The people of Lakeland, past and present, describe their community in terms of what the bulldozer demolished.
"So much was taken away. . . ," said Patricia Middleton, 26, thinking about the former community center, the teen clubs and the school playground where the boys of her childhood shot baskets in the summer. Another resident, Helen Hill, said, "I miss the homes there at the front. There were friends who would greet you as soon as you got off the bus if you were tired. Now there's just empty streets since urban renewal came in."
Twenty years ago, Lakeland, an 80-year-old, all-black neighborhood in College Park, sought the urban renewal project to stop flooding, pave roads and replace some of the substandard housing. Today, the flooding has eased, some sidewalks have been installed and work has begun on high-rise apartments for senior citizens. But in the process, 104 of the community's estimated 150 households have vanished and nobody expects them to return.
City officials and community members alike blame the slow process of the federal bureaucracy and the killing inflation of the 1970s for the destruction of the community. In addition, some community members charge that the College Park City Council, which directed the project, was not responsive to their wishes.
Many of the former residents, particularly renters like Hill, say that urban renewal helped by moving them into modern, more accessible housing outside the community. But for the residents who remained, the program has left a bitter taste.
"I don't even bother to come to my neighborhood anymore," said Warren Hill, a design draftsman whose family of 15 grew up in Lakeland. "Everything's been pushed out. All the blacks are out. . . ."
Less than one square mile in area, Lakeland is cut into thirds by fast commuter and long freight trains that run hourly on the old B&O tracks. The neighborhood once was all white. When blacks began to move in during the 1920s, whites burned their homes in retreat. But even in neglect and isolation, the black community's institutions thrived.
Its high school, built on land bought by donations from black families throughout the area and given to the county school board in 1928, was one of only four high schools for blacks in the county. It's now a Korean Catholic Church.
The Lakeland Tavern was a well-known gathering place for blacks from Washington to Baltimore. An Elks Hall and an American Legion post gave dances, community picnics and field days. All have been bulldozed.
There was optimism when the first money for surveying the area was requested in 1965. Four years later, there was a 36-page urban design plan, featuring pyramid-shaped multifamily housing for the portion of the community east of the railroad tracks. Single-family housing also was planned, after flood control improvements were made.
In 1971, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development approved $5 million for the project, $1.2 million of which was to come from College Park itself.
Immediately, the plan was snared in challenges from environmentalists concerned about damage to the Paint Branch flood plain. Because of the challenges, the city could not begin buying and demolishing Lakeland homes and property until late 1973.
By 1976, according to urban renewal director Jack Callahan, the cost of the project had doubled. College Park went back to HUD to ask for more money.
The project took on new life when Ed Finder, a former regional director with New York state's ill-fated Urban Development Corporation, was hired by the city to head community development and urban renewal.
"He was a grantsman, and when you get a program like this, that's the kind of guy you hire," said College Park Councilman Jack Perry, then the chairman of the city Community Development Advisory Committee. "Nobody even wanted to bid on the thing until he started dropping the word," Perry added.
Five developers asked to build on the newly cleared land. One of them, Leon Weiner and Associates, a developer of government-backed housing projects from Wilmington, Del., insisted that high-rise apartments, not single-family homes, would be most profitable.
When the Lakeland Project Area Committee (PAC), the HUD-designated group of community leaders supposed to advise the city on the urban renewal plans, chose its top three developers, Weiner was not among them. But Weiner was chosen by the council because they were impressed by his track record.
"Finder presented Weiner as one capable of performing and put forward Mr. Weiner's successes in other areas," said Perry. "Weiner had big ties with the Johnson and Carter HUD. He knew all the Democrats and that's what it took. Maybe it was political, but the guy was laying brick."
The original plan called for 90 units of low- to moderate-income housing mixed with 47 single-family homes in western Lakeland and 300 housing units east of the railroad tracks.
Little of this has materialized. The current Weiner plan calls for a 140-unit senior citizen high-rise (already under construction), a 128-unit high-rise with $400 to $500 two-bedroom apartments geared toward University of Maryland faculty and students, 32 town houses for low-income residents who would receive subsidized rents and 40 to 50 other town houses. Industrial development is planned for all 22 acres east of the railroad tracks. The Weiner plan all but ignores single-family housing, the foremost concern of the Lakeland community.
Finder, who left the project the following year and is now director of economic development for the city of Paterson, N.J., said he is satisfied with the project's progress. He conceded however, "There are people who may be bitter."
Mary Braxton, a member of the project area committee who lives in the surviving third of the original Lakeland community, is one of those bitter people. Her file on the project is a large cardboard box filled with clippings, memos and a hand-written speech she read before the City Council in protest. Today she says the subject drives her blood pressure up.
The project area committee protested changes in the plan before the council to no avail. Committee members complained repeatedly to HUD officials that their wishes were being ignored but the federal agency was obliged to keep working with the council.
"We were aware of some of the problems and the dissatisfactions of the residents, but you get caught in the middle of a process of negotiation," said Vernice Buell, chief of program support at the Washington HUD office.
Buell said that the tendency of urban renewal programs to permanently displace the original residents was one of the reasons that Congress phased out urban renewal beginning in 1971.
"I think it's the general rule that they don't come back," Buell said. "Unless the city makes an exceptional effort to provide the type of housing the people want, it's a common problem."
All through the late 1970s, many of the homeowning residents willingly sold their homes and accepted up to $15,000 in additional cash toward the purchase of more expensive ones elsewhere.
"My brother used to call the bulldozer--it must have been a seven-ton Caterpillar--the 'giant eraser,' " said 30-year-old Harry Braxton Jr.
The urban renewal plan also did not provide for any recreation facilities for the community. In 1978, after the former Lakeland High School was declared a surplus property by the county, the PAC group fought to have the city buy it for one dollar and run it as a recreation center. But the city, according to renewal director Callahan, did not want the problem of maintaining the property and it became a church.
"None of those people live here," said 51-year-old Mary Hollomand, who had attended the school, said of the Korean church members. "All outsiders."
Only Lakeland's two churches, a Saturday night bowling league and family ties hold the old community together. Some of the young men who used to meet at the Lakeland Tavern still gather on warm evenings after work in the unpaved parking lot of the Omega Pub, a neighborhood tavern that closed. But now, they bring their own beer.
Within two years, the vacant western Lakeland is supposed to be filled with multifamily dwellings, provided that financing can be found to start work on the remaining apartment building and town house construction.
Even if the buildings go up, they will not be filled with people from the old neighborhood, but with University of Maryland students and faculty. The remaining residents say they will try and forget what they lost.
"What we have looks good, but we don't have much," said Mary Braxton. "We gave up two-thirds to get one-third."