ST. PETERSBURG — In the late hours of dusk, James McDonald, 26, was slain in a parking lot dispute that police say most likely involved drugs.
The March killing was the latest reminder of the brutal drug trade in Childs Park.
It has been nearly two years since Mayor Rick Baker unveiled a sweeping plan to revitalize the troubled neighborhood. But drugs and drug-related violence continue, and the chasm has widened between fed-up residents and city officials who say the neighborhood is getting better.
City officials point to new sidewalks, street signs and recreation facilities as evidence of change.
Residents argue that more action is needed to stop the bloodshed.
"Anybody who travels through this area realizes that this is going on," said Winnie Foster, a Midtown activist. "We have gotten used to, and accept, a certain amount of crime and killings."
More drugs, fewer arrests
Police officials argue that city crime has fallen 12.5 percent so far this year compared with the same period last year. But separate statistics are not kept for Childs Park, long considered the city's main drug enclave.
"We continue to address any narcotics problems as they are (reported) to us," said Maj. John Gardner, a district commander who oversees crime on the west side of the city, including Childs Park.
"I try to tell officers to look at it as if their parents or grandparents were living there, because they don't want their parents or grandparents living next to someone who sells drugs."
But citywide crime statistics provide ambiguous evidence of success.
Police are either doing a better job than ever at combating drugs or there are more drugs on the city's streets today than there were five years ago.
The city seized 635.6 ounces of cocaine and crack cocaine last year, up from 395 ounces in 2006.
Nearly 712 pounds of marijuana were seized last year, a 34 percent increase from 2006, when 532 pounds were seized.
The increase "could be from anything, (from) a large bust to a search warrant to an officer making a lucky catch on the street," Gardner said.
But there are fewer drug arrests — down slightly from 3,383 in 2006 to 3,374 last year.
At the same time, police are pursuing cases less frequently. There were 9,363 cases assigned for followup in 2007, another record low.
Police officials said these numbers reflect natural fluctuations in the city's crime rate.
Perhaps more alarming, residents are reaching out to the police less. Police received 739 calls to their tip line in 2007, a four-year low.
Police try to maintain high visibility throughout the city by attending crime watch meetings and other community events, Gardner said. But he knows that winning over jaded or weary residents can be tough.
"Sometimes these people (drug dealers) are right back on the street in a very short time," he said. "It makes it a lot harder for the residents. They say, 'I just called about him.' "
The Childs Park area — bordered by Second Avenue N, 31st Avenue S, 34th Street and 49th Street — is a mix of newly renovated homes equipped with yard security signs and modest ranch-style homes in need of a new coat of paint.
Residents have struggled to form a crime watch for years but have not been able to attract enough members.
Homeowners describe brazen and frequent drug deals: men and women approaching slow-moving cars, teenagers on bicycles delivering the goods, children gathering on the lawns of known drug houses acting as lookouts.
"It's bad. It is not getting any better," said Brenda Nelson, president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association. "People are being killed.''
At the very least, some fear that the area's crime rate chases away investors and overshadows the positive attributes of a hardworking, diverse neighborhood.
Donald Edwards, owner of Don's Barber Shop at 3600 18th Ave. S, paints a peaceful picture of his neighborhood. Assistant police Chief Luke Williams gets his hair cut at Don's. Edwards keeps an eye on his elderly neighbors just in case.
"Nothing ever happens here," he said.
"The drugs and stuff happens more over on 49th Street."
But the Rev. Robert Ward of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, near Don's Barber Shop, complained to police last week about several hot spots along 18th Avenue S.
Ward is part of Faith and Action for Strength Together, a group of 32 congregations targeting crime.
In April, an illegal teen club next to Don's Barber Shop was shut down after a shooting broke out during the grand opening.
That night, young people flooded the street, cursing and yelling, Edwards said.
No one called the police.
So, what to do?
Providing alternatives for the young men and women tempted by the quick money and power associated with the area's drug trade has become a top Childs Park priority, Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis said.
The city is working on an extension of the Pinellas Trail that would connect Childs Park to Clam Bayou.
A playground was recently added to the Childs Park Sports Complex. A YMCA, complete with a library, is set to open in October.
The city has also stepped up its code enforcement, educating residents about the dos and don'ts of illegal parking and dumping, said Davis, who oversees the city's Childs Park initiative.
"The goal is to uplift Childs Park aesthetically and otherwise," Davis said.
But it is unclear how successful these efforts can be.
Davis said that more funding is needed for drug addiction treatment programs.
The neighborhood association's Brenda Nelson blames a cycle of poverty and low graduation rates.
"These kids say, 'Why take a low- paying job when I can go out and make whatever it is that they make when they are selling drugs?' "
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]
|A matter of interpretation
More drugs are being seized, even though there are fewer arrests, fewer cases being pursued and fewer tips coming in. Police say they are doing a better job. Some residents argue that there are
|Cocaine/crack cocaine seizures||395||636||m|
|Cases assigned for followup||10,252||9,363||n|