In front of the Preston Avenue S home where Paris Whitehead-Hamilton lived and died, two dozen volunteers busied themselves planting 55 native flowers and shrubs. They hardly noticed the holes left by 53 bullets that still pockmarked the small cinderblock house and a red Dodge Neon in the carport. On April 5, three of those bullets struck and killed 8-year-old Paris.
The volunteers worked in silence Saturday, bending over to rip the tired lawn and viburnum bushes from this devastated patch of earth. Shenita Joseph, Paris' aunt and legal guardian, returned to the street for the first time since the shooting. She paced, mostly in silence.
"It's a new beginning. It's a new birth," said Joseph, 42, who no longer lives in the house. "It's a celebration because, even though she's gone, look at all these people."
They call it a "Paris Garden," and hope it will symbolize rebirth in the crime-plagued Bartlett Park neighborhood as much as it memorializes the loss of an innocent life. Already, three have been planted — one at Paris' grandmother's home on 13th Street S, the other just steps away at 783 Preston Ave. S, where Paris' godmother lives.
The front yard garden project follows other efforts in recent months to galvanize the community in the wake of tragedy. Months after vigils and antiviolence marches were held on Preston Avenue, the city is considering renaming the street in Paris' memory. In recent months, the Bartlett Park crime watch group has also increased patrols and outreach to combat drugs and violence.
It was a gang-related feud that led to the shooting, police said. Three men have been indicted on first-degree murder charges, and another is under investigation.
This summer, almost a dozen Paris Gardens are to be planted in Bartlett Park, and many of them will be vegetable gardens so homeowners can grow their own food. The materials and labor are donated. Though there is a waiting list for Bartlett Park, organizers hope to extend the program into other neighborhoods. The cost of the plants is partly covered by donations.
"We think our neighborhoods should be providing for us," said Andrea Hildebran, executive director of Green Florida, a nonprofit group that created the project and the Bartlett Park Community Garden on Newton Road. "They should provide a safe environment, and having front yard gardens is something that we think will give people pride in their environment, and give people a way to take back their streets, to feel more safe."
They used native plants and flowers you may not find at your big box store, specimens like beach sunflowers, coral honeysuckle, pineland lantana, Spanish stopper, sunshine mimosa and tropical sage. Native plants "create ecology" by attracting wildlife and adding nutrients to the soil, said Michael Manlowe of Twigs and Leaves garden center, 1013 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S, who is donating labor and materials for the project. Native plants also require less watering and no fertilizer, he said.
Few of the volunteers on Saturday were true natives, however.
A crew of 10 work-release program participants from Goodwill Industries in Largo did most of the heavy work. Linda Crockett, a teacher who oversees gardens at St. Petersburg High School and lives in Snell Isle, planted flowers. So did Barbara Heck, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, also from Snell Isle. Emily Vaultonburg, a teacher at Woodlawn Elementary who lives in Shore Acres, came with several of her family members and friends.
A Preston Avenue neighbor, Clarence Jenkins, joined in for some of the heavy lifting before leaving for work. He said his stepson was friends with Paris. Jenkins said the house has attracted gawkers, and he was glad they would now have something nice to see.
Across the street, several men on a front porch began talking about the cycle of violence: poor educations, too many guns, too few jobs. The garden is a good thing, they agreed, but more should be done.
Mulch was being laid down in the garden, where the sounds were of laughter and laments about the hot rising sun.
"I think anything that people do like this is an act of love," said Vaultonburg, 28. "And I think that we're planting a seed of love and kind of thinking that it will spread."
Luis Perez can be reached at (727)892-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.