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A PROJECT FOR THE PEOPLE
O'KARMA TERRACE IS AREA'S FIRST PUBLIC HOUSING COMPLEX
   

By CHRIS RITCHIE chrisr@leader.net

Sunday, September 03, 2000     Page: 1B

WILKES-BARRE - Travel down Coal Street toward Public Square and a pattern emerges.
    Meade.
    Sherman.
    Grant.
    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 were issued.
    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 high-rise.
    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 electrical work.
    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 negotiated.''
    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. O'Karma.
    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 elderly.''
    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 building.
    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 Terrace.
    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 Terrace resident.
    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 829-7209.
   
   
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