Father Panik Village Now a Criminals' Paradise : Bridgeport, Conn.: Complex is being vacated and demolished as officials give up in face of drugs, decay and death.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

There was a time--before the drugs arrived, before the decay and crime set in--when children frolicked on the swing sets of Father Panik Village.

It was the first public housing project in New England, and the people had pride in their homes, in the vegetables they planted in small plots just outside their doors, in their friends and neighbors.

No more.

Father Panik Village, the most notorious housing project in a notorious city, is being vacated and demolished.

Authorities decided that the project, once hailed as a prototype for the kind of safe, modern housing the government could provide for the poor, was so far gone that there was no other remedy.

Many longtime residents agree, but it saddens them.

"It used to be beautiful here. You could go downtown and leave your house unlocked and you wouldn't have to worry about anything," said True Hamilton, 72, who has lived in the project for 15 years.

"Now, we're scared to even come out of the door at night. And when we hear gunshots, we hit the floor," she said.

"I've been here so long. I treat the people here like family and they treat me like family. I won't know how to live out there," said Kathleen Vila, who moved into the project with her family in 1943, when she was 9 months old.

When the project opened in 1941, it was a clean, modern complex touted as a solution to slum housing. Built to replace shanties for factory workers, it housed nearly 5,000 people in 46 three-story buildings spread over 40 acres.

"Early on, you had the family structure in place, you had a working population. Then, as time progressed, you began to face the social ills that we're facing today in society," said Clarence H. Craig Jr., executive director of the authority.

"Then, in addition to that, there was serious mismanagement in the late '70s," Craig said. "Services that were necessary weren't being provided. There wasn't proper police patrol, garbage pickup and other normal services that any other neighborhood gets. Things just went downhill from there."

Outsiders turned the project's courtyards into open-air drug markets.

"They are out there doing it openly in broad daylight--day or night, in blizzards or rain," said Vila, president of the project's tenants association.

"The way the courtyards are laid out, it's easy to just run in and run out, so this is a hard place to control," she said. "And there was never a dominant police presence here, so the people selling drugs just started to run things."

By 1986, the crime rate at Father Panik had soared out of control and the project was virtually uninhabitable. That year, the city, after deciding the 1,063-unit project could not be saved, began knocking down the buildings. In September, workers began demolishing the last 15 buildings.

Federal housing officials have agreed to provide rental subsidies for the 300 families who still live in the project. They will be moved to housing in other parts of the city over the next six months.

Craig said the housing authority is planning to redevelop the site with new duplexes that will include both rental and privately owned units.

Bridgeport is not the first city to give up on a housing project. Officials in Philadelphia, Chicago, Newark, N.J., Providence, R.I., and other cities have turned to the wrecking ball when projects became overrun with crime or decayed so much they were unsafe to live in.

Over the last decade, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has approved the demolition of approximately 20,000 public housing units. That's out of a total of about 1.3 million nationally.

"It is not a routine solution," said Alexander Garvin, a former deputy housing commissioner for New York City, now a lecturer in urban planning and development at Yale University. "It is a controversial solution because it is destroying the number of apartments available to people with low income."

Some residents say city officials are more worried about Bridgeport's image than about living conditions at the project.

"They want to get rid of this place. They think it's the cause of all Bridgeport's problems," said James Earl, 23, who grew up at Father Panik.

City officials acknowledge they are happy to see the end of an embarrassing symbol of Bridgeport's decay.

"Clearly, it picked up a reputation that got a degree of notoriety, which in turn seemed to have fed some of the further problems there," said Police Chief Thomas Sweeney. "It got to the point where it was almost like free advertising for drug dealing."

Sweeney said the housing project averaged five homicides a year out of a total about 50 to 60 murders per year in all of Bridgeport.

"For one area, that's probably the single densest and most consistent concentration," Sweeney said.

During the last year, drug dealers have shot at three police officers patrolling the area. In one incident, a young woman was killed when drug dealers fired 76 rounds from a semiautomatic weapon.

The once-green courtyards are paved with concrete. Graffiti covers the buildings; the swing sets and basketball hoops are rusted and rotting.

"If it was in better condition, I'd like to stay," said Hamilton. "But the way it is now, you never know when they're going to start shooting."

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