Thelma Delgado has lived for 33 years in the elite section of Carver Terrace, where her fellow tenants have planted grass, roses and scarlet sage.
"Everybody wants to move here," she says.
But across the street, and much too close for Delgado's comfort, lies a group of apartment buildings where children play with ragged, dirty, discarded furniture, and flies hover around bulging, open trash cans in grassless yards.
This, too, is Carver Terrace -- the "ghetto" part of a vast, remarkable housing project with a split personality The two contrasting faces of Carver Terrace stare at each other across Maryland Avenue NE, while apprehensive tenants struggle to preserve one of the last bastions of desirable low-cost housing in the city.
Owner Preston E. Wire Jr. and the Carver Terrace tenants' association have joined in an uneasy alliance against those tenants who, as Delgado says, "don't try to keep it up."
The tenants' association wants to contain the decay that has ravaged the block section north of Maryland Avenue along 21st Street NE. They fear that the spread of the disease -- deterioration -- can lead to massive social and maintenance problems that have left other similar private and public housing projects empty and boarded up.
Carver Terrace can embrace two such distinct communities because of its sheer size. The development encompasses almost 2,000 apartments, several hundred buildings, and 75 acres of land between Benning Road and the National Arboretum -- all just a short distance to the northeast of the booming real estate market of Capitol Hill.
Located on a broad hillside, the development commands a panoramic view of the city.
"The management used to be more particular about the type of people they rent to," tenants' association president Nathaniel Taylor explained recently. "Before they had guidelines. Now it seems to be anyone who wants to can rent." And that, said Taylor has brought in "a different breed of people... Many of the new people pay no attention to their children and to their property."
Wire describes them as tenants who "have no pride in their surroundings. We have resodded parts of the block but we could not get the tenants [to help out]. We abandoned that. You don't give them the new materials. You can't afford to. You still maintain it but you don't put in new equipment."
The battle to save Carver Terrace comes at a time:
When the city's supply of clean low-cost apartments is dwindling, and low-income families, forced from their homes by renovation, lie about their family size, their credit ratings and their names to obtain other apartments, such as those at Carver Terrace.
When rent control makes evicting uncooperative tenants a lengthy and time-consuming process.
And when the almost 40-year-old Carver Terrace buildings need increasing doses of maintenance, but rent control limits the rent increases needed to cover those growing costs.
The 43-year-old Wire, interviewed in his dull, wood-paneled downtown office underneath a painting of his father, who built Carver Terrace, talked of the growing frustrations of owning and operating the city's second largest privately owned low-cost housing development.
"We've been hard hit but we've worked with it and we still survive," said Wire, a publicity-shy man, who owns the apartments along with his two sisters, Jean W. Tubbs and Myrl W. Mulligan, and an aunt, Minnie Lee Summers.
"Our vandalism and maintenance are the biggest problems in the whole project. We have had tenants with leaking faucets and they will not call maintenance because they are afraid of evictions. They say 'We didn't want to cause trouble.' We have never operated that way, evicting people because they complain," he said.
Maintenance is the central theme of Wire's operating philosophy -- and it shows. A 65-man maintenance crew sweeps every apartment hallway daily, collects trash from the extensive grounds, and repairs sinks, toilets, windows and light fixtures. A private trash company collects daily from the trash cans located in front of each building.
"Once you cut down on maintenance, your property will fall down," explained Corbett McClure, Wire's nephew and property manager.
"They deteriorate so rapidly," said McClure. "If there is a leak in a roof, you fix it immediately or you'll have a roof and four ceilings to fix. If you stop maintenance for two or three weeks, you'll never get caught up so you have to stay on top of it."
Unlike many city landlords, Wire does not blame all his troubles on the city's rent control law. The law is a handicap, but not a crippler, he said.
"It hasn't hit us as hard as it hit others," said McClure, explaining that the company takes rent money from properties needing little attention to pay for repairs on the problem buildings.
In 1975, the company received permission from the city's rent control administrator for a 17 percent rent increase. This year, it imposed the maximum 9 percent increase allowed by law.
Operating expenses run close to $2 million for the complex, according to documents the company has filed with the city's Rental Accommodations Office, which administers the rent control law.
The rent increases plus some belttightening have allowed the company to make money, pay its expensive oil and electric bills, and keep rents among the lowest in the city, McClure said.
The company supplements its profits by acting as its own management company, collecting management fees exceeding $100,000, according to the documents.
One-bedroom apartments at Carver Terrace rent for $145 a month while two bedrooms units, the largest in the complex, rent for $177. Both rent figures include utilities.
Wire's father, Preston J. Wire Sr., a local builder-turned-developeer, founded Carver Terrace in 1939 with the express idea of providing low-cost housing for blacks -- and making money at it.
Blacks needed housing in the segregated city of that era because the government was tearing down old homes along the alleys where many black families lived.
During World War II, Wire competed with the city's public housing agency for scarce building materials so he could complete his apartments.
He repeatedly told U.S. officials his apartments were better built and cheaper than the government-financed Parkside apartments, under construction at the same time. Wire was right. Parkside was torn down several years ago because it was cheaper to demolish, city officials decided, than to repair.
Many of the streets inside Carver Terrace were muddy roads when Ruby Mae Walter became one of the first tenants in October 1945.
"It was a beautiful place and the caliber of people was absolutely marvelous. We had beautiful shrubbery. The apartments were well-kept," she recalled while sitting in the same apartment she has occupied for 33 years.
"When we called someone to have something done they were on the ball. Now it is two or three days before you can get anyone," she said.
To dramatize the change, she took a visitor to her kitchen, lifted a piece of newspaper, and revealed a small gray mouse caught in a trap.
"It's not as good as we would like it and it is not as good as the tenants would like it," Wire said. "To make it better we must be able to get out the tenant that doesn't care and get in those that do."
"After the riots you really got the bottom of the barrel with the dope and you started getting a little vandalism," said Horace J. Ball, who lived at Carver Terrace in the early 1950s before buying his own home.
Wire has seen all the changes. As a teen-ager, he worked at the apartments as a plumber's helper. He now rides to the development from his expensive Bethesda home in a latemodel Cadillac.
Wire's father died in 1952, bequeathing the family not only Carver Terrace but an office building at Vermont Avenue and K Street NW, where Wire has his office, and several small parcels of land in Southeast.
Despite their extensive real estate holdings, the Wire family is little known even in the city's real estate circles. The family has always wanted it that way, according to Wire.