When the Greenleaf Gardens Public Housing Project opened its doors to low-income District residents in 1958, the halls were carpeted, the walls were newly painted, and the dream of quality low-cost housing was fulfilled for hundreds of tenants.
Once heralded as part of the "new look" in Southwest urban renewal by community agencies, the 456-unit Greenleaf Gardens Project (named in honor of early real estate developer James Greenleaf) was used as a model in a 1959 exhibit highlighting housing improvements in the area.
Now the eight-story complex at 1200 Delaware Ave. stands dirty and decaying. Garbage and the smell of urine permeate the darkened, litter-strewn hallways. Pigeons and stray dogs rummage through heaps of trash piled outside the main entrance.
The once-coveted project has for years been a site of increasing crime, vandalism and drug abuse, and those problems finally led to a District housing officials' decision last April to evacuate it.
District housing director James Clay said the vandalism problem at Greenleaf was worse than in any other District public housing property and was a central element in the department's decision.
"It's just not a good situation or one we could easily correct. We had all kinds of maintenance problems, and by the time we repaired something, it was time to fix it up" again, he said.
Last Thursday most of Greenleaf's 150 remaining families loaded their belongings into trucks and vans and were moved to public housing units elsewhere in the city.
Department of Housing and Community Development officials said that after major rehabilitation the buildings will be converted to housing for elderly and handicapped persons, although plans for the renovation are still uncertain.
The departing residents expressed mixed feelings about the decision, some saying they were glad to leave the trouble-plagued apartments while others complained about the disruption in their lives. Many said that despite the project's problems it was convenient to shopping and transportation. For some who had spent their lives here, Greenleaf Gardens was home.
"I feel very bad about moving," said James Jones, the living room floor of his two-bedroom apartment cluttered with boxes and stuffed suitcases. He said he and his wife, Willie, who raised their four children at Greenleaf, were reluctant to leave. "I know anyplace the city sends me is going to be worse than here."
"At least here we know who our neighbors are," Willie Jones added. "Now we are just like sitting ducks."
Jones, a former president of the apartments' tenants association, recounted residents' efforts to save the project. He said he blames the city for poor management, which he said led to the downfall of the project.
"We changed resident managers here like we changed clothes, the city didn't want to give us the chance to prove that we could take care of this place," Jones said.
"I just don't feel right about this," Willie Jones said. "We raised our kids to be decent citizens and just because I'm in a low income bracket doesn't mean I should have to go through this kind of thing."
Clay said the tenants here were responsible for much of the persistent vandalism the project suffered.
"I don't really blame them, but high-rise buildings are a horrible idea for public housing, at least in the District," Clay said. "In many cases there were six, seven, or eight kids in one unit, I'm sure it's the reason there is a lot of crime and vandalism."
Clay said his office is now seeking a plan to rehabilitate the crumbling complex, but that it will cost millions of dollars and take several years to complete. When the project re-opens, names will be drawn from among the 8,000 on the city's waiting list for public housing.
One young resident who asked not to be identified recalled his family's move to the project in its heyday. "It was like a mansion, but the city didn't keep it up," he said. "I don't feel disappointed that I have to move, but they should just remodel it and let everyone who lives here now move back in."
Although city officials said their first priority is placing Greenleaf residents in suitable housing, some residents are still waiting for their prospective apartments to be repaired. DHCD officials said 41 families remain.
Resident Gloria Sligh, who has lived in Greenleaf with her two small daughters for two years, said vandalism has escalated there since the evacuation began. She described living there as "holy hell."
"Last weekend someone threw a rock through my bedroom window. Boys are coming in here and setting fires, and kicking at my door. I try to put a bar against the door and call the police but I'm scared," she said. Sligh said the city has offered her a new apartment in Southeast but until it is ready, she will remain at Greenleaf.
Jo Fisher-Hall, DHCD deputy administrator of public housing said she was unaware of the fire but it was probably attributable to the lack of on-site managers at Greenleaf.
"They kept promising they were going to move me to someplace that was a little better," Sligh said. "That gave me some hope, but I'm still waiting."