A small boy hefted an empty whiskey bottle he picked up in the gutter and, standing at the curb, heaved it in an arc to smash on the road. He stood for a moment, arms akimbo, to observe the shattered glitter. Then he turned slowly and walked silently away. There was no shout, no scream of glee over this boyish act of petty vandalism.
Like so many of the impoverished I met over the years in Bombay, Calcutta and other cities of India, the children and parents of Lincoln Heights are people whose joy and anger, whose will to struggle, have abandoned them. A sense of hopelessness hangs in the air.
Lincoln Heights is an island of despair, rising somewhat surprisingly out of a solidly middle-class neighborhood of private brick houses just a moment's drive from the Prince George's County line.
The people of Lincoln Heights live on the edge of life. They are worn down, defeated.In the most political city in the country, they take no interest in government or the people who call themselves their leaders. The system, they tell you, does nothing to serve them.
The condition of their apartments, the "units" in government terminology, is as bad as almost anything I'd seen in the Subcontinent:
Residents reported they had hot water in their homes no more than a few hours a day. Yet a deep pool of hot water, fed constantly by a ruptured underground pipe, steamed in the chilly morning air.
Scores of windows were broken or missing, allowing the cold breeze into apartments and hallways.
Although city regulations call for heat in housing projects to be turned on on Oct. 15, nearly two weeks later tenants said they had none. Most were burning gas stoves or portable heaters in the morning and at night.
Inside and outside, wood has rotted and fallen away, as have gutters and drain pipes.
As a result of prior efforts to repair fallen ceilings at minimal cost, water and heating pipes pass, fully exposed, through rooms. Most residents use these pipes as hanging racks for clothing.
Bathroom and kitchen faucets, evidently of poor quality to begin with and left unserviced for years, gush at full blast in numerous apartments. No one seems to know how much this wast costs the city.
Although "dumpster" containers for garbage are placed in several locations, many people don't bother to use them, merely dropping their trash alongside.
A number of residents, particularly the older ones, complain that at least part of the reason for the degradation of Lincoln Heights is the lack of self-respect among some of their neighbors. "We get a lot of the leftovers from other projects," said Barbara Jackson, who has lived at Lincoln Heights, which was built in 1946, for 24 years.
"Some people just don't care if they live in filth," said Jackson, her own home cramped but tidy, a circular coffee table meticulously spread with a semicircle of Jet magazines. "Others are so disgusted with the D.C. government because they've been lied to for so long. So, they just let the place fall apart."
In this season of political frenzy, while the rest of the capital city ties itself in knots over candidates and issues, the residents of Lincoln Heights seem unaware and unconcerned.
For them, it matters much more if someone would turn off the faucets, install a windo pane to replace taped cardboard, exterminate the rats or plaster over a head-sized hole between bathroom and kitchen than who is running for president or who is elected.
Few of the 1,700 people at Lincoln Heights will vote. According to Joyce Skinner, the head of the tenants' organization, "out of 440 units, I'd say no more than 20 ever register. I know I've worked on registration drives.Most people here have just given up."
"The way I see it, it don't do no good," said 73-year-old Viola Ponder. "I guess I'm old-fashioned, old-timey. I figure white people been running this country all these years and they always will.My word don't count."
What does count to the gray-haired old woman and the 16-year-old great-grandson who lives with her is the fear that drug addicts will break into her apartment. To ward them off, she has nailed iron brackets to both sides of her door and each night she slips a wooden board across. Just a touch shows that this security device would stop no one.
What also counts are the other intruders who have long shared her home. "I don't worry about roaches," Ponder said. "I take care of them all right. "But I can't do anything about the mices. The mices are like to run me out of here. I had one die behind the cookstove and I didn't know about it until I smelled it. The boy found it and it was covered all over with maggots."
What counts to her is the plaster that has fallen off the kitchen and bathroom walls, leaving great holes that she has managed to partially close off with a board and a cinder block. "That's terrible isn't it?" she asked. "And do you know how much rent I owe?" she asked. "Not one dime."
Her rent, based on her Social Security income of $241 a month, is $23 a month. "I also get $10 of food stamps," she said, "but the boy is growing too fast. It's hard to feed him and save something for his clothes."
As to her paying the rent regularly, Ponder is in the minority at Lincoln Heights. The project's records show that 55 percent of the tenants are delinquent in their payments, some by as much as 10 months. Outstanding payments total $60,000.
Earl H. Briggs, Lincoln Heights' manager and a veteran of previous D.C. housing projects, expressed in a tightly controlled voice his frustration over being unable to do anything about this financial dilemma. "We can't evict because we can't bring the units up to housing code requirements," Briggs said. "Without that, all legal action is for naught. And we can't bring them up to code without materials for capital improvements."
Briggs said that to maintain and repair the 440 units at Lincoln Heights and the 190 at the adjacent Richardson housing project, "I've got two mechanics and one helper. That's 210 units per man."
Sidney Glee, administrator of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said that Lincoln Heights and Richardson would have separate managers and additional maintenance personnel "by the end of November." The managers would be given $100,000 apiece to use as they, in conjunction with the tenant organizations at the two projects, see fit.
But even this news, Glee said, was just a small and temporary step toward the complete rehabilitation of Lincoln Heights, a $15.6 million enterprise that he said will begin in the early spring.
Yet, when asked exactly where the funds would come from, Glee indicated that a number of decisions were still not made. The bulk will have to be supplied by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "We're asking them for it," Glee said. Of the remainder, $3.6 million has already been appropriated, but only to improve kitchens.
"This is a makeshift approach which we don't want to use," he said. "So, we're asking the City Council to let us use the $3.6 million to do complete jobs on parts of the project." The council also is being asked to approve the transfer of $3 million in HUD funds from the East Capitol housing project to Lincoln Heights and Richardson, Glee said.
He estimated that the complete rehabilitation would take two or three years.
It has been more than one year since city housing director Robert L. Moore reported in August 1979 that more than one-fourth of the city's 53 public housing projects were in such advanced stages of decay that it would cost $60 million to repair them. Lincoln Heights, Moore reported, was the worst of them all.
One week after Moore made his report, Mayor Marion Barry ordered his housing authorities to clean up and repair the projects so that they no longer were "a dump, but a place to live." In his election campaign, just a year earlier, Barry had told residents of Lincoln Heights and other rundown projects that, if he were elected, his administration "will give priority attention to housing," along with education, jobs and easing of taxation.
What has been the result of this priority attention at Lincoln Heights? A report. On his desk, manager Briggs has a copy of an inch-and-a-half-thick "Phase I Survey and Analysis" done by the local architectural engineering firm of Devrouax and Purnell. This report is the basis for the $15.6 million rehabilitation that Glee said would be launched in the spring.
As for the tenants, none could be found who would say that any repairs, let alone any improvements, had been done in recent memory. The condition of their homes eloquently confirmed their claims.
Nor could any be found who believed that anything would be done to make Lincoln Heights a decent place to live. "I heard about it at tenants' meetings," said Edith Herd. "They do a lot of talking at meetings. But I don't see no results."
"Marion Barry said he'd fix Lincoln Heights if he was elected," said Naomi Howard, who recalled that Barry had visited the project during his campaign. "But what's he done? Nothing."
Geraldine Thompson stood outside her apartment on a plywood board she had laid across the large pool of stagnant water that, she said, has stood there for more than a year. Then she showed me the hallway of the apartment, where the lights don't work unless an upstairs and a downstairs switch are flipped on at the same instant.
On the hallway wall hung a small tapestry of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "I voted for Kennedy and Martin Luther King, both," said Thompson, 33, the mother of four. "But I ain't voted for anyone since. They just don't have anything for us anymore. There just ain't no choice for us anymore."
Outside Thompson's apartment, a young woman sat on a bench of raw wood and followed the majestic progression of a silver Mercedes sedan as it crept carefully through the smashed glass and flattened tin cans at the bottom of 50th Place NE.
Seemingly as impressed by its cream-colored license plates as by the vehicle itself, as rare as a hummingbird in her circumscribed world, she crooned softly, "New Jersey bay-bee wait for me."
And the car crept softly on, away from Lincoln Heights.