TAMPA — University of South Florida anthropology professor Susan Greenbaum has spent years roaming East Tampa and asking residents what holds their communities together.
Poor neighborhoods, she says, have more "social capital" — friendships, informal networks, shared traditions and groups that provide mutual aid — than many outsiders realize.
In Belmont Heights Estates, Greenbaum and her colleagues found that a big part of the answer to their question is volunteer Billi Griffin. That, in turn, has led to a partnership that helps both residents and USF students.
Griffin, 72, works 60 or more unpaid hours a week for the Belmont Heights Estates Resident Association. A thin and energetic woman who rarely sits down, she runs the senior center. She started a community food pantry. And she knows the 825-family community, especially its 125-plus households with older residents — their names, their schedules and their needs.
"She doesn't hear well, so you have to bang real hard," Griffin told a volunteer who was heading out to one resident's home on a recent weekday afternoon.
That day, Griffin's volunteers were handing out or delivering brown paper bags of donated frozen turkeys, corn bread stuffing mix, a few pieces of produce and canned sweet potatoes. The office smelled like fresh celery, and the delivery team included USF doctoral candidate Brett Mervis, 32, a guy valued around Belmont Heights Estates more for his pickup truck than his scholarship.
"Really, I just try to be a resource for Miss Billi," he said.
The USF faculty members and students are here as part of a community service-learning project that arose from the research done by Greenbaum and others.
By working to help meet residents' needs, USF students get hands-on lessons on working with community groups, marshaling resources and understanding life in redeveloped communities.
Belmont Heights Estates is less than a decade old. Though just a few minutes' drive north of downtown Tampa, it has curving suburban-style streets featuring Victorian-style street lamps, homes with inviting front porches and neatly trimmed lawns.
The neighborhood's homes and bungalow-style duplexes replaced the battered apartment buildings and bare-dirt courtyards of the old Ponce de Leon and College Hill Homes public housing complexes.
Tampa housing officials used a $32.5 million federal HOPE VI grant in an effort to tear down the slum and replace it with a more mixed neighborhood of working-class and middle-income residents. The plan included giving about a quarter of the residents in the old complexes rental vouchers to move elsewhere. The goal was both to reduce the density of the community and free some space for new businesses.
Since the early 1990s, the HOPE VI program, which stands for Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, has used or announced plans to use such grants to demolish about 115,000 public housing units nationwide.
But while Belmont Heights Estates looks a lot better than College Hill and Ponce de Leon, Greenbaum and others have found that much of the old community's social capital has been lost.
"When you move people around, those kinds of relationships are necessarily ruptured," Greenbaum said.
And that makes Billi Griffin's work all the more important, she said.
Belmont Heights Estates is a more mixed community than the public housing complexes that it replaced, Greenbaum said, but its highest incomes are really "not very high." What's more, the elderly tend to be the poorest residents of the community.
"They're living in a much nicer environment, but they still have a lot of unmet needs," she said.
Griffin acts as an advocate for residents dealing with the community's private management company. She makes sure older residents come in to the clinic at the senior center, which was once a rental office. And she organizes neighborhood fundraisers and scrounges donations to the food pantry.
"The one thing that Miss Billi does in this community is she is hands-on," said Alicia Banks, the coordinator of social services and programs for Interstate Realty Management Co., the private management company for Belmont Heights Estates. "She'll call me and tell me, 'Miss So-and-So needs services. Can you help?' "
Perhaps not coincidentally, that's one thing that Banks, a 2000 graduate of USF, learned when she took a class from Greenbaum.
"She emphasized that we had to want to be hands-on in any project that we wanted to do," she said.
And that's a guiding principle of the Belmont Heights Estates Senior Village Project, a collaboration between USF's department of anthropology, office of community engagement and the community's residents association.
"We are definitely committed to working with them in whatever way works for them," Greenbaum said. For one thing, she wants to provide more continuity of support, so that students stay with the project after their coursework is done at the end of the semester.
But the USF scholars also say Griffin and the food pantry could use broader and steadier support from the public.
"Billi is really to be commended for the amount of effort and ingenuity she has put into it," Greenbaum said. "But they've struggled. If there were a way to give more formal support to the food pantry, they wouldn't be so dependent on raising funds among themselves."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.