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Palm River's uptick in crime contrasts most of Hillsborough

Jamal Groom, 7, smiles during a spelling bee at an after-school program run by the Greater Palm River POINT Community Development Corporation at Keeney United Methodist Church recently.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Jamal Groom, 7, smiles during a spelling bee at an after-school program run by the Greater Palm River POINT Community Development Corporation at Keeney United Methodist Church recently.

PALM RIVER

Horses graze in a front yard, and hawks prowl from power pole to power pole in this quiet enclave east of U.S. 41 and just north of Progress Village.

But Hillsborough County crime statistics for 2009 portray an entirely different experience for the people who live next to the serene Palm River dotted with bridges and brimming with catfish.

In 2009, crime decreased countywide but increased 4.8 percent in Palm River/Clair-Mel.

Jose and Michelle Hernandez said they don't have to go farther than their driveway on S 58th Street to see the problem in their Palm River neighborhood.

"Hookers have gotten picked up at the end our driveway," Michelle Hernandez, 41, said. The couple has three children and keeps a padlock and chain on their 3-foot fence.

The homemaker says she sees the prostitutes when she drops off her daughters at school early in the morning.

But that's not as big a problem as the drugs, Jose Hernandez, 46, said.

He pointed out several places where dealers set up shop. He suspects one of his neighbors runs a drug house.

"There is no neighborhood crime watch," Jose Hernandez said. "If there was, we would probably have a neighborhood vigilante to picket outside (the suspected drug house) and try to burn it down."

Palm River wasn't always like this for them.

Hernandez, a Coca-Cola factory worker, built his home five years ago on two of the six acres his father owned on S 58th Street.

"Our biggest worry in this neighborhood used to be that the (neighbor's) cows would get loose and eat all our plants in the back yard," Michelle Hernandez said.

They still enjoy the camaraderie with most of their neighbors and the proximity of nature.

"We've got everything here. Chickens, roosters, whippoorwills, hawks, eagles owls," Hernandez said. "We do have a red tail fox that has been stealing chickens. But this has always been a nice place."

Commissioner Kevin White said over the past year of visits to the area he has noticed an increase in the number of vacant houses in the once-thriving neighborhood.

"The Sheriff's Office is inundated and foreclosures and non-stakeholders, the renters, and the vacant properties in the area are causing a lot of the issues," he said.

White said he hasn't heard any complaints about prostitution in the area but neighbors do call his office with complaints about noise, speeders and people hanging out.

Jose Hernandez agreed.

"We had a neighborhood sheriff here for a while and he stayed on top of it, but it's slowly been coming back because so many houses are in foreclosure," he said.

That economic disparity makes the Greater Palm River POINT Community Development Corporation more important than ever, said Anthea Henderson, its director.

The nonprofit founded by community members in 1996 in conjunction with the Hillsborough County Children's Board provides programs and opportunities for youth as well as guidance for adults and an ad-hoc community center.

"We're here for everybody but we mostly serve the folks in that 33619 ZIP code," she said.

Even before the economic downturn, Palm River was a place in need of help, the 47-year-old former Head Start employee said.

The POINT's leadership knocked on doors for two years to come up with a community plan that included bringing sewer lines to the area and making it affordable to hook into them, building a relationship with law enforcement, creating community centers and making areas without sidewalks bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

Hillsborough County Commissioners adopted the plan in 2008 but didn't fund it, Henderson said.

So it has been up to the POINT to apply for grants to try and make the detailed plan a reality.

In the meantime, POINT runs an after-school program for third- to fifth-graders and computer courses for adults, children and teens out of its office in the Palm River Road shopping center at 78th Street.

A partnership with Keeney United Methodist Church allows the small organization to take in some children every year, identify their weaknesses in school and address them.

"We act as an intermediary with the schools sometimes because parents don't know how to approach that situation," Henderson said. "Sometimes they get frustrated. And we kind of step in."

Neighbors stream in and out of the office space, several in an hour. Some use the community computers. Others chat or pick up the latest information on upcoming events.

Two doors down, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's substation opened the doors and a civilian officer greeted every guest.

Henderson said only one deputy works in the office, but he's doing an excellent job of patrolling.

"The office closed for a while, and we didn't even notice until people started to come and ask us what happened to them," she said.

She blames the slight increase of crime more on the recession than a lack of law enforcement presence.

"Crime has always been an issue," she said. "But there are good parents here, and this is a good neighborhood."

The uptick in crime isn't apparent everywhere.

There has been a decrease in the number of teens standing on his corner, said Antonio Johnson, who lives on S 12th Avenue.

The 47-year-old pharmacy technician said he moved from Progress Village to Palm River 10 years ago to become a homeowner.

"I see sheriff's (deputies) patrolling the area. When I first moved here there used to be people hanging out on the corner, but not anymore," Johnson said.

Johnson said his neighbors keep to themselves most times.

To him, the major crimes that have happened in his community are just passing rumblings and fodder for the nightly news. It doesn't stop Johnson from strapping on some headphones, grabbing a rake and walking out into his front yard for an afternoon of hard work.

"It's a pretty good neighborhood. No worse than the rest of the neighborhoods in the county," he said.

Carlos Martinez also said Palm River is much better now than when he moved in 19 years ago.

"They had a lot of homeless hanging around," the 49-year-old Port of Tampa worker said.

Martinez said he was attracted to living in Palm River when he moved from Chicago because he liked communities with potential.

"There's a great waterfront view, and you can just sit outside and sip coffee and enjoy the beautiful river, Martinez said.

But it wasn't without its faults.

Six years ago, someone broke into his home at the River Bay Mobile Home Park.

"He stole my TV, PlayStation, some jewelry and my home computer, little petty things he could carry," Martinez recalled.

Weary of the lack of neighbor involvement, Martinez started a word-of-mouth campaign to get neighbors to keep a look out and help catch the thief. People were able to identify the thief as someone from the neighborhood when he struck again. They shared their information with Martinez and the Sheriff's Office.

"He did go to jail for some time," Martinez said. "But unfortunately, he's back out in the neighborhood."

To keep the momentum going, Martinez ran for president of the homeowners' association and made changes once he was elected.

Residents started using the clubhouse for meetings and events such as Easter egg hunts and other activities for children. Martinez said getting the parents involved changed the mobile home park entirely.

Martinez says Greater Palm River POINT has been there to bridge the gap for some teens, such as his two sons and his granddaughter, but more could be done to exorcise the demons that haunt his community.

The speeders, the dealers and rumored prostitutes are all just a symptom of the same problem, Martinez said.

"This is a high-poverty community with a lot of single parents," he explained. "A lot of times. . . .They don't know what resources are available to them."

Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or rmitchell@sptimes.com.

Palm River's uptick in crime contrasts most of Hillsborough 04/08/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 8, 2010 3:54pm]
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