DECATUR - When Pam Hickman Clapp and Jamie Hickman grew up in Longview Place, they played outside with dozens of neighborhood children, slept outdoors on warm, summer nights and rarely locked their doors.
"We played ditch and kickball and red rover, red rover," Hickman said, sitting for an interview with her older sister."We always stayed out late," said Clapp, now a Lovington resident. "It was really a neat, neat place to live years ago."The Hickman sisters - who lived in Longview with their mother from 1959 until they graduated high school a decade later - are among thousands of people who inhabited the city's first public housing project over the years.
Several of the former tenants have offered to share their reminiscences of living in the red-brick complex that was built to serve as a solution to rampant slum conditions on the city's near northside.
The Longview buildings, which were first occupied in June 1942, are scheduled for demolition in the spring. The 434-unit complex - which was first occupied exclusively by families of World War II plant workers - was completed at a cost of $1.6 million. It will be replaced by Wabash Crossing, a $111 million, 650-unit housing development partially funded by a $34.9 million federal Hope VI grant.Clapp and Hickman recently returned to number 210, the two-bedroom apartment filled with many childhood memories.They said they were surprised to find it is still in excellent shape - actually much improved over the apartment that they recall as a warm and cozy place."They have nice sinks and countertops and cabinets," Hickman said, enumerating some of the improvements."They have a built-in pantry," Clapp said. "I was amazed.""There's not a thing wrong with them. Nothing," Hickman said.Clapp said she remembered that the Longview maintenance crew was continually inspecting and fixing the buildings.The sisters and several others said they wondered why such well-built and maintained housing, which was extensively renovated in the mid-1980s, should be demolished."It would be a wonderful place for the homeless," Hickman said.But Jim Alpi, Decatur Housing Authority director of capital programs, said the Longview apartments, which are 600 to 700 square feet in size, are too small, too crowded together and basically obsolete."It was called barracks-style and it kind of looks like barracks," Alpi said. "The cost of going through and refurbishing it doesn't justify the expense."Alpi said Longview housed about 1,800 people in its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, when people often had large families. The number of units in Longview was reduced from 434 to 386 - partly to increase parking - during renovations in the 1970s and '80s.Hickman, who moved out of Longview in 1971, said her last few years there were marked by racial tensions, as the complex became integrated. It was originally a segregated development, with African-Americans limited to housing
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on the east side of the railroad tracks.
Fond memoriesWhen 8-year-old Audrey Bart moved into Longview with her family during World War II, it was considered a big step up. Her father was a war industry worker when she came to Decatur from Hindsboro. Just about three families in that small town had indoor plumbing at the time."We didn't have it," she said. "We had a well outside."But Longview not only had hot and cold running water, but all kinds of activities for children. There was a saintly woman named Mrs. Merle Miller - mentioned by many former Longview tenants - who patiently taught the chil
dren how to make a variety of hand-crafted items after school at the Longview administration building.
"Monday nights everyone went in for a free movie," she recalled. "They had a library over there. They had a bunco game for adults, with dice. In the summer time they had a sprinkler you could play in in your swimsuits."Bart and the Hickman sisters remember milk bottles delivered to the doorsteps by a milkman who made his rounds on a horse and buggy. Nobody worried that the bottles might be stolen."Now it's got a bad name," Bart said of Longview. "Nobody got in trouble in those days (the 1940s). We really enjoyed it. It was such a good place."Darrell Beck, retired CEO of McKeever Communications, said he lived on the edge of Longview's east section in the 1940s. He had been living with his family in a duplex that was razed to make way for Longview.Photographs of houses that were demolished to make room for Longview show dilapidated structures with crumbling porches and inside walls missing large swaths of wallpaper and plaster."We were renting from a slumlord," Beck recalled. "Those houses were horrible houses. In third grade we had to move because they leveled the whole thing."His family moved from just west of the tracks to just east of the tracks."Everybody in that neighborhood was poor," Beck said. "They were just struggling to survive. It wasn't like you had a rich guy living next to you. But I didn't know the difference. I didn't know that I was poor."Crime rates riseMary White Douglas, who raised two children in Longview between 1966 and 1981, said things did get rough in the neighborhood, especially after she moved out."When I first lived there you couldn't ask for a better place," she said. "You could leave your doors open. You could leave your windows open at night."She recalled that tenants were friendly and children played well with each other. But when she came back to visit friends in the 1980s, she noticed that things had changed."It got kind of rough," she said. "Kids were fighting and the police were out there a lot. People were using drugs."Decatur Police Chief Mark Barthelemy said the Longview neighborhood was the highest crime area in the city from the late 1970s through the late 1980s.Alpi said Longview was transformed from a working class neighborhood to an exclusively low income area by federal legislation in the late 1960s. One law put an economic cap on who lived in public housing throughout the nation, forcing working class people out."The unintended consequence was creating islands of poverty in virtually every city," Alpi said.The low point in Longview's history was the murder of two girls on Halloween night 1984. The victims, 10-year-old Theresa Hall and 12-year-old Sherry Gordon, were found in a vacant Longview apartment after they had been sexually assaulted and strangled. The killer was never identified.Barthelemy said the police department poured more man-hours and other resources into this case than any other unsolved case. Renewed leads have come in during the past five years, but none were productive."That was the blackest of black eyes Longview received over the years," Barthelemy said. "A true tragedy."In 1989 the DHA hired off-duty police officers to patrol Longview. The crime rate quickly dropped after that."The Longview complex became very livable and a comfortable setting for all the residents after that," Barthelemy said.Treated differentlyKathy Mullinax Hargrove, a retired nurse who grew up in Longview from 1949 to 1960, describes it as a safe haven for children. Teachers and other adults who worked with Longview children treated her and her friends with much respect.All schoolchildren went to Ullrich Grade School, on the Longview grounds. The school was closed in 1976; DHA purchased it in 1983 and it was demolished shortly after that."Longview was a world where all impoverished kids were equal," Hargrove writes from her home in California. They were not told that statistically they had little chance of succeeding.When children attended school with holes in their shoes, the principal gave them certificates they could use to purchase new shoes."It wasn't until I went to high school with kids from outside of Longview that I realized that other kids lived differently than Longview kids. By that time, I had a good foundation and a love for learning."Later she discovered that "snobs" in high school treated Longview residents differently. But Hargrove writes that lifetime friendships were forged among those who lived there."We were all living so close that Longview seemed like one big family," she writes.Marilyn Ray of Sullivan was just 3 years old when her family members became the first occupants of number 216 in 1942. One of her earliest memories is of women painters on scaffolding finishing nearby apartments. She later found out they were doing work normally done by men because the men were off fighting the war.Ray and other tenants recalled that they had to fetch wagonloads of coal for their furnaces from the Brownie Coal Co., located just south of the complex."We all had our own coal bins and chutes," she recalled. "If anyone was low on coal, someone would loan them a bucket of coal until they got their money."Besides living there six years as a child, Ray returned to Longview with her husband as a teenage mother in 1956. She had a sense of living in a friendly community."The people who had phones were always willing to share their phones with those who didn't," Ray said. "If anybody had a need everybody jumped in and helped."We got together for coffee and cookies. People got to know each other. I made some lifetime friends there."Huey Freeman can be reached at 421-6985.