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Citrus Grove complex has troubled history

ST. PETERSBURG — With a new interstate poised to slice through the city's African-American community, the Rev. Enoch Davis had a vision of building a housing complex for displaced low-income residents.

The seven-building apartment complex completed in 1972 would initially be known as Bethel Community Heights, taking its name from Davis' church. Years later, in dire need of a makeover and sporting new paint, the complex that had earned the nickname "crack haven" was optimistically rechristened Citrus Grove Apartments.

The $1.3 million transformation was superficial.

Nicholas Lemmon Lindsey, charged with killing police officer David Crawford on Monday, called the complex home.

It's also where Demarlis Melvin killed a man in a drive-by shooting. And it's where one of those accused of killing Paris Whitehead-Hamilton lived.

Surrounded on three sides by a concrete fence, the complex apartments is painted a shade of mustard. Grass and weeds struggle to survive. Broken blinds hang at many windows, while a few valiantly display neat curtains. In the middle of it all is a new, small play gym for children.

Danielle Knause, 26, grew up in Citrus Grove and moved back three years ago with her children, ages 8, 7 and 3. She has noticed a change.

"It's just not the same," said Knause, a customer service representative. "I can't say I let my kids play outside by themselves … at the same time, everybody here is family."

The complex has a reputation of drug activity and other crime. It's been the home-turf for a group that calls itself the Bethel Heights Boys, authorities have said.

The young men hang out mostly at back of the complex. Wednesday, about eight huddled over a scratched electrical box slamming dominoes. Most wore long white T-shirts, long shorts and slippers similar to those worn by Lindsey. They declined to be interviewed.

Curtis Glover, 45, who lives with his girlfriend and three children, doesn't like the loitering. "They are smoking weed constantly drinking," he said.

Girlfriend Lisa McCray, 34, said she was desperate when she took the apartment.

"If I had known, I would have waited. I don't let my kids play in the playground," she said.

Some residents say they've seen signs of improvement. An on-site laundry room opened last summer. Crews repaired roofs and installed lighting. Rules about visitors were tightened.

But perhaps the biggest change, residents said, was the demolishing of the back wall of the complex to improve visibility.

"When we came in, believe me, there was a lot of crime," said Brittany Walsh, marketing director for Royal American Management, a Panama City-based business that started running the complex in January 2010. "We did a bunch of little rehabs."

Jimmie Myrick, 74, worked on the construction crew that built the complex. Sitting with his door open this week, the former Marine said he was not surprised the person charged in Monday's killing lived there.

When his grandchildren visit, they are not allowed outside. But he is not afraid, Myrick said.

"I went through three wars – segregation war, civil rights war and I fought three and a half years in Korea and 18 months in Vietnam. They can't intimidate me. I'm too old to run and too old to die,'' he said.

Meanwhile, the owners are getting ready to sell the property.

Davis' church lost its majority membership on the board over the years, said the Rev Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community. In 1996 the board borrowed about $1.3 million from HUD for renovations. The new management company was hired "at HUD's insistence,'' Gloria Shanahan, a HUD spokeswoman said.

Now with a board consisting of a majority of Bethel Community Church members, there are plans to sell and start another project, probably for senior citizens, Sykes said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and Times writers David DeCamp and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

Citrus Grove complex has troubled history 02/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 8:53pm]
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