LOS ANGELES — IN the world of inner-city public housing projects, tranquillity can be a rare commodity. Just ask Norene Grant. Three times in the past 10 days the resident of Imperial Courts housing project in Watts has been jolted by the sound of a Molotov cocktail exploding in the apartment next door. The firebombs were believed to be the work of local gang members telegraphing a message to police: Stay out.
Authorities are intending to set up a police substation in the project to combat crime. The attacks were on the apartment they plan to use.
``I don't sleep nights now,'' says Mrs. Grant, sitting on a milk crate in front of her blue cinderblock unit. ``You wonder what these rascals are going to be up to next.''
Across much of urban America, many public housing residents are wondering the same thing.
Beleaguered by bullets and burglars, crack peddling, and gang meddling, they are on the front lines of some of the toughest social problems confronting the inner city.
Now, however, federal and local housing authorities, police, and others are increasingly fighting back. But as they do, they are raising troubling questions about how heavy-handed their tactics should be.
``Public housing has finally become a hot issue in Washington,'' says David DeSantis of the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association. ``Maybe we will be able to find some solutions to these problems.''
The problem of crime in public housing has gained renewed visibility in the wake of the recent 10-point plan by Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to rid projects of drug dealing.
That program calls for speeding up the eviction of residents who are convicted or suspected of being involved in illegal drug activity. It also suggests local housing authorities tighten security at buildings by, among other things, issuing photo identification cards to residents. Vacant units would be reclaimed and drug dealers denied access.
Predictably, the ideas have drawn some skepticism. While local housing authorities laud many of the initiatives, they contend that most will require a lot of money, something HUD has not had an abundance of in recent years.
Some tenants' rights activists think ID cards smack of Big Brotherism, while civil libertarians worry that the tough eviction policy could infringe on people's rights. Under the suggested rules, anyone who shares an apartment with a drug offender could be ousted. Thus a whole family could be thrown out for one member's wayward ways, though HUD officials promise each case will be individually weighed to prevent unfair evictions.
``Most of these problems boil down to needing money to deal with them,'' says Gordon Cavanaugh, legal adviser to the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.
That crime is a problem in many of the nation's public housing projects few deny. Some 70 percent of the 1,000 housing authorities who responded to a recent HUD survey listed drug abuse as a problem.
In Long Beach, Calif., south of here, officials at the Lindbergh Junior High School are building a 900-foot-long wall around part of the school playground. Reason: School officials are worried about students getting hit by stray bullets from the Carmelito housing project next door. In Omaha, Neb., the Logan Fontenelle housing project has been nicknamed ``Vietnam'' for the frequent outbreaks of violence that occur there.
Tenants frequently aren't to blame for the illegal activity. In Chicago, police have estimated that as many as 80 percent of the crimes committed in the public housing developments are done by outsiders.
To cope with rising crime, housing authorities and residents are trying a variety of tactics. Among the most touted is the Chicago Housing Authority's Operation Clean Sweep. Focusing on one project at a time, officials go into each unit of a development and inspect it to find out who lives there and what repairs need to be done.
ID cards are issued to residents, and tenant security patrols and management groups are organized. Crime at one city project, Rockwell Gardens, has dropped 34 percent since the plan was instituted. But the housing authority's strict inspection and visitation policies have also brought a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.
In Omaha, housing officials have adopted what may be the toughest eviction policy in the country to stamp out drug abuse. It calls for ousting tenants whose family members are suspected of committing certain crimes on - or off - project grounds.
Other measures instituted there include: bringing tutors to the projects to help students with their studies, establishing college scholarships for project youth, and organizing football and baseball teams.
While tenants seem to welcome the initiatives, the tough eviction policy may end up in court.
Here in Los Angeles, police are hoping a more consistent presence in the projects will help thwart gang-related crime. The plan is to set up a police substation in one of the apartments at Imperial Courts, where officers will file crime reports and take residents' complaints.
Twelve officers will be assigned to the development, a series of shopworn, barracks-style structures lined with jacaranda trees. If the pilot project works, other substations will be opened in city housing projects.
``One of the real concerns is the intimidation and fear that exists in these areas,'' says Police Captain Stephen Gates.
Most residents of the brightly colored, two-story buildings applaud the police presence but remain skeptical it will change life.
``What difference does it make?'' asks Mrs. Grant, a 35-year resident of Imperial Courts who remembers when life here ``used to be beautiful.'' ``It is good, if it helps.''
``We need all the help we can get,'' says another resident watering his lawn, mainly a patch of dirt, in front of his unit.
Some of the youths in the project, however, resent the police presence. One teen-ager, who calls himself Donald Smiley, is sitting on a bike, a series of gold chains hanging from his bare chest and a long earring in one ear.
``It's real bad,'' he says, flashing a gold-toothed grin. ``They will be beatin' us down. They have an attitude. We can just be walkin' and giggin' and they swoop in on us.''