For more than 10 years, the handwriting has been on the walls of the Rhode Island Plaza. Angry graffiti tell a story of decline and frustration in the huge Northeast Washington apartment building that was one of the nation's proudest addresses for upwardly mobile blacks during the waning years of segregation.
Amid the scrawl, which makes parts of the Plaza look more like a New York City subway station than the home of more than 1,000 people, are the words: "Pray for me."
Samuel Hoskins shakes his gray-frosted head as he runs his hands over the grime-stained words. In the background, small children run down a dimly lit hallway that leads to trash-littered stairways with broken banisters. Windows are broken and the night air carries an odor of fried pork, mildew and garbage.
"A number of people moved out, some of the old people," said Hoskins, 69, a retired journalist who has had an apartment in the 32-year-old Plaza since 1956. "I guess a lot of them just said, 'I can't take it anymore.'
"Sometimes I say I'm going to get the hell out of here, but I look at what is going on around here," said Hoskins, president of the Plaza's tenant association. "There are a lot of ignorant people living here who don't know what to do."
The Plaza, an eight-story neighborhood under one roof within red brick walls that dominate the northeast corner of 13th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE, has changed. It is still predominantly black, but race has become less the issue than class.
Only a small number of elderly reminders of the once-promising new wave of black middle-class nurses, doctors, lawyers, educators and government workers remain in the Plaza, and many of them are trapped there by their limited incomes.
"There were blacks here," recalled a 78-year-old retired D.C. public school teacher who was among the first to move into the Plaza in the early 1950s. "But affluent blacks, not like this kind of black you see now."
And some tenants, such as mail carrier Leroy Fisher, conclude that conditions will never improve unless something is done to halt the influx of publicly assisted families moving into the Plaza.
"They will tear it up," said Fisher, 39. "They have a different attitude."
As long as low rents appear to attract mostly those who will tolerate the poor living conditions and can afford no better, the cycle of deterioration seems to deepen.
"You have to make it a better environment in order to get more rent," said Mark E. Brodsky, a lawyer representing the Plaza's owner, Rhode Island Inc. "You can't make it a better environment until you are at least authorized or empowered to get more rent."
Brodsky, as well as J. Gerald Lustine, president of Lustine Realty Co., which manages the Plaza, said that excess government regulation, specifically the District's rent-control laws, has contributed to the Plaza's difficulties.
Rents have not been raised in about eight years, tenants say. Brodsky attributes the low rents largely to government rent controls and a bitter rent strike at the Plaza in the mid-1970s that made the building's owners "gun-shy" about raising rents again.
A two-bedroom apartment at the Plaza rents for about $260 a month -- utilities included.
"Rent control should be modified," Lustine said. He said the dilemma at the Rhode Island Plaza is not uncharacteristic of the way overregulation is discouraging the development and maintenance of rental property in much of the District.
But the tenants and their advocates claim that the owners have been taking money out of the building without returning any for maintenance for so long that local and federal governments will not permit rent increases -- higher rents that Plaza residents say they are willing to pay for improved services.
"It would be difficult to impose a rent increase on the residents if there are conditions in the property that need to be improved to improve the livability of the units," said Margaret White, manager of the District of Columbia field office of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
White said her office repeatedly has found the Plaza not to have been in an "acceptable condition."
In early December, the tenants filed a $1.2 million class action lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court against the owners of the Plaza. Among their many complaints, the tenants allege in the lawsuit that Rhode Island Inc. and Lustine Realty Co. grossly neglected the building, thereby violating their lease agreements for inhabitable conditions.
The damages the tenants are seeking represent three years of 40 percent rent reimbursements on the building's 400 units for "maintaining the premises in unclean, hazardous, unsanitary and uninhabitable condition . . . . " The lawsuit, the tenants say, also represents how desperate they have become in trying to prevent the Plaza from slipping further into slum conditions.
Hoskins said the owners appear determined to let the building deteriorate until tenants move out, clearing the way for more profitable uses of the building, which is in the center of a neighborhood revitalization and in sight of a Metrorail stop.
"It's much more valuable to them if it were empty," said lawyer Bob Stumberg, who has represented the tenants.
It's a charge Brodsky denies. "The only thing I have ever heard anybody talk about is that it's got to be economically sensible housing," he said.
"The reason that it is in the condition that it is in is that the revenues . . . present revenues and future revenues frozen at present levels, are inadequate to get anybody to commit the capital" to improve the building's environment, Brodsky said.
Recently, the Plaza's owners were unable to repay a federally secured mortgage on the Plaza that came due, said HUD's White. Days before HUD was planning to foreclose on the Plaza's owner, Rhode Island Inc. filed for reorganization under bankruptcy.
From the start, the Plaza teetered at the edge of a broken promise. Built in 1952 with a federally secured $4 million loan, the the Plaza, then-coowner Fred Schnider said, would be rented exclusively to "colored families," a condition necessary to receive the federal assistance.
Two years later, despite slashed rents, the Plaza failed to attract enough black families to occupy its then-415 "luxury" units, and its owners defaulted on the loan. The federal government assumed control of the building while the owners, through Rhode Island Inc., continued to run it.
Despite its financial woes, the Plaza maintained its reputation as a distinguished place for blacks to live. At about that time, then-Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr. moved to the Plaza as a first-time congressman from Michigan, typical of the well-educated, black professionals who rented apartments there.
"Several months ago I came across a [rent] receipt from the Plaza -- $125," Diggs recalled, suppressing a chuckle. "It wasn't really luxury in the conventional sense of the word; it was all brick inside.
"The thing that gave it prominence was the fact that it was the first apartment building of its caliber that was open to a black clientele," said Diggs, now a Maryland funeral director. "It attracted a group of upcoming and already arrived young professionals that made living in the building very pleasant in the mid-'50s."
Tenants now say the building is dangerous. None of the Plaza's seven doors is locked; a front door lies on its side in the lobby. People come and go at will in the Plaza, ignoring a guard and a sign posted over a bank of telephones that visitors must call before entering.
Thefts and robberies, many of which go unreported, are frequent, the tenants say. Many of the female tenants say they wash their laundry a block away rather than take a chance in the building's laundry room.
Herman Roberts, the Plaza's property manager for the past 12 years, said he had to move out of the Plaza because "my wife didn't like living here. The kids tear up as fast as we can fix up." Roberts said he remembers the Plaza's heyday from his childhood when he delivered newspapers there.
"It's the pits," said a 16-year-old resident. "To tell you the truth, this building needs to be condemned."
"There's no hot water, sometimes no heat when its cold and no air conditioning when its hot," said the girl, who asked that her name not be used because it might bring trouble to her family in the Plaza.
"It used to be so beautiful," recalled an elderly tenant. "The people who lived here were lovely, high class. They respected you; you could talk to them," she said, stopping to study the pale green walls of the lobby where youths dribbled a basketball in space that once held "very nice" furniture before it was stolen.
"I'm really hurt and ashamed of this place. I don't have very many visitors," she said. "I used to think it couldn't get much worse, but it has gotten worse.