Frances Byrd Howerton, 47, remembers that it was only a couple of years ago that the sound of gunfire was nothing out of the ordinary in the Glenarden Apartments complex where she has lived for 21 years. Walking into its buildings required stepping around hordes of people. The only playground was deserted because fearful parents kept their children indoors, leaving the streets to the drug trade.
"People were coming in with New York and Florida license plates at all hours bringing the drugs," Howerton said.
Glenarden Town Police Chief Morris Lewis had this succinct description: "Open-air drug markets were rampant in the Glenarden Apartments and, in some areas, had completely taken over."
That was Glenarden Apartments then. Today, a drive through the neat, landscaped complex on Brightseat Road, just off Route 202 and down the street from Landover Mall, shows a residential area with little indication of the drug activity that once plagued it. It's a place tenants now say they are proud to call home.
The reason for the dramatic change is a two-year revitalization, now in its final stages, in which the Department of Housing and Urban Development spent $16 million to modernize the complex and its 574 units.
At the same time, town and county police have teamed up to push out the drug activity.
Federal officials brought in Associated Financial Corp., which specializes in rehabilitating government-assisted housing developments, and gave it a twofold mision: redesign the complex to give it a village atmosphere, and provide enough built-in security to discourage any return of its drug past.
The old Glenarden was a sad picture of peeling paint and broken windows. The new Glenarden boasts forest green and tan buildings with white-fenced patios for select ground-floor apartments. Manicured lawns with rows of shrubs ring the complex, interrupted every hundred yards by a gazebo with matching benches.
Doors to the buildings were removed to allow light in the dark hallways that once hid drug activity. The laundry rooms and the five rental offices were enclosed in glass to give them an open, safe atmosphere.
Nate Wells, a postal carrier for Glenarden Apartments, has seen a dramatic change since the renovations began. The mailboxes were moved outside the buildings to discourage crowds from congregating in the hallways and vandals from breaking into the boxes.
"The mailboxes were always open when I came because kids would break into them and even pull them out of the walls," he said. "Now, in the afternoons, it's really peaceful and quiet, not many people around."
The 28-acre complex was divided into five villages, each with one entrance leading in and out, making it impossible to drive through the entire complex. Security booths at the entrances soon will be staffed 24 hours a day by resident volunteers. All tenants will be given car stickers for identification.
"You know who lives there, and that's the advantage of having villages," said Glenarden Property Manager Pearl Bowen.
A tenant coalition, led by Howerton, initially was rebuffed by federal public housing officials who were reluctant to put money into a low-income housing development they saw as lost, Howerton recalled last week.
But the coalition showed that it meant business, even securing $2 million in private financing.
The renovations have served as the catalyst for bringing in a new breed of tenants. Although management declined to say how many, people who often were slow with their rent or were suspected of illegal drug activities were not allowed to move back into the finished apartments. "This was necessary so Glenarden does not go back to where it came from," Bowen said.