Surrounded by the skeleton of a neighborhood that had fallen eerily silent, Betty Crawford marked her last night in Cherry Tree Crossing by playing music and letting memories of the good times roll into the abyss of one of Augusta’s most storied public housing projects.
Laughing children, roughhousing teenagers and chatty neighbors vanished gradually, packing belongings into moving trucks and finding new homes across the city. Reluctant to leave her one-bedroom apartment at Cherry Tree, Crawford stayed to nearly the end before saying her final farewell to the complex on 15th Street on Wednesday.
The final two tenants will turn the key for the last time this week, barring any unforeseen problems in the relocation process.
The Augusta Housing Authority began relocating 355 families last September in preparation for demolishing the housing project built in 1939 as one of the nation’s first government housing complexes.
A modern, mixed-income apartment complex will be built in its place, a model widely used across the nation but only the second of its kind in Augusta. The housing authority replaced Underwood Homes on Sand Bar Ferry Road
with the Walton Oaks complex in 2012.
“Nobody wants it to go ’cause we’re so used to having it here,” Crawford said. “I said I was gonna be the last one. I felt real comfortable here. I really did.”
Crawford, 55, lived in Cherry Tree for three years and grew up near T.W. Josey High School, not far from the housing project. Her mother walked her through the complex – known as Sunset Homes until 1993 – to visit the doctor and attend church.
Cherry Tree’s proximity to a bus stop, grocery store and doctors’ offices was a convenience Crawford will miss at her new apartment. Like a majority of former Cherry Tree tenants, she is using a Section 8 housing voucher instead of moving to another public housing complex.
Elischa Scott, who moved into Sunset Homes when she was 15 months old, remembers the neighborhood before violence and crime became a regular event. She slept with the door unlocked until she began to fear for her safety.
Scott left Cherry Tree during the last week of April after 47 years of calling it home. As the complex emptied out and she searched for a new home, she stayed to the near end only because friends on streets bordering Cherry Tree looked out for her.
“I tried to stay so I could get a place where I wanted to go,” she said. “It was quiet and it was really scary.”
The windows of units were boarded up as each unit was vacated. Streets that used to teem with people were deserted last week,
except for housing authority trucks passing through collecting refrigerators from units.
Scott knows she will never move back to the streets where she lived nearly her entire life. She doesn’t think she will be able to afford rent at the new apartments targeting low-income individuals and families.
Demolition of the barrack-style brick buildings at Cherry Tree is scheduled to begin in mid- to late June, said Richard Arfman, the housing authority’s director of planning and development.
“It could take eight to nine months to complete,” he said.
The housing authority will apply for tax credits to build the new complex, likely starting the first of four phases in the fall of 2015.
As Cherry Tree residents dispersed, Crawford, who is moving into the same apartment complex as Scott, served as a send-off committee wishing her old friends well in their new homes. She still talks to some of her closest friends on the phone daily but concedes that Cherry Tree was a tight-knit community she won’t find again.
Her new home is “never gonna take the place of this,” she said.