawn chairs.

Gilmore recalls the scene as he stands where those three thugs had sat, on a cul-de-sac where sneakers hung from the telephone lines in memory of the dead. More remarkable still is that he's chatting with Thomas Derrick Ross, who might well have been one of three.

Ross, back then, helped lead one of two neighborhood factions that divided Benning Terrace in a turf war and terrorized those who lived there with spasms of automatic weapons fire. But things have changed.

Ross now works for Gilmore as a construction foreman. So do most of his friends. The neighborhood war is over.

"We just opened the doors," says Gilmore, the social worker. "And they just walked through."

Ross thinks about that for a moment and comes up with a slightly different spin. "We didn't have no doors," he says. "The doors to opportunity -- it wasn't like they were being slammed in our faces, they were closed before we ever got to 'em."

At first, the only solution Gilmore saw for the problems at Benning Terrace was demolition, and he had aides draw up a demolition plan for HUD's approval.

Then one morning in early 1997, he picked up the paper and read that a 12-year-old from the neighborhood had been executed on his way home from school. Gilmore picked up the phone and ordered an aide to send the demolition application to HUD immediately. The Marine in him stirred, and this was war.

"The only thing I had in mind was to get rid of these young men and disperse them somewhere else," he recalls.

But several weeks later, he read about something even more astounding -- a truce at Benning Terrace, brokered by a group called the Alliance of Concerned Men and an iconoclastic activist, Robert Woodson.

Again, he put down the paper and picked up the phone. This time, it was the social worker calling.

" Bob, what can I do to help?' " Woodson recalls Gilmore asking. "And I said, When you take guns and knives out of their hands, you've got to replace them with jobs.' "

Gilmore showed up the next time both gang factions met to negotiate -- and a gang member got right in his face and wanted to know: Are you ever going to start cleaning up the neighborhood?

Gilmore said -- well, no. "But you can," he suggested.

And so began a six-month, $200,000 jobs program through which 30 gang members cleaned up trash and painted over graffiti, some of them earning the first paychecks of their lives.

"To see young men who all the experts at Harvard say are godless, valueless and worthless, to see young men like this in a space of a few months just change -- I think David has been moved," Woodson says. "He came over here almost nonstop for a number of months, to our negotiating sessions, out to the property."

The turnaround at Benning Terrace, Woodson says, has been like "night and day." The sneakers are gone from the telephone wires. The only "crew" left in the neighborhood is rebuilding a basement coin laundry that never opened after somebody riddled it with bullets nine years ago.

"This is my defining moment, man," Gilmore says, standing with Ross in the courtyard. "This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me. Thank God it didn't pass me by." . . . and Transformation A couple of miles away, Valley Green sprawls across a desolate hillside off Wheeler Road SE, 34 abandoned brick apartment buildings on 20 acres of silent concrete courtyards and rutted city streets. It makes Benning Terrace look like a garden spot.

Once upon a time, 1,500 people -- 1,000 of them children -- tried to live here among the poverty and the crime and, as the 1980s wore on, the drug-related killings. But when Gilmore pulls his Ford Explorer into the complex on a chilly, windswept morning in March, only eight families remain in a single building.

They stayed put because a tenant leader named Jacqueline Massey refused to abandon the neighborhood where she raised her kids. A decade ago, the federal government had given the housing authority $18 million to modernize the development, and Massey wasn't leaving until the work began. The housing authority promised her a new place, and she was going to get it.

The first time he met her, Gilmore told Massey that the war couldn't be won at Valley Green for $18 million. It was the Marine in him being brutally candid. But he honors commitments, and by the time Gilmore finished working with the residents and the nonprofit Enterprise Foundation, the social worker's heart was visible in a new plan to tear down all of Valley Green and spend $53 million on a new neigborhood of town houses and single-family homes for people with a mix of income levels.

So on this morning in March, Massey is finally moving out. It's an act of faith -- in Gilmore.

"I'm feeling fine," she tells him. "I thought I was going to be upset, but I'm not. I will be back. I guess that's why I ain't crying."

As movers load her things into the back of a truck, Gilmore looks out across a monument to four decades of public housing failure. "When you think about what was invested in this place, I mean, it's criminal," he says. "You can't take a look at what happened here without a sense of heartbreak."

This is the Washington where Gilmore spends most of his time, places named Frederick Douglass and East Capitol and Benning Terrace, neighborhoods no tourists ever visit, far removed from the Mall, the monuments, the whole downtown scene.

Truth be known, Gilmore doesn't care much for that side of town. "It's not that I dislike it here -- it's just not the place I'd want to settle," he says. "It has the feel of transience to me. It lacks the heartbeat that I loved in San Francisco and New York and Boston -- the vibrance of a downtown that pulsed all the time."

Now he knows those neighborhoods, Anacostia and Brookland, Benning Heights and Capitol View. "And exactly the opposite is true -- the neighborhoods of this city are magnificent," he says. "And therein lies the great opportunity in fixing public housing. Because if you fix public housing, you turn whole neighborhoods around, and when you turn neighborhoods around, at some point, you may turn the whole city around." CAPTION: Public housing czar David Gilmore and youth program intern Juliette Wright at Woodland Terrace. "People recognize respect," he says. "People recognize sincerity." CAPTION: Gilmore greets youth program intern Darak Tabron at Woodland Terrace. CAPTION: Public housing honcho David Gilmore at a receivers meeting, left, and in the field, above, asking why Hashim Bright has been arrested. CAPTION: At a surprise visit to inspect work being done at the James Creek Townhouses, rehab director Bill Knox and Gilmore chat with Antoine Truesdale. CAPTION: Gilmore talks with Benning Terrace resident Michael Gray, above. Derrick Ross, right, helps with renovations in the laundry room there. CAPTION: Left, David Gilmore enjoys a laugh in an office overflowing with mementos; above, listens to tenants' woes at one of the biweekly meetings he instituted; and, below, is welcomed to a Federal City Council meeting by the organization's executive vice president, Kenneth Sparks (at left) and deputy director, David Perry.