The small blue house on the northwest corner of Gooden Crossing and Railroad Avenue sits as it has for more than a half-century. It's the heartbeat of the Baskins area in Ridgecrest, Largo's historically black community, where neighbors still wave to each other as they pass in their cars and gather on porches after work to retreat from the sun-pinching afternoon. Once the neighborhood barbershop and grocery, it's now Just Chillin, a popular hangout that has long worried the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The blue house at 1201 Gooden Crossing has seen the peaks and valleys of a community built on good intentions. Grills on the porch outside smoke ribs and other southern specialities most weekends. Alcohol doesn't appear to be sold inside, but flows freely among those who bring it. Crowds of more than 200 spill out into the streets some weekends, authorities say. Music's in the air, while some in the crowd carry drugs, booze and weapons. To the chagrin of many living in Baskins, Just Chillin is a microcosm for the ongoing challenges faced by black communities across the country.
Likewise, frustration for the Sheriff's Office lies with the residents who won't cooperate with authorities.
From Johnie Helm, who runs the hangout, to scores of residents, both young and old, who deputies say refuse to provide them information for fear of being labeled a snitch, the story of Just Chillin and Baskins is one of mistrust between authorities and residents, drug abuse and gang violence
But community leaders and sheriff's deputies insist the community's outlook is hopeful, even if Just Chillin presents challenges no one is quite yet sure how to solve.
In the past year, Pinellas sheriff's deputies have responded to at least 45 calls at Just Chillin for disturbances ranging from shootings and stabbings to drug deals and wanted persons.
It's part of a mixed legacy in which Just Chillin has at times also served to benefit community members. In 2004, for example, Helm organized a fundraiser at Just Chillin to help a Ridgecrest family whose house had burned down.
The Helms, who own the property, are one of the community's most respected families for the work of the former family patriarch, Chester Gooden, who died in 2001 at age 95. In 2003, Baskin Crossing Road was renamed Gooden Crossing to reflect the work of the longtime activist.
But a growing divide today between family members, community leaders and the Sheriff's Office demonstrates a split in how to change an establishment that most agree perpetuates drugs and violence in a neighborhood still teetering on the edge.
• • •
When Chester Gooden moved from Ocala to Largo in 1936, he bought 10 acres among the citrus groves.
Over time, he sold bits of land to black families frustrated by a segregated housing market. Later, he donated a parcel to help create St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church, which today sits directly adjacent to Just Chillin.
By many accounts, it became his lifelong mission to create an affordable and safe neighborhood for black families to raise their kids. For years, he ran Gooden Grocery Store at 1201 Gooden Crossing.
The neighborhood struggled during the 1980s and '90s, as Chester's grandson, Patrick Helm, remembers. He saw drug deals on the corner as a student in high school. He recalls both the resulting violence and his grandfather's vow to end it. To curb the neighborhood's problems during the 1990s, Chester closed the neighborhood pool hall, which Patrick's brother, Johnie, helped manage at the time.
"My grandfather said, 'I'm not going to let them defeat me,' " Johnie told the St. Petersburg Times in 2003. "He knew that it was either make a change and get the property value back up, or lose what he had fought for for years."
Almost 20 years later, deputies say the hangout again run by Johnie is part of the neighborhood's challenges. Johnie Helm declined to be interviewed for this story.
"If you're looking for someone, the first place you go is Just Chillin," says Deputy Bryan Bingham, who worked the area for more than 10 years.
Deputies rattle off a list of reasons officials could possibly fine or shut down Just Chillin — from fire code violations to running an unregistered or illegal business.
Deputy Mitchell Grissinger has tried contacting the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation about Just Chillin. He says the agency never calls back.
Jennifer Meale, spokeswoman for the agency, says authorities have responded to complaints at the establishment three times since April 2008.
Inspectors never found evidence of wrongdoing, she says. At least one of those complaints came in January from the Friends of Ridgecrest neighborhood association, according to a report.
For deputies like Grissinger, who wade through the near-riotous crowds gathered outside Just Chillin many weekends, a neighborhood without the hangout would be for the better. He was just a few feet away when a person was shot there recently.
"If you were to shut down Just Chillin in Baskins, there is nowhere else to go," Grissinger says. In other words, troublemakers wouldn't have a place to congregate.
For Delores Helm, Chester's daughter and the mother of Patrick and Johnie, the deputies' claims are exaggerated. She lives upstairs at 1201 Gooden Crossing. If things get out of control, she says she's the first one to put a stop to it.
But problems in Baskins run deeper than a single hangout, people who live in Ridgecrest agree.
• • •
James Feazell is a retired Largo High School teacher who now runs Bridging the Achievement Gap, an education and mentoring program at Shiloh Missionary Baptist church, a half-mile from Just Chillin.
Living in Ridgecrest since 1960, he's seen the neighborhood change. The young people, including the loosely organized gang Young Souljas, are more brazen today than in years past, he says. The gang's youngest member is 14, deputies say.
"Young people now have lost fear," Feazell says. "They don't fear God, they don't fear mama. They don't fear anything."
Feazell speaks in passionate, if sometimes preachy tones, throwing an "Amen, brother" into conversations from time to time.
Feazell and Patrick Helm, Chester's grandson, have forged a bond in recent years. For both men, the fate of Ridgecrest is a matter of choice for all who live there.
When Patrick got out of the military years ago and returned to Florida, he moved for a time back to Baskins.
Then three years ago, he moved to Palm Harbor and left behind the community his grandfather helped build. Patrick remembers how Chester Gooden used to tell of problems in the black community and the daunting achievement gap residents in Baskins were facing. "We've fallen behind our own behind," he used to tell Patrick.
When he left, Patrick knew his family might object. On the other hand, he understood the dangers of stray bullets and drug dealers on every corner in Baskins.
"When I get off work, I want to make sure my house is okay, see my wife," Patrick says. "I don't wanna worry about that kind of stuff."
It's that ability to choose, Patrick says, that can serve as both an opportunity and a trap for those in Baskins. It's not that everyone in the neighborhood is to be mistrusted, both Patrick and deputies agree, but Just Chillin has become an easy trap for the fast track to prison.
"God gave us five senses," Patrick says. "Stupidity isn't one of them."
• • •
Both Patrick Helm and Feazell have worked on programs that focus on education and attitude.
Feazell's program, Bridging the Achievement Gap, is as much a lesson in life as it is tutoring in math and English. In tutoring sessions, he shares Bible verses and letters from civil rights leaders with students.
If they don't remember the struggle for equality, he says they're likely to fall into an all-too-easy pit. He shares an old letter between slave-owners with the students:
Don't forget, you must pitch the old black versus the young black male and the young black male versus the old black male. You must use the dark skinned slaves versus the light skinned slaves and the light skinned slaves versus the dark skinned slaves.
Versus is circled and underlined. A rooted legacy of black-on-black violence, Feazell says, sustains the problems at Just Chillin and across the neighborhood.
Residents in Baskins, many mistrustful of deputies who patrol the area, see the Sheriff's Office strategy as simple: arrest everyone it can, lock them up for a bit, release them with no money or skills, only to let recidivism flourish.
• • •
Deputy Mitchell Grissinger knows that even if deputies locked up all the drug dealers and gang members lurking around Baskins and Just Chillin, the problems facing the community wouldn't necessarily go away.
Those problems, in part, are rooted in mistrust between authorities and residents. He doesn't know what caused it initially, but mistrust hinders Grissinger's work every day, he says.
Residents will often only refer to someone's nickname when providing deputies information. They'll tell him what he wants to hear, Grissinger says, then blame the deputies for not preventing a crime in the first place.
Grissinger is part of the Sheriff's Office community policing unit. He says new initiatives to emphasize policing in Ridgecrest are working. Besides routine patrols, Grissinger tries to build relationships with potential informants.
"Hey," Grissinger calls out the cruiser's window one recent evening toward an 18-year-old whom deputies suspect is a drug dealer. "Where's your bike?"
He shrugs his shoulders and keeps walking. The two see other nearly every day as Grissinger patrols the neighborhood.
A few days earlier, the teen shook Grissinger's hand. That was a big step in trust building, Grissinger says.
That night, though, as the 18-year-old keeps walking along the unlit street, Grissinger wonders who might have been watching the young man. He knows it's dangerous to be seen cozying up to cops.
It's quiet a bit later at Just Chillin as Grissinger rolls slowly past. Johnie Helm and a few others are sitting outside.
"Hey, Johnie," Grissinger says. "Can I holler at you for a second?"
They chat for a few minutes, both spitting tobacco on the sidewalk. Johnie's birthday was coming up and Just Chillin would be hopping.
Grissinger needs cooperation from Johnie. Johnie wants to run a business. Deputies wonder who they can trust here. Residents wonder if they can trust the deputies.
Brian Spegele can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4154.