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St. Petersburg renames street Paris Avenue in honor of slain girl

ST. PETERSBURG — The worker removed the old sign, green and small and dusty. He set it on the pavement.

Preston Av S.

Aunts, friends, people who spent decades living in this neighborhood, stood in the sun and watched. Some took pictures. Some clapped and declared that somewhere, a little girl was smiling. Some studied it in silence.

The worker planted the new sign, green and big and shiny.

Paris Av S.

• • •

Paris Whitehead-Hamilton died one year ago. She was 8.

More than 50 bullets burst through the windows as she slept in her Preston Avenue home. Three bullets pierced her back. A gang fight, police said.

In life, Paris was a bright second-grader at Imagine Charter School who loved nail polish, Skittles, tiaras and reading.

In death, Paris was a hallowed icon. A vestige of streets gone wild.

The outraged masses marched with her photograph on posters. They shouted slogans. Hugs Not Guns. Enough Is Enough. Stop the Violence. Take Back Our Community.

Activists pleaded to break the anti-snitching code. The city started a gun bounty program, paying for tips about illegal weapons. With help from federal agents, hundreds have been recovered.

While gun crime in the city is still routine, it dropped in 2009. Preston Avenue, which stretches from Fourth Street S to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S, got a little quieter, people said.

"I stayed on this street for 10 years," said Altamease Simpson, 49, a family friend who used to play with Paris. "My house got shot. It's better now. People don't speed down the street as much."

After her death, City Council member Karl Nurse introduced a measure to name Preston Avenue for Paris. NAACP St. Petersburg branch president Ray Tampa, the Rev. Prentiss John Davis and Paris' family pushed for it. Changing addresses could be an inconvenience, but Davis said it would help the city "get back to loving each other, holding each other, honoring each other."

"It's a rebirth of the street, it's a rebirth of the neighborhood," Mayor Bill Foster said at Monday's ceremony. "And it's a commitment by council member Nurse and by my administration to make sure that we deliver on all the promises we made."

Nearby, Paris' house was still riddled with bullet holes.

A nonprofit group, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, announced plans to repair and update 50 houses in the area, including the one where Paris lived. Shenita Williams, Paris' aunt and guardian, moved into an apartment after the shooting. When the house is renovated, she pledged to return.

"You have good days and you have bad days," said Williams, 43. "You have to keep moving forward and think about the happy times. This is me saying, 'I'm not running.' I'm going back."

Projects bearing the little girl's name filled the Frank H. Pierce Recreation Center. People from Green Florida and Twigs and Leaves Nursery spoke of the "Paris Gardens" they have planted in Bartlett Park front yards. Children's drawings from the Florida Holocaust Museum's "Paris Project" lined the walls. And baker Eric Atwater rode a golf cart advertising a cookie named for Paris.

The challenge now? Making the momentum last.

"Yes, the community stood up, said Ray Tampa. "But the community must stay standing."

• • •

Margot Nelson stared at the new sign. She nodded and talked quietly to herself. She has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years and had met Paris. She's afraid to let her 16-year-old daughter walk home alone.

"Everyone knows what is going on in the neighborhood," said Nelson, 57. "With this sign up, it lets people know that you have someone in your community who is gone. You did this.

"Now you're going to have to face this."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

St. Petersburg renames street Paris Avenue in honor of slain girl 04/05/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 1:01am]
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