When Willeen Kelly and her family moved into a small house on 18th Avenue S more than 40 years ago, there were only two other black families in the neighborhood. Change was coming after years of rigid segregation in St. Petersburg's housing patterns, and Kelly, her husband and two young sons were among the pioneers. At least one of their white neighbors was hostile, but Kelly chooses to remember the positives. "It was a nice, quiet neighborhood,'' said the retired housekeeper, 69.
Over time, that changed. Within a year, the white neighbors had moved out and black neighbors began moving in. The once-peaceful Bartlett Park eventually became known for drug dealing and violent crime. Boarded-up houses and empty lots. Litter. Young men loitering on street corners. The sound of gunfire.
In recent years, the neighborhood has struggled to recover. Some houses were renovated. Empty lots started filling up. People began moving in instead of escaping. Football player Warrick Dunn helped at least four single mothers start new lives in their own homes there. In 2006, home improvement guru Bob Vila shot several episodes of his television show there, calling it "a neighborhood in transition.''
For every step forward, however, there were setbacks — murders, assaults, drug dealing. And last week, a bright 8-year-old girl who lived just a few blocks from Kelly was gunned down as gang members from another neighborhood sprayed bullets into her home.
The setbacks and frustration drove Kelly to become active in her neighborhood association in 1995.
"People sit back and talk and not do anything,'' said the plainspoken widow as she sat in the living room of her tidy home, surrounded by family photos.
Two years ago, she also became the neighborhood Crime Watch coordinator. Suddenly, her neighbors stopped speaking to her. Once again, the neighborhood pioneer was facing hostility.
"They say I'm the police,'' she said.
The unfriendly neighbors don't bother her, Kelly says. But some of the neighborhood newcomers do.
Most of the newcomers are younger. Some are white. They describe the neighborhood association as old fashioned and ineffectual. They have been bossy and disrespectful of older, longtime residents, Kelly says.
They "want to be leaders and not followers,'' she said. "We were here when they were in school. They were just going to move us out of the way. … We know we did a good job.''
For all the friction, however, the newcomers and longtimers like Kelly have the same goals. They both want Bartlett Park to be safe, tidy and friendly, a neighborhood that real estate agents would describe as a desirable place to live.
• • •
Scott Swift is one of the newcomers. He moved to Bartlett Park almost four years ago, lured by its affordability and proximity to a revitalized downtown.
For Swift, 43, who said he has been successful organizing neighborhoods, Bartlett Park seemed like an ideal location to put down roots.
"Downtown was becoming a fun place,'' he said.
Swift bought two houses, one to live in and one to rent. Others with similar dreams of settling into the city's next fashionable community followed.
In 2006, Leslie and Brian Wyllie bought an old two-story house for $46,000, gutted it and spent another $175,000 to make it livable.
"We didn't know how deep we were getting in,'' Leslie Wyllie said of the then termite-infested structure.
Her husband's parents bought and renovated the house next door and moved in.
Two years ago, Lindsay Myers, 31, bought a 1920s renovated house. Living near the historic Roser Park neighborhood, where restored homes helped revitalize that neighborhood, seemed like a good decision. Besides, Bartlett Park was near the waterfront. The Dali Museum. It was within jogging distance of the Saturday Morning Market.
"It is a part of the city that has tremendous potential,'' Myers said.
Some new residents quickly became disillusioned and tried to revamp the neighborhood association. Their complaints are many. They say dogs run loose, many of them pit bulls used for dog fighting. Children hang out in the streets late on school nights and gunshots are everyday background noise. Drug deals are made openly. For some of these newcomers, the police department is on speed dial.
"I've got my entire life invested in this,'' said Wyllie, 28. "We've got our home, our family. We really didn't believe it was going to be this bad. It's unnerving. It's a battle every day.''
Last year, a handful of the new Bartlett Park homeowners established their own neighborhood association.
"The same six to eight people have been in control'' for years, Swift said, adding that the association failed to follow bylaws for elections.
"We tried to establish a new neighborhood association because there were so many conflicting ideas of how to deal with the problems we have,'' Wyllie said. "There are some in the older generation that still want to do things the old way. There's some feeling that they just want to keep things the way they are, so we got snuffed out. We still meet and do our things to help the community.''
Last July, the Council of Neighborhood Associations refused to recognize the new group. That doesn't matter, said Swift, because the majority of the city's associations aren't CONA members. He said his group is small, multicultural and informal, and can point to a string of achievements, from painting neighborhood signs to organizing block parties.
"We're a team. We're working people. We chat online every day,'' he said.
Members get together for dinners, neighborhood cleanup projects and volunteer activities, Swift said. With the approaching mayoral elections, they're also making plans to meet with the candidates.
Tom Tito, 53, a founding member of the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association, disagrees with the newcomers' tactics.
"The biggest thing that I thought was not helpful was they were all white people,'' said Tito, who is himself white.
"I think if we are going to fight crime, we need to mobilize the black residents. … You can't leave out the majority to get things done. They say they are color-blind and they really didn't notice.''
As for attention to crime, Tito said his organization has been doing that since its inception. "We've been in the forefront of fighting crime,'' he said.
• • •
The Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association has a new president, Betty Hayes, 59, and she is hoping for a detente between the two groups.
"We got hurt feelings on both sides,'' she said. "We got the younger people who know what to do and we got older people who want it done. If we could work together, it would be a great thing.''
There's plenty of work to do.
Kelly, the pioneer, is distraught about Bartlett Park's most recent murder. Little Paris Whitehead-Hamilton was an innocent. She didn't hurt anybody, she said.
"I lost a grandchild at 13 and it really hit me losing our youth at that age,'' she said.
Kelly said she's not giving up on the neighborhood she moved into 42 years ago.
She vows to keep "talking to people and praying.''
Times researcher Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.