For the past decade the Shirley Duke Apartments in Alexandria have served as home to thousands of low-income families. Last week it was announced that the 132-building complex as well as the nearby Regina Apartments had been purchased by two area developers who plan to renovate the buildings and rent them to middle-income people.
The announcement means that about 500 families who still live at Shirley Duke must find new housing in the immediate future, a difficult task in the inflated Washington metropolitan area housing market.
Here are three brief profiles of Shirley Duke residents. Their stories provide a personal glimpse of poverty and tragedy in the midst of affluence.
Otis Weeks was at his construction job as usual eight years ago when he found the Lord. "One day it came. I was working and I started singing a Christian song . . . when the spirit of the Lord gets in you, you can't help from doing it." Weeks said as he struggled vainly against the tears welling up in his eyes.
He looked away and wiped them with a white handkerchief he had taken from his trouser pocket. "Do me good to talk about it . . . You got to let it out somewhere, you can't keep it in. Got to let it out," he said.
Weeks, 66, was explaining to a visitor that he was a lucky man because he had found God. The tragedies in his life - his leg has been amputated, a daughter was murdered while baby-sitting, one son has not communicated with him in years - all pale in comparison to his religious experience.
In comparison to his Shirley Duke neighbors, Weeks and his second wife Shely, 42, are lucky in another way, too.
They have found another place to live.
Last Thursday the couple was relocated from the deteriorating Shirley Duke Apartments in Alexandria, which have been sold and are gradually being closed down, into a modern, one-bedroom subsidized unit in the downtown section of the city. At Shirley Duke, Weeks, who receives $230.90 a month in disability payments, paid $170 per month for a two-bedroom unit. Now Weeks will pay only $62 per month.
"I can't thank the good Lord enough for my moving in here and getting this place," Weeks, a Baptist, said as he sat in his living room surrounded by eight large cardboard boxes containing his belongings. His wife, who receives $167 per month in welfare payments, was sleeping in the bedroom, while a radio station blared out the latest pop songs.
Weeks was born in Durham, N.C., the son of a farmer. He can still recall the long work days on the 250-acre farm, where he says "we raised everything" from tobacco to water-melons. He never learned to read or write, he said, because his parents could only afford to send him to school for three months of the year. He decided to quit after reaching the third grade because he said he was not learning anything.
With the encouragement of a friend who had a construction job in Alexandria, he left the family farm in 1942 and came north, where he did masonry work until his leg was amputated in 1976. Now Weeks and his wife spend their time watching television, but he still prays to God in the hope that he will find a job "just to have something to keep me from sitting around the house."