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On St. Petersburg's Preston Street, staying safe is a strategy

Sometimes when violence erupts, when knives flash and bullets shatter glass, it's the women and children who fall. Sometimes it happens four times in 33 months on the same little street.

This is the case on Preston Avenue, a mile south of the skyscrapers of St. Petersburg. It is a street where worlds collide, where children play and gunshots ring, where laundry dries on the line and tires squeal in the dark. It's where Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, 8, was shot three times in the back last week.

People keep flower gardens on Preston Avenue. They trim their hedges. They fry bream and hush puppies and invite their neighbors to sit, relax. They know each other by name.

They also know that, by chance or by curse, they live on a spit of unpredictable violence, in the shadow of a sleepy city, where the rhythm of life changes every time police stretch yellow tape between trees.

731 Preston Ave.

Angela Gwyn is standing on her porch when the detective walks up.

"Excuse me," he says. "Did you see a car?"

"No," Angela says. "I was too scared to look."

That night, she and her girls had made a pallet in the den. They ate pork chops and mashed potatoes and watched The Descent on television before falling asleep.

The first shots woke them, and they kept going — 20, 30, 40 seconds. Little Kiki, 12, tried to get up, but Angela pushed her head down onto the blanket. They stayed low until they heard the screams.

Daytime is not so scary.

"I feel so sorry for that little girl, Mama," says her oldest.

"I know," Angela says. "God's going to make sure that each one of them pay for that little girl's death."

An SUV rolls by.

"I hate it when people stare like that," she says. "It makes me nervous."

Angela is 38. She has five children — four living at home — and she makes them sleep in the back bedroom of the little brick house because she knows what stray bullets do. Her brother Larry was shot and killed by a 17-year-old with a World War I bolt-action Enfield rifle. That was in 1995. She keeps his picture on her cell phone.

"As long as they're there in the back, they're safer."

She teaches them lessons you'd find in the safest suburb. Don't talk to strangers. Look both ways before crossing the road.

There's also this: "If it sounds like a gunshot, get down."

835 Preston Ave.

In July 2006, Jacqueline Johnson was stabbed in the neck with a screwdriver by a longtime friend. The two had been arguing. The 33-year-old mother collapsed outside. Two of her children — 12 and 13 — watched her die.

777 Preston Ave.

Someone stole Rita McCulluck's gold teeth.

She lived on Russell Street at the time. The 75-year-old from Belize was going to sell them to buy a new mattress. The thief got something else: her sense of security.

She moved as soon as she could, and that's how she came to be living at 777 Preston Ave., to be sleeping on her couch near the front window when the shooting started next door, to be crying to Jesus as light flashed through her blinds.

She missed communion the next day on account of the police tape, which stretched the street from end to end. The people from the Church of Christ couldn't get through.

Each morning since, she has devoured Psalm 121, beneath a blue asterisk in her King James.

The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil:

he shall preserve thy soul.

The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in

from this time forth, and even for evermore.

"We don't sleep so well over here," she says, her accent thick. "We don't feel as usual because somebody might come again."

426 Preston Ave.

White bread.

That's what Preston Avenue smelled like in 1942.

As St. Petersburg's population swelled, Bell Bakery, built in 1922, had grown from two trucks and 11 employees to 35 trucks and more than 100 employees. The bakery was making 100,000 loaves a day, and Preston Avenue was white and working class. Its sons were ministers and soldiers. Its daughters entered beauty pageants.

Bell Bakery was off Fourth Street, the city's business corridor, which connected the Gandy Bridge and the Bee Line Ferry, which connected Pinellas County with Manatee.

Then came the highways and new bridges, and in the 1960s, the demographics on Preston Avenue began to change. Some say local Realtors tried to scare white people into newer neighborhoods as black families moved in.

In October 1996, a white police officer shot and killed a young black man on 16th Street S. Sometime during the ensuing street riots, someone set fire to the empty Bell Bakery building. It burned to the ground.

In its place rose a low-income apartment complex.

783 Preston Ave.

"We used to call it the old-folks neighborhood," says Jacqueline Fleming. "It was quiet. You could sleep at night."

Fleming has lived here 10 years. She runs a day care in her home. Little boys play in her front yard while she talks about death.

She points to the alley behind her house, to a ramshackle apartment.

"She was killed upstairs," she says.

She's talking about Mandy Sampson, a 27-year-old mother of two, the city's 22nd homicide of 2007. Police called the apartment a well-known drug house. They said Sampson was shot in the upper body.

Jacqueline Fleming shakes her head.

"I still think I've got a good neighborhood," she says. "I don't plan on moving."

She used to keep her door open from 6 a.m. until dark. Now it stays closed.

858 Preston Ave.

There is no house here, just a field of weeds and broken glass. This is where they found her.

Malayshia Gamble was 15, with a romance ponytail, acrylic nails and a rebellious streak. She started winning beauty pageants at the age of 5.

She had been shot in the head and dumped in this vacant lot. Neighbors spotted her body at 8:10 a.m. on January 9.

Someone hammered a wooden cross into the ground. Someone left a Care Bear.

755 Preston Ave.

Miss Smith tells the boys to pull their pants up.

She's 53 and has lived on Preston less than a year.

Her kids are grown now, but when they were younger, they settled scores with their fists. And if she ever caught them fighting, she would make the two culprits hug.

These children are different.

As she speaks on her front porch, chicken cooking on the stove, a gunshot rings on Preston Avenue. It's 6:53 p.m. on a Wednesday.

"My intent is to move," she says. "This level of chaos, this is something foreign to me."

771 Preston Ave.

The view from Paris Whitehead-Hamilton's room is of a hibiscus tree in full bloom and bars on windows. A police cruiser followed by a Polar Cup truck followed by a police cruiser. A man recruiting for the Uhuru movement. Several from the Nation of Islam.

A group of kids crowded around a red Dodge Neon, touching a bullet hole.

"One went through there," a boy says. "Where's the other one at?"

An 8-year-old girl on a bicycle.

"If you smile when you are dead," says Katocha Tullis, "it means the angels are around you."

A 9-year-old inspecting the driveway memorial.

"She should have stayed down," says Deja Ellis.

Why?

"They teach us in school," she says. "If it's a fire, you stop drop and roll. If it's a gunshot, you just get down."

That morning, at 2:20 a.m., Paris, 8, heard the gunshots like all the other women and children. The daughter of two soldiers stood up.

At 777, Rita McCulluck cried out. At 731, Angela Gwyn held her daughter down. At 755, Miss Smith heard a man screaming and ran outside and down Preston Avenue.

Times photojournalist Kathleen Flynn and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

On St. Petersburg's Preston Street, staying safe is a strategy 04/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 1:47pm]

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