In her 32 years at the Villages of Parklands, Mary Ray has seen it all.

At first it was a middle-class neighborhood that felt like a family, an ideal place to raise her two daughters. Then, some years later, the grass and fences were gone. It was the first sign of decay, but Ray stayed.

"I took it personally. I was part of the community, I raised my kids here," she said. "I thought, if good people leave the community, who is going to save it?"

Now Ray is proud to see that the Villages of Parklands, a 870-unit complex in Southeast Washington built in 1959, is getting back to the old days when it was a safe and friendly neighborhood. "I've seen it come back to life," she said.

At today's Parklands, not only has the grass made a comeback, but the flowers as well. In its 52 acres of well-kept grounds, colorful tulips and pansies are everywhere. The low-rise buildings, once covered with graffiti, have been renovated. Children can play outside in its five playgrounds and chill at its new splash park.

Renovation started in 1991, after William C. Smith Co., a District-based real estate company that manages about 10,000 units in the Washington area, bought the property. Since then, Smith has invested more than $30 million in the property, including construction of the 7,950-square-foot splash park, a new retail center and a town house community in the area. On average, the company spent $18,000 to renovate each apartment, said Cynthia Bertolotti, vice president of asset management.

Parklands used to have more than 1,000 units, but some buildings, deemed beyond repair, were demolished. With the new setting, Parklands has "a more suburban atmosphere," Bertolotti said.

Parklands is made up of four "villages"--Ridgecrest, Manor, Garden and Grandview. Each offers different floor plans and even the option of duplex apartments. Utilities are included, except electricity in the 24 units that are equipped with washers, dryers, microwave ovens and ceiling fans.

"Things are back on track now," said Mattie O'Neal, a resident of 20 years. She raised three children in her Parklands apartment, attracted by the size of her unit and its affordable price. "I love this place," she said.

Thanks to the tenacity of residents like Mary Ray and Mattie O'Neal, with the helping hand of William C. Smith Co., more people are calling Parklands home. When the company took over in 1991, the vacancy rate was almost 50 percent; now the rate is less than 5 percent, Bertolotti said.

For recent residents such as Sharon Henson, Parklands is a good place to raise a family. Henson moved three years ago from a two-bedroom apartment in Suitland to a three-bedroom, two-bath unit at Parklands, paying about the same in rent. Her two children, Keiana, 17, and Eric, 13, are happy to have their own room and bathroom and enjoy living at Parklands. Henson, who doesn't drive, also was attracted to the complex because there are more public transportation options, including a shuttle bus to the Metro. "Buses in Maryland don't run as often," she said. "It is really convenient."

The free shuttle bus serves Parklands Monday through Friday. Bus driver Donald Ford has lived in Parklands for almost 40 years, and started the bus service six years ago. "I know everybody that gets on this bus," he said. At non-rush hours, the 30-seat bus also goes to the nearby commercial strip on Alabama Avenue so residents can shop and bank. Ford estimates that 250 people use the shuttle bus everyday.

Another convenience within the community is the Dards day-care center. About 60 children attend, and another day-care center, with capacity for 100 children, soon will be available. For older children there's the splash park. There, children like 8-year-old Cortez Carter, Mary Ray's grandson and the third generation of her family to live at Parklands, can beat the summer heat. The splash park was built in 1996 and accommodates more than 400 people with its slides, cascades, fountains and plastic islands.

Parklands also has something special to offer to older children: 14- to 18-year-olds can take part in the Summer Youth Program, an initiative of William C. Smith Co. that since 1991 has offered entry-level summer jobs and provided workshops and activities.

The community-oriented spirit of Parklands was something surprising to property manager Kennard Jones, who oversees a 45-person staff. In 16 years in the real estate business, he said, "I've never been involved with a property like this."

Or, as bus driver Ford said one recent afternoon: "It's a moving-up community."

THE VILLAGES OF PARKLANDS

1901 Savannah St. SE

Washington, D.C. 20020

202-889-3611

* Application fee: $25

* Security deposit: $200, refundable

* Lease term: One year

* Utilities: Included

* Amenities: Splash park; free shuttle bus to Anacostia Metro and nearby stores; 24-hour maintenance service

* Parking: Free outdoor lot

* Pet policy: No pets

APARTMENT SIZE QUANTITY SQUARE FEET MONTHLY RENTAL

1BR/1BA 318 550 to 800 $475 to $530

2 BR/1BA 453 650 to 850 585 to 645

3 BR/1 BA 88 900 to 1,000 685 to 780

3BR/2BA 7 N/A 720 to 780

4 BR/2 BA 4 N/A 875

CAPTION: Kennard Jones, property manager of the Villages of Parklands, shows off the 7,950-square-foot splash park, with its slides, cascades, fountains and plastic islands. "I've never been involved with a property like this," he says.