Aretha Jackson used to tote a butcher knife and a two-foot-long pipe whenever she ventured through her building, the 10-story Temple Courts Apartments in Northwest Washington.
She carried them, she said, to protect herself from drug dealers who infested the complex's halls and stairways, from robbers in its darkened elevators, from anyone who threatened her safety.
But a few weeks ago, Jackson, 51, laid down her arms. On a balmy evening she felt secure enough to sit -- without the knife or the pipe -- late into the night in front of the brick high-rise at 33 K St. NW.
"Two years ago, I would have never done this," Jackson said, sipping ice water from a pickle jar, "unless I'd brought something with me."
The new civility at Temple Courts is the result of a novel effort by a task force of federal and local agencies, D.C. police and fire officials and the building's managers and tenants that has set out to make the troubled building more livable.
Using teamwork and creative thinking, the task force has tackled many of the complex's pressing issues. Lighting and maintenance were improved, security systems redesigned and strengthened, and police patrols increased. So far, tenants say, the $122,000 effort is paying off.
"We can walk down our hallways now without looking behind us," said one. "We don't have to worry about someone running behind us with an Uzi."
"We just said, 'Enough is enough.' And we decided it would be a team effort," said Charlyne Fields, director of property management for the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, who formed the task force along with I. Toni Thomas, manager of the Washington field office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "I don't know why the idea was not thought of before."
Tenants say it was clear that something had to be done. Like many of the other moderate- and low-income housing complexes in the city, Temple Courts was plagued with drugs, shootings, robberies and assaults. "There was a time when I wouldn't have people visit me," said Gloria Jones, 61. "I was really ashamed to live here."
Longtime residents say the 170-unit building was a safe, quiet place to live in the 1970s. A block west of North Capitol Street, it was located conveniently near stores, shops, churches and public transportation.
But the quality of life in Temple Courts declined in recent years. Drug dealers and gamblers cluttered hallways; on the eighth floor, said resident Eugene Hogan, so many people crowded the corridors that "it was like a supermarket."
Residents feared using the elevators because the light fixtures usually were shattered, leaving them to ride in the dark -- an invitation to robbery. Those who took the stairs often found people urinating or having sex on the steps.
Then there were the shootings, which happened so often in and near the building that many residents left their apartments only when absolutely necessary.
The tide began to turn earlier this year when a group of Temple Courts tenants wrote to the D.C. Fire Department to complain about a rise in the number of fires in the building, many of them due to drug use.
The Fire Department, noting that the issues also concerned the police, sent a copy to officials of that department.
Eventually the matter came to the attention of Fields and Thomas. Temple Courts is privately owned, but its rents are government-subsidized, giving HUD and the D.C. Housing Finance Agency a role in its management.
The housing officials decided on a task force approach. They asked tenants, representatives of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the W.H.H. Trice Co., which owns Temple Courts, to join police and fire officials in monthly meetings, mostly to brainstorm about how to solve the building's problems.
First, the group tackled fire-code violations and the building's physical management. Fire extinguishers, for example, were moved into the apartments and out of the corridors, where they constantly were stolen. Elevator lights were fixed, filthy trash rooms were cleaned and lights were placed in once-dim corridors.
Tenants' maintenance complaints were attended to more quickly, in part because the Trice Co. gave the building a new on-site manager, a move suggested by the task force.
The task force then turned its attention to security. One big problem, residents said, was that intruders often entered through unguarded exits on the east and west sides of the building.
Gates have now been put up outside those doors; they can still be used as emergency exits, but outsiders can no longer enter the building through them.
To further deter interlopers, the task force set up a system in which guests can enter only if they leave picture identification with security guards and are met by a resident.
A greater police presence also has made a difference. First District Capt. Jacqueline Barnes, a member of the task force, said patrols were increased around both Temple Courts and Sursum Corda Courts, an apartment complex just north of 33 K St. NW.
The result, Barnes said, is that the number of police calls received from Temple Courts has fallen from an average of 94 a month for mid-December through February 1990 to 40 a month.
"What has happened with 33 K Street is that a group of agencies came together and kept lines of communication open and worked things out," Barnes said. "Management couldn't do it alone, and we couldn't have done it alone."
The task force has worked so well that Fields and Thomas said they're exploring opportunities to use it in other troubled buildings.
"What we'd like to do is replicate this model in other communities," Thomas said. "You can't say enough about working as a coalition, working with various agencies so that you have an impact on the building as a whole."
Some problems remain, however. On Friday night, a California man was found shot to death about a half block from the building. In August, a 3-year-old boy fell from an eighth-floor window, sparking tenant outrage and prompting management to add screens to windows that lacked them.
Some tenants also find a few of the changes -- such as a $10 penalty for not properly emptying their garbage in the trash rooms -- excessively harsh.
For the moment, though, most residents are basking in what has been accomplished at the building. "I used to worry about my 10-year-old daughter, about my family. I decided I wouldn't be here that long," Hogan said. "Now, it's much more comfortable. I hope it stays that way."