Residents of the Amity Garden apartments in upper Montgomery County thought life was terrifying enough with the incessant drug-dealing, sporadic stabbings and shootings outside their homes, not to mention the roaches and rats indoors.
So when a spectacular fire Thursday night sent 18 families out onto the street, many tenants decided to call Amity Garden quits, vowing never to return to the blighted housing project that increasingly is an embarrassment for officials in affluent Montgomery.
"Hey, I want to leave. I want to get my kids out," said an angry Eleanor Brown, a 30-year-old mother of three who has lived at Amity Garden for five years.
"This place is a nightmare come to life," Brown said. "It haunts you."
Brown and others, fed up with conditions at Amity Garden and haunted by the memory of a fire that destroyed several of the units in March, said they would rather face an uncertain future elsewhere in the county than stay another night there.
About 50 residents were angry enough to stage an impromptu rally at the county's sparkling new Upper County Community Center. The $3 million complex was built across the street from Amity Garden as a symbol of the county government's support for the neighborhood and nearby communities.
"Where do we go for help?" said tenant Lillian Hebron. "Why put us in these units? We're not bad people. We're good people. Let's not go back!"
"Two fires in a couple months: we just lucky, that's all," said Lucy King, 37, who has lived for two years at the 52-unit complex on the outskirts of Gaithersburg. Both King, who has a teen-aged stepson, and Brown said they would either stay with relatives or move to apartments in Good Hope, an established black community in eastern Montgomery.
The March fire at Amity Garden caused $355,000 worth of damage; a fire department investigation into the incident ended in the arrest of one man, who was later convicted and imprisoned on an arson charge.
Fire investigators are also ruling this most recent fire an arson, said Capt. Raymond Mulhall, a Montgomery fire and rescue services spokesman.
Eighty firefighters worked for two hours to control the blaze, which caused at least $500,000 in damage. Before dawn yesterday, the Montgomery County chapter of the American Red Cross fed and sheltered about 20 Amity Garden tenants in one of the center's many activity rooms.
The fire was still smoldering yesterday afternoon, and so were the tempers of tenants who have endured substandard living conditions in their apartments and whose parking lot off Laytonsville Road is a haven for drug dealers. For some tenants, the fire was the last straw; others, resigned to a life at Amity Garden because of their own finances or family, viewed it as just another unsavory episode, an inconvenience to get through.
When the rally ended yesterday afternoon, most of the tenants drifted back to their apartments. Francis Jackson, who is in his twenties and lives at Amity Garden with his girlfriend and her four daughters, said fires and other incidents there prove that county government has not fulfilled its promise to the upper county.
"They should do more," said Jackson. "Right now, they're not trying to do nothing."
There may be some hope in sight. Jan Brown, an official with the county-sponsored Housing Opportunities Commission who was at Amity Garden yesterday, said her agency was trying to assume management of the apartment complex, replacing the private firm that now runs the facility.
The housing commission has come up with a new name for Amity Garden -- Camp Hill Square -- and plans to spend roughly $500,000 refurbishing the apartments, Brown and another county official said. Many of the Amity units would still be set aside for low-income persons needing federal rent subsidies. The transfer awaits approval from the federal government, which subsidizes many of the rents there.
Debora Ann Catchpole, who runs the recreation program at the nearby community center, said she hoped the housing commission is able to assume control of Amity Garden. "It's a tough neck of the woods," said Catchpole, who lives two miles from the apartments. "I'd think twice before moving back there, too." CAPTION: Picture 1, A fire on Thursday night caused at least $500,000 damage to the Amity Garden apartments; Picture 2, Edna Hebron is one of the residents of Amity Garden whose apartments were destroyed by fire. PHOTOS BY DUDLEY M. BROOKS -- The Washington Post