A PROJECT FOR THE PEOPLE
O'KARMA TERRACE IS AREA'S FIRST PUBLIC HOUSING COMPLEX
By CHRIS RITCHIE
Sunday, September 03, 2000 Page: 1B
WILKES-BARRE - Travel down Coal Street toward Public Square and a pattern
All streets named after prominent Civil War figures.
By the time a driver reaches the intersection with Wilkes-Barre Boulevard,
however, a street bearing the name of that era's perhaps most prominent figure
- Lincoln - fails to appear.
It wasn't always that way.
Until the early 1960s, Lincoln Street ran for several blocks parallel to
the tracks of the old Central Railroad of New Jersey. During that decade, it
would be devoured by the wave of redevelopment sweeping through the city.
Lincoln Street would eventually give way to the first federally-funded
public housing in the city. That project, a combination of high- and low-rise
buildings for the poor and the elderly, would be named for the man who guided
the project through a years-long maze of local and federal red tape.
Today, however, circumstances have erased the man's name from the complex
he helped create but never lived to see completed. His legacy and vision have
been nearly lost to history, save for several clippings yellowing in this
newspaper's morgue. But that's getting ahead of the story.
Progress hits hurdles
In June 1961, 703 families were scrambling to find new homes as blighted
areas of Lincoln and Hazle streets were slated for demolition. Of those
families, 209 depended on public assistance, 157 were headed by those 65 and
older and 372 had incomes of less than $300 a month.
Many of them were scared and frustrated. Finally, at a June 21 meeting in
Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the displaced families were told the federal Urban
Renewal Association would guarantee them access to safe, sanitary and
affordable rental housing as part of the project. Moving expenses of up to
$200 would be provided.
``There is no section of Wilkes-Barre which can shut itself off from urban
renewal,'' Thomas L. Sanders of the Philadelphia office of Urban Renewal told
the crowd. ``By `dressing up' Wilkes-Barre it is going to attract new
businesses. Our local citizens will take another look at themselves. They will
think differently, act differently ... and Wilkes-Barre is going to be a city
to be proud of.''
Sanders' assurances would only go so far.
On June 26, more than 75 neighborhood residents packed a public hearing in
City Hall to hear details of the Lincoln Street Redevelopment Project. Harold
Payne, of Lincoln Street, told authorities that he and many other displaced
blacks were ``running into headaches'' trying to rent or buy new properties.
Then-Mayor Frank Slattery told Payne that discrimination would not be
tolerated and the federal government would drop funding for the entire project
if it found evidence of blacks being treated unfairly during the relocation.
Newspaper files fail to record how Payne's concerns were resolved, but on
Aug. 6, 1963, the Zuk Lumber and Demolition Co. began clearing the way for the
Lincoln Street Redevelopment Project. The Belvidere, N.J. firm received a
$31,200 contract to demolish 66 structures in the neighborhood.
The Wilkes-Barre Redevelopment Authority had to acquire 183 properties in
the city's Heights section to make way for the projects. A handful of
residents were grumbling about the prices they received from the government.
But it was too late to turn back the steam roller of ``progress.''
Bid by bid
Over the next two years, planning, property acquisition and demolition
continued. Then, on Aug. 27, 1965, an architect's drawing revealed how the
$6.5 million housing complex would stretch for several blocks up the
gently-rolling hill. The project was divided into two phases: one for the
elderly and one for low-income residents.
The complex for the elderly included approximately 200 units spread over
nine buildings: a 13-story high-rise with 160 units; seven, one-story,
three-apartment units; and a three-story Gallery Building.
The Raymon Heddon Co. of Dallas received the general construction contract
of $1.9 million. Separate contracts for plumbing, heating and electrical work
By mid-September of that year, Zuk demolished one of the last remaining
structures in the redevelopment zone: 188 E. Northampton St., a three-story
brick building owned by Esther Naessig that once housed the Pennsylvania
Sewing Machine Corp. on the first floor.
On May 27, 1966, the city's Redevelopment Authority conveyed the
approximately 20-acre Lincoln Street Redevelopment Project tract to the
Wilkes-Barre Housing Authority. On Aug. 13, contractors broke ground on the
Eight months later, bids would be opened for the 200-unit housing complex
for low-income residents. The $2.79 million general contract was awarded to
Tabone and Barbera of Pittston. The price included a community hall for
residents. Again, separate bids were awarded for heating, plumbing and
The project would be comprised of 20 one-bedroom units; 60 two-bedroom; 100
three-bedroom; and 20 four-bedroom units.
By March of 1967, the steel frame of the high-rise began to take shape and
the face of the Heights was changing forever.
A proper tribute
Oct. 14, 1968 would bring mild, sunny autumn weather, with temperatures in
the high 60s and low 70s. The day's headlines announced the Wyoming Valley
United Fund campaign had topped $1 million in pledges and the nation's 80,000
soft coal workers would receive $7-a-day contract increases - hailed by United
Mine Workers Union President W.A. ``Tony'' Boyle as ``the best contract ever
Later that afternoon, 450 dignitaries would assemble for the grand opening
of Wilkes-Barre's $2.5 million housing complex for the elderly in the Lincoln
Street Urban Renewal Area.
Speakers included James A. Farrell, executive director of the Wilkes-Barre
Housing Authority; city Mayor John V. Morris; state Sens. Martin L. Murray and
T. Newell Wood and Rep. Bernard O'Brien; and former Mayor Slattery.
A woman stepped to the podium. Her late husband, the former executive
director of the Wilkes-Barre Redevelopment Authority, had guided the complex
through its initial stages.
The woman's name was Elizabeth C. O'Karma. Her husband was Henry D.
And on that day, the city's first major housing project would become known
as O'Karma Terrace.
``Henry O'Karma introduced public housing to the city,'' said Horace E.
Kramer, the former chairman of the city's Redevelopment Authority. ``He got
the city and county interested in providing needed housing, especially for the
Changing with the times
On Nov. 4, 1968, O'Karma Terrace received its first tenant as Anna Foroni,
formerly of Sambourne Street, moved into one of the low-rise buildings.
Work on the high-rise was delayed when the electrical contractor ran into
money troubles. The Dec. 1 target date for occupancy came and went.
Finally, on the day after Christmas of 1968, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Preston,
formerly of 18 Sterling St., became the first couple to move into the 13-story
The name ``O'Karma Terrace'' was slow to catch on. Press clippings
throughout the balance of the decade and even into the early part of the 1970s
called it the Lincoln Street project.
By 1972, both phases of the project were referred to in the press as
O'Karma Terrace. The townhomes for low-income residents were called O'Karma's
``non-elderly'' units, and later, its ``family housing'' units.
Sometime in 1984, the elderly housing units, including the high-rise,
became known as Lincoln Plaza. The townhomes retained the name O'Karma
As the 1980s wore on, the reason behind the distinction became clear. The
non-elderly units were plagued by the illegal drug trade; high-rise residents
wanted to distance themselves from the stigma attached to being an O'Karma
In 1988, the local housing authority, in conjunction with police and
federal housing officials, launched an intensive program to eradicate drugs
from the project and improve its image, remembers Leon E. Case, the retired
director of the Wilkes-Barre Housing Authority.
Gradually, authorities made progress against the drugs and the associated
crime. O'Karma Terrace tenants were again proud of their neighborhood and
wanted to counteract the lingering bad image.
Another name change was in order.
``We talked with O'Karma's surviving families members and they did not
object,'' Case said. ``The residents themselves came up with the neutral name
Boulevard Townhomes as a way to recast the image of the complex.''
And so the complex envisioned 40 years ago by Henry D. O'Karma to meet the
housing needs of the poor and the elderly acquired yet another name.
And as for the old Lincoln Street that ran parallel to the railroad tracks,
it was widened, repaved and turned into a boulevard that, itself, has twice
been renamed. But, hey, that's a whole 'nother story.
Chris Ritchie, Times Leader (re)development editor, can be reached at