Phyllis Adams used to live in Pumpkin Hill Apartments.
Hobos camped out in the vacant units at the Laurel complex in the 1970s; vandals attacked the hallways with axes. From her kitchen window, Adams could watch the rats gather at the overflowing trash bins. Every day, rumors flared that Prince George's County soon would demolish the notorious federally subsidized project.
Today, Adams, 49, is a tenant at The Villages at Montpelier. Her new home is in a flower-filled, tightly run community -- the type of place that offers free prescription pickups, after-school study hours, a monthly newsletter that lists residents' birthdays and $50 prizes to the solver of the regular "Scrambler" feature. (One winner: "Only turkeys empty automobile ashtrays in the parking lot.")
Adams has not moved. She is one of about 40 residents who spanned Pumpkin Hill's transformation from a suburban slum -- the focus of a 1979 Washington Post series titled "The Prince George's Fiasco" -- to a model complex that recently won one of 10 national Community Awards for Excellence from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She is a proud and pleasantly surprised witness to the turnaround.
"Once in a while," Adams said, "an old friend will ask me, 'You still live in Pumpkin Hill?' I say, 'No, I live in The Villages at Montpelier.' They say, 'Well, that's still Pumpkin Hill, right?' Not to me, it isn't."
The scandal surrounding Pumpkin Hill and several similar complexes, the result of mismanagement by owners and relative neglect by county officials, contributed to an unsavory image of Prince George's that has only begun to fade in recent years.
Pumpkin Hill's comeback is the result of firm new management that pumped $15.5 million into renovating a project that already had cost HUD nearly $13 million. The story of Pumpkin Hill, though it has a happy ending, remains an embarrassing episode, the kind county officials vow will never happen again.
As were many such communities across the country, Pumpkin Hill was built in the 1960s with subsidies from HUD.
Not to be confused with public housing, it was a reflection of the Kennedy-Johnson era dream of providing decent, affordable homes for every American.
Many of its early residents were young professional people who worked at nearby Fort Meade, the National Security Agency and NASA.
They were attracted to the rolling rural atmosphere of south Laurel, the proximity of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the 825 spacious units that included four-bedroom apartments renting for $270 a month.
At first, Pumpkin Hill seemed a good place to live. Then the maintenance began to slip. The grass died and was not replaced. Trash was not picked up regularly. Air-conditioning units broke down frequently.
People started moving in and out, and soon a Pumpkin Hill address became a joke, then a stigma.
"I was ashamed to live here," said Ann Coleman, 36, a resident since 1973, "but I stuck it out, overlooked the rats and the roaches and the plywood boards over the doors. I had two kids, and there was nowhere else for me to go."
By 1979, then-county executive Lawrence J. Hogan was referring to Pumpkin Hill and five other troubled projects as "threats to human life."
It became policy that any police calls at Pumpkin Hill, by then rife with shootings, stabbings and drug dealers, were answered by two county police cars.
Laurel firefighter Jim Collins recalls today the occasions when ladder trucks were stripped -- "of ladders, axes, anything that wasn't bolted down" -- as he and others fought fires at the complex. Pumpkin Hill was ugly and dangerous and becoming more so.
In 1979, The Post investigation of six apartment complexes revealed that private developers who grabbed federal loans and subsidies aimed at encouraging construction of this type of housing walked away millions of dollars richer.
The investigation also showed that government agencies allowed developers to build on impractical locations, failed to report or detect decay, and permitted substandard buildings and grounds to exist for years without repairs. That year, 80 percent of Pumpkin Hill was condemned, and its population had dwindled to 90 from a high of 3,500 in the mid-1970s.
One of the projects under scrutiny, the 200-unit Baber Village in Seat Pleasant, eventually was razed. Pumpkin Hill was purchased in 1982 by Corcoran Mullins Jennison Inc., a Quincy, Mass., development firm that specializes in rehabilitating low-income projects.
At first, residents were skeptical that anything would change.
"I thought, here we go again, promises, promises," said Adams, who had moved into Pumpkin Hill in 1971. "Then when they started moving the troublemakers out, I started to believe."
The changes came quickly as the firm began to sink millions in Pumpkin Hill. To relieve density, several buildings were torn down, and four-bedroom apartments were converted to 520 one- and two-bedroom units with dens. The interiors were redone with new carpet and appliances, and the grounds were tended carefully.
Equally important, a tough management policy -- including references, credit checks and occasional eviction for breaking stringent regulations -- weeded out the bad tenants and concentrated on screening new applicants more strictly.
"We made people live up to the obligations they had made in the first place: no pets, only authorized people living in the apartments," said Joe Reilly, the site manager for the past three years. "If they didn't follow the rules, they were asked to leave."
Younger employes from NASA, Fort Meade and the National Security Agency began moving back into the one-bedroom units (now renting for $550 a month), many of them unaware of the community's past. The apartments today are racially and economically mixed, with about 1,000 residents, of whom 40 percent are minority residents. Twenty percent of the residents are on public assistance. The parking lots reflect the diversity: new Honda Accords and Toyota Tercels, an occasional Volkswagen Beetle or taxicab, a stray elderly Dodge.
The reborn Villages at Montpelier is a collection of red, tan and gray brick buildings on South Laurel Drive, formerly Pumpkin Hill Drive. There are wooden fences, sloping lawns, newly planted trees, and thousands of gold, scarlet, purple and orange fall flowers. There are tennis courts, basketball courts, jogging trails and two pools.
"I'd match that complex with any in the county, federally subsidized or not," said Joseph Healey, the county's chief of property standards, who worked with the project when it was Pumpkin Hill. "I wish the kind of services they have would catch on at other places. And they have their rules, too; you can't even wash your car in that project."
At the recreation center, which has a staff of four people, residents sign up for adult coffee hours, cooking lessons (egg salad and chocolate pie), morning movies, and trips to Washington monuments, to the Capital Centre, to shopping malls.
The office offers free jump-starts, a notary public and voter registration. On a recent day, office manager Lucresia Robinson got in her car and drove to Montpelier Elementary School to pick up two children who discovered they did not have rides home; it was not the first time, she said.
Once considered dangerous, the apartments are now "a peaceful community," said county police spokesman Bruce Gentile. "We used to get Signal 13's -- officer needing help -- out there all the time, but they've really turned it around."
Off-duty county sheriff's deputies patrol the 35 acres as security guards from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Units are outfitted with security cameras that allow residents to identify a visitor on their home television screens before they buzz anyone in.
"I'm not scared to walk around by myself at night," Adams said. "I've got a dishwasher, a frost-free refrigerator and a self-cleaning oven, which I love. I've got oodles of closets -- two walk-ins.
"We don't even remember Pumpkin Hill around here anymore."