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Out of the spotlight, blighted Tampa neighborhoods seek attention, too

TAMPA — The national spotlight is aimed directly at Tampa, with thousands of journalists in town for the Republican National Convention.

But it's what they won't see that has some community activists concerned.

West Tampa, East Tampa, Sulphur Springs, Robles Park. Neighborhoods filled with crime, poverty and foreclosures — untouched by the money and glamour that accompanies the RNC.

"This is what the city doesn't want the media to see," said event organizer Kelly Benjamin, who put together a media tour Saturday of "the other side of Tampa."

While the city spent more than $2.7 million on landscaping work downtown and along Bayshore Boulevard ahead of the convention, low-income areas were largely ignored, Benjamin said.

In East Tampa, where the tour began, empty storefronts and weeds dominate the view.

"There's just no economic development," said tour leader and Robles Park resident Life Malcolm, who was with the media caravan as it left Ybor City and headed north.

Businesses that are open include beauty salons, liquor stores and small grocery markets. Dozens of others have boarded windows.

Even the Tampa Police Department's District 3 headquarters, built in 2007, is an example of community dollars that could have been better spent, Malcolm said.

"Instead of investing money in storefronts or new businesses, the city builds a police station," he said. "We're already the most policed area in the city. If more policing was the answer, we wouldn't have this problem."

Young people are particularly affected, Malcolm said.

"When they leave their high school campus, they don't see opportunity, all they see is hopelessness," he said.

The problems are just as acute in Sulphur Springs, where overgrown weeds on some streets hide entire homes.

"There are pockets that are really nice," said Ed Ross, founder of Community Stepping Stones, a nonprofit learning center. "Other areas look like war zones."

Every so often, city officials and politicians visit the area, said Yolanda Edmond, a Sulphur Springs resident. "But they don't do anything after they get here."

A few blocks south, in Seminole Heights, a group of activists decided to tackle the problem on their own.

The Poor People Economic Human Rights Campaign, founded by Green Party vice presidential candidate Cheri Honkala, took over a foreclosed home. A group of activists cleaned up the inside, mowed the lawn and moved a homeless couple in.

The group has no legal claim on the house, which is owned by Chase Bank. Still, Honkala said it's the right thing to do.

"It's really an archaic idea that men, women and children are sleeping on the streets when there are so many abandoned properties," Honkala said. "This is a modern-day underground railroad."

What happens if authorities step in and charge the new tenants with trespassing?

"We will challenge that," Honkala said. "Sometimes we are given concessions. Sometimes we go to jail."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

Out of the spotlight, blighted Tampa neighborhoods seek attention, too 08/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 25, 2012 9:50pm]
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