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LANGFIELD HOMES: A HOUSING PROJECT WITH A DIFFERENCE

THE SPRINKLER shoots a stream of water across a deep green lawn. New vinyl siding wraps neatly around two-story apartment buildings. A young boy climbs a playground slide in the bright midday sun.

We are not in Lancaster or Amherst. It is a summer day, East Side of Buffalo, Langfield Homes Housing Project.

Barbara Hartzog spots two young men cutting across the lawn.

"Excuse me," she yells, "could y'all not walk on the grass."

Sheepishly, they skitter to a nearby sidewalk.

"You don't walk on the grass in Amherst," she says. "We've got the same rules here."

Ms. Hartzog is 39, a hotel chambermaid who left work two years ago to care for her sick daughter. She lives with her two kids in a three-bedroom apartment -- big rooms -- with a kitchen nook, laundry room, patio and back lawn. She used to live across the street, in the Kenfield Homes project -- old brick buildings with small, dark rooms and no yards.

"Everybody who's over there," she says, pointing across the street to Kenfield, "is trying to get over here."

The pride shows. Anybody who tries to walk on her lawn, or mess up this neighborhood, has to deal with her.

Or dozens of tenants like her.

"You don't see litter on the grass," says Dorothy Amos, who lives in the next building. "People pick it up. Or they don't drop it."

It took it a half-century, billions of dollars and countless shattered dreams, but we've finally figured out how to do public housing right. We've stopped -- at least some of the time -- putting people who need a break in places that break them.

Building by building, they're turning the Langfield Projects -- once a sorry collection of crammed-in, dilapidated apartments with a soundtrack of police sirens -- into a place anybody would want to live.

They knocked down 20 buildings and gutted the other ones -- making one big apartment out of every two old ones. They laid in lawns and sidewalks. They put up playgrounds.

"The idea was to give people an identifiable space," said Gillian Brown, attorney for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. "If you don't feel like you own something, you don't take care of it."

They are taking care of it. There is a tenant committee at Langfield. They wanted to drug-test all new applicants and require curtains on all windows.

"They were worse than any condo board," said Brown.

Bulldozers are still moving dirt. But some people have been here two, three years. Some apartments have flower gardens in front. Trees shade tidy two-story homes. You half expect to see Bud Anderson walk out the door.

It doesn't look like public housing. Which works for the tenants. Which, in turn, works for taxpayers, who are covering the $33 million rehab bill.

"This makes you feel like you're not in a project," said Ms. Hartzog.

Not cramming poor people into dumps isn't just the right thing, it's the smart thing. Give people a decent place to live, they're more likely to take care of it.

"It really makes you feel better about where you are," says Dorothy Amos. "It makes you feel better about yourself."

Public housing is a noble concept: Decent homes (with free utilities) for poor people, so they and their kids aren't left on the street or in roach-infested hovels. Tenants pay a percentage of their income.

The concept's savage offspring was claustrophobic high-rise apartment buildings. The poor were stuffed into horror-show structures with postage-stamp windows, no lobbies and no working people in sight. Crime and misery prospered. Local example: Frederick Douglass Towers, near downtown.

Langfield is the polar opposite.

"The apartments are actually designed," said Gillian Brown, "with human beings in mind."

There's a mix of single-family homes in Langfield, to buck up the working numbers. Work breeds a desire to work.

Thursday afternoon, a lot of doorbells went unanswered. A lot of the tenants, said Ms. Hartzog, were at their jobs.

The BMHA is still a patronage-bloated, money-sucking bureaucracy. But at least they've injected common sense into the mix.

"Before, you could always tell what was public housing," said Sharon West, head of the BMHA. "This, you can't tell the difference from any other neighborhood."

It's not perfect. Graffiti is scrawled on the side of the new playground slide. Tenants complain of flowers being ripped out of gardens.

"You can take some people out of the ghetto," said Ms. Hartzog, "but you can't take the ghetto out of some people. It's up to the people here to keep it up."

She is standing on her backyard patio, watching water cascade onto her green lawn.

"It's so peaceful here at night," she says. "God blessed me, bringing me here. He really did."

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