There are few solitary faces in Chillum Heights.
Night falls, suppertime is over, and residents fill the doorways and the sidewalks of the Hyattsville complex with glowing cigarettes and watchful eyes. County police cars cruise by in tandem. A gust of wind sends a spray of trash scuttling across a dirt hillside. The smell of sauerkraut lingers in the air.
Joseph Healey, chief of property standards for Prince George's County, refers to the privately owned apartments that at least 3,000 people call home as "the worst of 700 complexes in the county."
Healey says the operating license for the 953 units may be revoked in June because a recent inspection revealed more than 200 housing code violations. It would be the first time the county has had to close a large complex of predominantly poor people, he said.
"Most people would be happy if they dropped a bomb on the place and started all over," said Peter McCutcheon, associate pastor of a nearby Catholic church, St. John Baptist de La Salle, which serves many of the families. "It's like something out of the Bronx."
The Chillum units are a sprawling collection of rectangular red-brick buildings with flat roofs and white shutters. The residents are crowded there in uneasy suspicion of each other -- whites and blacks, West Indians and Africans, refugees from Southeast Asia. For some of them, Chillum Heights is the beginning of a climb upward; for others, said McCutcheon, it is "a place of last resort."
The residents complain indignantly about their living conditions -- the broken windows, the collapsing ceilings, the rats and roaches, the criminal element.
And yet, they also fear what will happen to them if the apartments are closed and they are forced to move. The draw of Chillum Heights Apartments is the comparatively inexpensive rent; a two-bedroom apartment goes for about $350 a month, including utilities. Most struggle to pay that.
Until a few days ago, the talk of Chillum Heights was the May 2 shoot-out that stemmed from a morning drug raid. A 27-year-old apartment resident, a Jamaican immigrant, held county police at bay for five hours, wounding two officers before he surrendered. It was only the latest violent incident at the complex. Last August, a 16-year-old was stabbed to death; the year before, there was a series of rapes. Drug-related crimes are common.
But the shoot-out is old news now, displaced by talk of the possible closing. Residents don't know what they will do.
Ronald Smith, 38, a big, capable-looking man who speaks calmly and directly, stood on a rise near one of the apartment buildings on a recent evening. He looked out over a dozen tumbling children, a man waxing a gleaming red Firebird, a couple buzzing by on a motorcycle.
"I think they'll close all this down," said Smith, a maintenance worker and father of two who has lived at Chillum Heights for four years. "I think they'll close it and I think they should.
"But I tell you," he said, his voice quieter, his eyes studying the ground, "I don't have any idea what we'll do. I'm lost."
Despite their fears, most residents have no argument with the county's insistence that conditions at the complex must change.
"Look at those windows there," said Annie Scott, a motel worker, pointing to a series of broken panes in her building. "You're ashamed to tell anybody you live here. The rats walk right by you. They don't even bother to run."
"They come right up to your table and want to sit down," added her sister, Rosa Harrison.
Nearby, the children's pool was empty of water but full of soft-drink cans, sticks, and bicycle tires. The larger pool, often touted in advertisements of the apartments, was padlocked, its water a thick soupy green. A vacant basement apartment, viewed through a window, had blistered linoleum floors, broken burners on the stove, and heaps of debris; residents say such apartments are convenient havens for drug users.
"When we first moved out here five years ago," said Jessie Nicholson, a homemaker and mother of two, "it was real nice and quiet. You weren't scared to walk the kids to the park and you weren't scared to be out after dark. Now all these different people are in here doing all these different things and you're scared to poke your head out. It's a hellhole and I live here."
Healey said the complex, which is about 30 years old, started to deteriorate some three years ago when maintenance and screening procedures for tenants became lax. "It was never very good," he said, "but they were able to keep it halfway decent."
Healey said he warned the owner, Joseph Ratner of New York City, of the mounting problems last November and again in February. Ratner could not be reached for comment last week.
Healey said the code violations range from ancient boilers that need replacing to leaking water heaters, dirty hallways, broken windows and "an accumulation of rubbish that is out of sight." The county put a halt to new rentals at the complex on April 28; there are now about 100 vacancies.
"They could come in here, put a lot of money in it, bring in strong management and security and turn it around," Healey said. "But it's going to take several million dollars to do everything that needs to be done."
Apartment manager Betty Chase said she does not know what Ratner intends to do about the problems. "I'm in the dark," Chase said. "I wish I did know."
If the complex should close, a county relocation task force would be formed to help the residents find new homes.
"Because of the tenancy," Healey said, "it's doubtful we'd be able to relocate them in Prince George's County. It's the first time we've thought about emptying such a complex -- a very, very low-income bracket group, not public housing but a lot of public assistance. I don't know what will happen."
In the meantime, the residents wait.
A tinkling ice-cream truck slowly wove through the complex on a recent evening, attracting dancing barelegged children with dollar bills crumpled in their hands. Two Mormon missionaries, in white shirts and red ties, shepherded a dozen Cambodian children into a church van. On another rise, 12-year-old Eric Perkins scampered about, exhibiting a dead rat in a paper bag.
"Last night, we watched men throw bottles through windows," said Davy Kry, 8, twirling her ponytail in her fingers and readjusting her headband. "I didn't like it."
Davy and the four other members of her family are from Cambodia. Her father, Seng Kry, does not speak English; he smiled and nodded politely as Davy rapidly translated for him. The family moved to Chillum Heights nine months ago. It is their first real American home.
"We want to live here," said Davy. "At night we are scared. But . . . my father says we will try not to make trouble and we will wait and see and maybe everything will turn out okay. We don't want to move again."