As word of success in the newly revived Kenilworth Courts neighborhood seeps out, residents of some of the worst housing projects in the nation are flocking to this far corner of Northeast Washington, looking for ways to give tenants more of a stake in public housing.
The latest group arrived this week from Chicago's gang-ridden Cabrini Green, where former mayor Jane Byrne spent a "fact-finding" week before the last election under the protection of the city's police force -- the same project where 15 murders occurred the year after she left.
At first glance there seems to be no comparison between Cabrini Green, with its 3,000 units of apartments stacked sky high, and the 464 unit Kenilworth Courts, which are more like row houses.
But after touring Kenilworth Courts on Tuesday, many of the 70 representatives of Cabrini Green and the Chicago Housing Authority said that they were not only impressed, but also inspired. The Chicago visitors said they want to make a model project at Cabrini Green, now considered one of the worst in the nation.
"Looking around Kenilworth , you see its clean, no trash strewn about," said Yvonne Carroll, a member of Cabrini Green's advisory committee. "There's even grass, and no bars on the windows. I didn't see any vandalism, so as far as I'm concerned, this is the kind of success we'd like to duplicate back home."
The key word, for starters, seems to be "pride," something that is hard to instill in public housing tenants who often are crammed on top of one another and suffer from all the ills that accompany poverty.
But, using sanctions and incentives, resident managers at Kenilworth Courts have shown that a model project can be partially achieved.
Kimi Gray, chief of Kenilworth's tenant management experiment, advised the visitors to organize strong resident councils at Cabrini Green, keeping in mind that these kinds of supervisory groups won't work unless tenants really want them to.
"What you have to remember is that our problems are really the same, it's just that yours are probably more intense," Gray told the group. "In situations like ours, about 10 percent of the people are truly undesirables. That leaves 90 percent that really want to make things better."
Gray cautioned the representatives to make sure that the organizers have paid their back rents, removed illegal tenants from their dwellings, and reported those in the household who have jobs.
"Its very important to have your own house cleaned up first," she emphasized.
"What about the children?" asked Johnnie Jones, a resident of Cabrini Green for 21 years. "You have people who can't handle their children. I say put the children out."
"A lot of parents are not as prompt as you may be about these matters," Gray told her. "We have written in our leases here that the head of the household is responsible for everyone in their house, including visitors. But we don't have to put children out here, because we have a good relationship with the police. And if they can't handle the matter, we work it out in-house."
Another Cabrini Green resident wanted to know how to prevent "good families" from moving out of housing projects when they begin to improve their economic situation.
"Public housing was never meant to be permanent," Gray said. "But the shortage of low-income housing means that a lot of people simply don't have any place else to go."
It won't be easy to turn Cabrini Green into another Kenilworth Courts, if it is possible at all. But, at least, these Chicago residents have had an opportunity to talk with someone who has been involved in a transformation of sorts and appears to know what she's talking about.
And that's a start in the right direction.