Hendley reunion beckons

Margaret Easterling Smalls was having a typical Fourth of July - visiting with friends, eating barbecue, trying to stay cool.

Before she knew what had happened, she was organizing this weekend's reunion of her old neighborhood, Hendley Homes, a public-housing apartment complex in Columbia.

"I really miss it," said Smalls, 51, who moved to Hendley Homes with her family when she was in middle school and lived there more than 20 years.

By the time it was razed in 2000, Hendley Homes had become notorious.

Built in 1953, it was rows of identical brick buildings, 300 apartments in all, shabby and forlorn.

But for many, Hendley Homes was a community of people who got along, held apartment parties, went to work, raised children, got on with their lives.

They have fond memories.

They remember milkshakes at the Dairy Queen at Superior and Rosewood Drive, the old Piggly Wiggly, crossing the street to watch track meets at USC.

They're sentimental.

"I'm not saying I would still be there today, but I ought to have some place to go back to," said Smalls, 51, and the mother of three grown children, one of them a Columbia police officer.

The idea of a reunion first came up two years ago.

After a couple of organizational meetings, the effort fell apart.

But when interest in a reunion developed again this summer, Smalls and Ruth Mitchell decided not to give up.

Now, they're expecting 75 to 100 people, many coming from out of town for the weekend's activities.

They've sold more than 100 gold and black T-shirts. So many people want them, they need to order more.

Former residents, of course, are spread all over town - Hollywood Hills, Meadowlakes, Irmo, Northeast Richland and Lincolnshire. Some still live in Rosewood.

Others moved farther afield.

"Somebody's coming from Atlanta," Smalls said. "Somebody's coming from Virginia, and somebody's coming from California, three brothers."

Anyone who ever lived at Hendley Homes is welcome, the organizers said.

News of the reunion spread by word-of-mouth and by the social-networking Web site Facebook. Smalls and Mitchell said their children saw to that.

Both women have been surprised at how quickly relationships have been re-established.

Smalls said a lot of people seem to remember her because of her car - a yellow Mustang that she parked near the basketball courts.

Mitchell worked in two neighborhood schools, A.C. Moore and then at Dreher High, so she knew a lot of the kids in the neighborhood.

"Anybody comes to my house knows I keep my door open," Mitchell said.

"When I moved down there (in 1968), I was kind of skeptical. After I lived down there a couple of years, everyone was just nice and friendly."

In place of Hendley Homes, the Columbia Housing Authority recently has finished a brand-new neighborhood, Rosewood Hills.

It's a mixture of apartments, duplexes and town homes that have proved popular. The 60 single-family homes have been slower to move; fewer than half have sold, housing authority director Gilbert Walker said Thursday.

"The community and the people that ride by there see a big difference," Walker said. "Everybody that we've talked to is extremely pleased with it."

Among the people driving by are Smalls, who notes she lived at Wheeler Hill as a girl before it was torn down, too.

She's looking forward to the tour of model homes the Housing Authority has arranged for Sunday as part of the reunion.

"What is it, Rosewood Hills?" Smalls asked a visitor Thursday in the living room of the home she bought in north Columbia 15 years ago.

"I like what I see, and I really wish that I was able enough to go back there and live.

"It's not the same, but it's part of me."