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Chunky Sunday divides Clearwater's North Greenwood neighborhood

CLEARWATER

The music of rapper Rich Homie Quan pumped out of the black Thunderbird with 28-inch rims at the intersection of Engman Street and N Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, while a mostly 20-something crowd talked, danced and laughed.

Suddenly, many in the crowd of about 300 started running in unison, ducking and moving fast.

"What happened? What happened?" asked a young woman on the corner. "Did you see what happened?"

No one seemed to know. A Clearwater police officer, one of two stationed in patrol cars nearby, came on foot to investigate. Within moments, the crowd drifted back to parking lots by Wick City Grill and Big Jim's Bar-B-Q and the party started up again. The officer walked back to his car.

Welcome to Chunky Sunday, a peaceful social gathering with a bit of an edge.

City officials, neighborhood residents and police are struggling to find a way to keep an event under control that is full of unknowns: Who is organizing Chunky Sunday in Clearwater's North Greenwood neighborhood? How many people will show up any given Sunday? Who should pay for the extra police, trash collection and parking enforcement?

Chunky Sunday has long been a tradition in the historic black neighborhood, North Greenwood residents say.

Similar events, sometimes also called Chunky Sunday, have popped up in St. Petersburg and Tampa over the past 15 or so years, with the numbers of participants rising and falling. St. Petersburg's gatherings peaked in 1998 with as many as 6,000 weekly participants, some coming from as far away as Tallahassee and Miami.

Starting in April, when an unknown promoter came to North Greenwood's Cherry Harris Park with a busload of strippers, Clearwater's Chunky Sunday gatherings swelled to several thousand. That brought the attention of police and the city manager and upset some neighbors, who balked at the noise, traffic, blocked driveways and partying.

City Manager Bill Horne wants somebody to "step up and take responsibility" for the gatherings, which in recent weeks have shrunk dramatically.

No one has.

Police have made just three arrests so far this year: one for disorderly conduct and two for firing a gun into the air. The crowd is loud — it's a party after all — but it's orderly.

Last week, a Tampa Bay Times reporter saw no fights. Heard no gunshots. But there was lots of drinking out of plastic cups, and the night air was strongly scented with marijuana.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about Chunky Sunday. Problem is, those opinions don't align.

"You want me to go left," said Clearwater police Chief Anthony Holloway at a recent North Greenwood meeting, pointing to one person after another who had offered ideas on how to tackle Chunky Sunday. "You want me to go right. And you want me to stay center."

Some neighborhood residents want the party to stop, or at least get tamer.

"It's totally out of control. They fight, there's loud music, they ride their cars up and down the street. The whole community has to step up and make something like this stop," said Maurice Mickens, president of the North Greenwood Community Coalition.

But other residents see officials' effort to contain Chunky Sunday by limiting parking and expanding police presence to be a new chapter in what they regard as the slow strangling of North Greenwood by the city. Some residents think the city covets the area north of downtown Clearwater for development.

They say Chunky Sunday attracts people from around Tampa Bay and their money helps support the few surviving North Greenwood businesses in what had once been a bustling commercial strip along N Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

"The city is trying to kill off this area," said Talmadge Rutledge, 84, who has lived in North Greenwood his entire life.

Most agree that parking is now the major problem with Chunky Sunday. Some neighbors have complained that they're blocked in on Sunday nights. Other residents are angry that police have chained up church parking lots near the gathering and blocked off others with yellow tape normally reserved for crime scenes.

"All you see is yellow tape like someone got murdered," said Chantala Simmons, 43.

Even some people who don't attend Chunky Sunday are unhappy with the city.

"I feel like we're under siege or held hostage in our own community," said Harry Preston, 62, who disagrees with the parking restrictions.

Most Chunky Sundaygoers didn't want to speak on the record. But about a dozen of them, mostly in their mid 20s, expressed frustration that their gathering was receiving so much critical scrutiny, while spring break on Clearwater Beach, which attracts mostly white crowds, is celebrated.

But those frustrations are outweighed by the fun. That's what brings Brittny Farewell, a 19-year-old Pinellas Park resident, to the neighborhood.

It's a destination. A place to dress up, show off and socialize.

"To see and be seen," she said.

What started as a giant party in Cherry Harris Park a few months ago has now shifted to the intersection of Engman and MLK, where two businesses — Wick City Grill and Big Jim's Bar-B-Q — support the gathering.

Ginger Grant, who owns Wick City Grill, paused while serving a constant flow of customers ordering burgers, shrimp and chicken wings, to estimate she made about $1,000 on Sundays — a lot more than she takes in any other day of the week.

Big Jim's also does a thriving business on Sunday nights.

At Thursday's City Council meeting, Holloway said the Police Department had identified parking lots that could be opened to accommodate the crowd. He said police would continue to educate Chunky Sundaygoers about loud music and illegal parking.

"It's not a public safety issue, it's a quality-of-life issue," Holloway said.

As for the marijuana smoking and drinking on the street, Holloway said that if his officers see a violation, they'll enforce the law. But wading into a big crowd to search out drugs and alcohol isn't going to happen.

"I'm not going to put my officers in that position," he said.

Holloway has talked repeatedly about finding "common ground" between supporters and opponents of Chunky Sunday. That's the most workable solution, said Jonathan Wade, a member of the North Greenwood Community Coalition.

"I'm not going to advocate for anything to stop. We need to do a better job of creating something ... so they don't feel like we're taking everything away. But it needs to be wholesome, it needs to be constructive," Wade said.

Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow @CharlieFrago on Twitter. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters, or mail letters to 1130 Cleveland St., Suite 100, Clearwater, FL 33755.

Chunky Sunday divides Clearwater's North Greenwood neighborhood 06/21/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 21, 2013 7:26pm]
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