By Dylan Waugh and Megan Miller
BALTIMORE – For 20 years, Mary Holmes lived on the third floor of 1058 Argyle Ave., one of the high-rises in West Baltimore’s notorious George B. Murphy Homes. Then, one hot, hazy July morning in 1999, she blew it up.
“The man told me, he said, ‘One, two, three,’ and I pushed the button, but . . .I don’t think I blowed it up. I think I just pushed a button and it looked like I did.” Holmes laughs at the memory but says there were tears in her eyes as the buildings crumbled.
“I’m glad they (demolished Murphy Homes),” she said. “But I just think about all the good times. We had some good times.”
Murphy Homes, a public housing complex, comprised 15 acres of low-rise townhouses, playgrounds and basketball courts, centered on four 14-story high rises. The towers contained one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, strung along central hallways.
With 375 pounds of explosives, it took just 20 seconds for the housing project to disintegrate into a pile of rubble and concrete dust, a victim of the Baltimore Housing Authority’s public housing redevelopment. Years later, the Murphy row houses and high-rises still stand in Baltimore’s memory as “Murder Homes,” a place of crime, addiction and violence.
Yet some people remember a different version of the Murphy Homes story, one that includes birthday parties, neighborhood festivals and world championships. They’re people like Mary Holmes, who lives on the spot where Murphy Homes once stood.
Holmes enjoys living in Heritage Crossing, the mixed-income development of homeowners and renters built on the site of Murphy Homes. But she remembers Murphy as a close community of friends and neighbors, which she says Heritage Crossing has not replaced.
“We could open our doors (in Murphy) because we knew everybody on the floor,” says Holmes, who moved into one of the high-rises, 1058 Argyle Ave., in 1979. “And in the summertime we had a big playground and . . .we’d watch each other’s kids. Somebody would call, ‘Ms. Mary, I got to go to the store. Bess is outside; can you keep an eye on her?’ That’s what we did.”
Holmes, who eventually became tenant council president, began her leadership by organizing children”s birthday parties.
“This little boy came to me one day and said, ‘Ms. Mary, today is my birthday. Can we have something?'”
Holmes organized with a few other mothers, made a cake, and, “that’s how that started.”
Later came crab feasts and trips to Orioles games.
Over the years, a few Baltimore celebrities came out of the Murphy Homes community.
In 1984 Leroy Taylor, a Murphy resident for most of his life, won the world welterweight kickboxing title. “…world champion,” The Baltimore Sun wrote of Taylor’s accomplishment, “not just East Coast champion or Maryland champion or Murphy Homes champion.”
Taylor not only lived in Murphy Homes, he trained there. As part of his conditioning, he would run its 14 stories of stairs top to bottom, four times in a row. Each trip took him about 15 minutes.
Taylor’s brother John, also a champion kick boxer, told The Sun, “They think that because you live in the projects you don’t have a future…It just happens that this is where I train and I live, and I enjoy it. Murphy Homes will always be my base.”
The Housing Authority sometimes sponsored athletic programs for neighborhood children, including dance classes, boxing lessons and basketball games. Former champion heavyweight boxer Larry Middleton, who came within one qualifying match of fighting Muhammad Ali for the title, ran a Housing Authority athletic program at Murphy Homes in the early ’80s.
Marvin McDowell, also a champion boxer, helped Middleton run the Murphy program. He remembers 20 to 40 kids showing up to spar in the converted laundry room that was their makeshift training area.
“The (Middleton) program was devised because of drug activity as a preventive program for youth. They would be there from 4 to 8 in the evenings,” Gloria Burton, who directed the program, says. “They had put them in ‘The 851,’ the worst building that they had.”
By the late 1970s, 851 George St. was the worst of the Murphy high-rises. Drug dealers sold in the stairwells and outside around the neighborhood. They paid tenants, often single mothers, to stash drugs in their apartments. Other apartments — tenants estimated as many as two or three per floor — were used as “shooting galleries” where drug users could get high. With the drugs came shootings, stabbings, and regular police raids.
“Murphy Homes had become Murder Homes,” former Housing Commissioner Daniel Henson says. “What you saw on (HBO’s) ‘The Wire’ was very true,” he says, referring to the HBO series about life in Baltimore.
The problems were so severe that the Housing Authority took unorthodox steps to try to fix them.
Laverne McWhite, manager of Murphy Homes from about 1979 to 1984, remembers a Housing Authority experiment in the 851 high-rise that attempted to reduce the building’s crime by relocating problem tenants and replacing them with “not elderly, but mature adults 55 and over.”
At the same time a few minor renovations were done to improve 851’s appearance. McWhite credits herself with the idea to repaint the inside of the building a salmon color.
“I was listening on a Sunday to ’60 Minutes.’ And ’60 Minutes’ had a program where the warden in this jail, or prison, had decided to paint the walls what they call salmon color. And it seemed to have calmed (the prisoners) down. So I went to work the next day, and said I want to order this paint.”
McWhite says that 851, renamed Fremont House, seemed to improve after the changes and stayed that way for at least a few years. But by the mid-1980s it was clear that all four high-rises were decaying.
Elevators were constantly broken, forcing some residents to climb the stairs to the 14th floor. Clogged trash chutes caused garbage to accumulate in the hallways. Plumbing, heating and electrical systems were unreliable.
Even the concrete structures themselves had become dangerous. In 1989, Raymond Toulson, 12, died after being struck on the head by a 2-foot-long piece of concrete that broke off a ninth floor balcony of one of the towers. Engineering studies revealed that, because of the way the balconies were made, they would continue to crack and crumble unless completely rebuilt or removed altogether.
In addition to physical problems, Murphy remained a major center of the city’s drug and crime activity.
It became more and more difficult to find tenants willing to live in the high-rises. A Jan. 13, 1993, Sun article reported: “At George Murphy Homes . . . 25 vacant apartments are ready to be rented. But…after making offers to the top 300 applicants on the waiting list, the agency has not been able to find a single tenant willing to live one of those 25 apartments.”
“The families weren’t moving in,” says Gloria Burton. “People had to be very desperate, or come from a shelter, to move into the high-rise, because in the high-rise you wouldn’t have any control over your neighbors, the elevator, or anything.”
“With both crack cocaine and heroin available readily in that part of town, and people coming to prey on folks in Murphy Homes, nobody wanted to live there,” said Henson. “Only the poorest of the poor wound up at Murphy Homes. You only lived there if it was the only place you had to live.”
Then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke called the high rises “warehouses of poverty.”
Henson said that by the time Murphy Homes was imploded in 1999, almost 90 percent of its residents were unemployed.
By the early ’90s it had become clear to urban planners nationwide that the high-rise public housing experiment of the mid-20th century had failed. When Baltimore received federal funding through the HOPE VI program to revitalize its public housing, the Housing Authority decided to start over, using a completely different model.
“The elimination of the concentration of poverty was absolutely necessary,” said Al Barry, formerly a planner for Baltimore City.
Murphy Homes was slated to become the third high-rise project demolished in Baltimore, after Lafayette Courts and Lexington Terrace and before Flag House Courts. But before the towers could be blown up, officials needed to relocate the people living there.
The federal government offered tenants vouchers — then called Section 8 certificates — to subsidize their rent payments if they chose to move to housing owned by private landlords. Some used the certificates to move away from Baltimore to the counties. A few, Henson says, moved out of state.
But he adds that many residents turned down the Section 8 certificates, wanting to stay in public housing, where their rent — fixed at 30 percent of a tenant’s income — covered everything, including utilities.
Those who rejected the Section 8 vouchers were offered three choices in other Baltimore public housing projects, Henson says.
Murphy’s concrete towers were replaced with a suburban-style townhouse community called Heritage Crossing. To satisfy HOPE VI regulations, the new community placed public housing rentals next to market-rate homes.
Heritage Crossing has about one-third of the housing units of Murphy Homes. The majority of these units are privately owned, owner-occupied houses.
When Heritage Crossing was built, the names of former Murphy Homes residents interested in returning were entered into a lottery. Mary Holmes was one of those selected.
“They found places for everybody,” Holmes says. “A lot of people didn’t come back because after they moved they liked where they were. But they still have a list of people who would come back (to Heritage Crossing) if they had a place to come to. If somebody’d move out or somebody’d die or something like that.”
She says that Murphy residents who did return to Heritage Crossing found a very different community than the one they’d left.
“I like it here,” Holmes says, smiling. “But this is not Murphy. Let’s put it like that.”