ST. PETERSBURG — The TyRon Lewis Memorial Garden on 16th Street S was meant to be a haven for reflection and peace in an area often plagued by violence.
Instead, community leaders said the garden has become a gathering spot for drug dealers, drug abusers and other criminals attracted to an adjacent liquor store whose owner has refused to help clean up the problem.
The crime-ridden scene troubles business leaders along the busy commercial corridor who wonder why such activity is tolerated in Midtown, an area city leaders have pledged to rid of crime and poverty. It has sparked debate about who's to blame: police or property owners who refuse to cooperate.
Now, at least one business owner said he plans to sue the city for negligence if it doesn't step up police enforcement. And others say they are growing tired of calling police to complain about the area.
"We are on the eve of a World Series with thousands and thousands of people. What kind of image are we displaying?" said former City Council member David Welch, who owns Welch Accounting on 16th Street a block away and has threatened to sue the city. "This should not be happening."
Morning or night, crowds of mostly men can be found sitting in the garden on plastic lawn chairs, drinking, selling drugs or brawling.
Police were called to the area 131 times in 2007. That number has already climbed to 162 so far this year, with at least 40 people arrested near the garden for crimes such as public drinking, battery and drug possession. Most of the incidents occurred at That Dam New York Liquor Store at 1443 16th St. S according to police records.
Property owners fear the spurts of crime are spreading.
Welch said he installed a new alarm system because he believes men from the garden broke into his accounting business three times this summer. Someone stole the plants outside his front door.
Someone also stole plants from the garden at Front Porch, a nonprofit that helps people find jobs and teaches children how to grow herbs and vegetables.
"Anything tangible, they pick up," said executive director Lolita Dash. "I'm like, 'What can they possibly do with plants?' So you know it's drug related. They sell anything."
But city attorney Al Milton Galbraith said he isn't aware of any complaints about the area. The city's nuisance abatement board can close a troubled property for a year, but rarely takes such severe action because it exposes the city to potential lawsuits, Galbraith said.
Police said they regularly patrol the area, but need the community's help.
"We don't want to post an officer there to baby-sit the property," said police Maj. Hope Crews. "It's private property. There is no law for people who are just sitting there carrying on business that is noncriminal."
But Robert Creal, who owns the vacant lot where the garden is located, said he is too afraid to confront the men who frequent his property. Creal, 82, allowed the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement to rename part of the lot the TyRon Lewis garden in 2001.
Crews said Creal has declined to issue a blanket trespass order, which would give police the authority to have people removed from the property. Creal said he isn't convinced police will protect him.
"The police want me to come out there and attack these people," he said. "I can't do anything about people selling drugs. My life wouldn't be worth a penny if I had a hole in me."
Police and residents say the men hanging out at the garden are buying liquor and cigarettes next door at the liquor store, opened two years ago by Alan Heron.
Crews said Heron also refused to help curb crime on 16th Street. Heron could not be reached for comment.
Elected officials said they aren't sure how to address the problem.
"I'm struggling a little bit. What can we do?" said City Council member Karl Nurse, who represents Midtown. "We just need to keep trying different tactics and see what works."
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he has been trying for years to persuade Heron to change the store's name.
"To me, the name alone is violence, it's profanity. The average white community or affluent community would not stand for that kind of thing being put up," said Rouson. "He basically cussed me out and told me to get out of his store."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.