Northeast's Lincoln Heights complex is a bit cleaner and a lot prouder this week after some residents of the pre-World War II housing development decided to clean it up themselves.
"I got tired of having to lead my guests through dirty Pampers and broken bottles to get to my house," said Justine Watkins, a 14-year resident of the of the city-run public housing complex who organized the cleanup drive last week.
Taking measures into their own hands, residents and friends picked up garbage, cut the grass (well over 18 inches high in many spots) and raked dirt to fashion gardens. Nearby, a small boy played on a stoop and waited for the cleaning detail to get to his court, a few yards away from the flattened carcass of a rat.
Lincoln Heights is managed by the District's Property Management Adminstration, an agency within the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, which Watkins claimed initially was not interested in helping the residents clean up.
"At first they said they didn't have any equipment we could use," she said. "But then I called Bill Dorsey in Ward 7 City Councilman H. R. Crawford's office and things begin to happen."
John Burns, acting PMA chief of Maintenance, tells a different story. He said the Lincoln Heights cleanup was part of Mayor Barry's plan to clean up public housing.
Burns said the PMA staff had been gathering each Friday for the past six weeks to clean up a different housing development, and in this case, some of Crawford's people said the tenants wanted to join in.
"That is not the way it was at all," said Dorsey, an aide to Crawford. "The tenants organized this. The tenants were ready, the housing department was not!"
Dorsey said the Lincoln Heights residents contacted him on two occasions when the PMA said they had no equipment; when the agency offered them something, it offered 24 swing blades and 10 brooms without handles.
"Any time you can get 40 to 50 people to clean up you give them anything they want, even if you have to go to the grocery store and buy it," Dorsey said.
"Like Mrs. Watkins told me, 'Lincoln Heights has a reputation as a dump and a drug place and we want to change it. But we can't get any help from downtown,' " Dorsey said.
Although the whole complex was in need of repair, Watkins said, the families living at the bottom of the "hill" between 51st and Finch and Banks streets NE were being "treated like we're common peasants."
General complaints were leveled at PMA's failure to secure outside fuse boxes from pranksters who switch off the power at night and to board up numerous vacant buildings that tenants say are being used as "shooting galleries" by drug addicts. Burns, who is PMA's acting chief of maintenance, said the city is in the process of boarding up the vacant buildings.
"Everybody else has bars on their windows. When they got to us, they ran out of bars. The same with the screens and grass seed," said Shirley Barnes, a mother of five, who said she's been waiting for 10 months to get a broken window repaired.
"A maintenance man came to replace the lock on my back door," said Watkins. "He took it and said he was coming right back. I haven't seen that guy in two years."
Other tenants, like Sandra Brown, complained of a front door that was literally falling apart and of the frequent lack of hot water.
Burns said that because of the age of the complex, partial repairs would be self-defeating. Consequently, he said, Lincoln Heights is among those developments slated for renovation.
Asked about the 18-inch high patches of grass, Burns said the agency's efforts were hampered by the rain of the last few months, which also made the grass grow.
Lenox Elmore, acting administrator of PMA, could not be reached for comment.
Despite the efforts of many residents, there were still some residents who chose not to participate in the cleanup effort.
"There's a lot of hostility here," said Watkins.
She suggested that PMA fine tenants who refused to put trash into receptacles and then be willing to evict them if they failed to pay the fine.
"All we want is a nice, clean place to live in, nice activities for our children and to get the drugs out of here," she said.
Other tenants have suggested that the tenant association take over management of the properties.
Although Watkins supports the idea, she was at a loss for a solution:
"I don't know," she said, "I wish somebody would give us the answer."