Brooksville's racism no longer a barrier to the Good Neighbor Trail project

Maybe you remembered that Tuesday was the 19th anniversary of a terrible event in Brooksville's history, the death of Russell Coats.

Coats, who was white, was killed in a fight after groups of white and black young people squared off as though they belonged to enemy tribes. This was followed by lots of uncomfortable talk from officials who said Brooksville wasn't a particularly racist place — a message undermined by regular folks of both races who couldn't describe the fight without spewing slurs.

I think about this every year, and every year it seems as though that kind of old-fashioned, hateful racism has become less and less obvious.

Which is not to say it's gone, or it doesn't remain in other forms, which brings me to another of my longtime preoccupations: the Good Neighbor Trail.

After at least 13 years of talking, work has finally begun on this bike trail that will someday link Brooksville with the Withlacoochee State Trail.

On Russell Street, off S Brooksville Avenue, you can see yellow road graders and silt fencing. Running east to Jasmine Road is a gravel bed due to be paved by the fall. The city of Brooksville has started building a restroom at the trailhead on Russell, and today opens bids to build a nearby walking path.

Wonderful. But why did it take so long? Lots of reasons. But one is the attitude of folks east of the city. Instead of seeing the trail as asset and clamoring for it be built, some of them saw it as "pipeline'' to the mostly poor, mostly black neighborhood of south Brooksville, said Vice Mayor Lara Bradburn, who has been on the trail's advisory committee for more than a decade.

"The people out at the forest, they had some concerns that it would bring adverse traffic,'' she said. "They were concerned about a bad element entering their neighborhood.''

And what, exactly, does "adverse traffic'' mean? This is as tough to decipher as the motives of white urbanites who fled to the suburbs when I was a kid. In living rooms, you heard about race; in public, you heard about crime and property values.

If those are the real worries, Bradburn has helped dispel them. In 1996, as a reporter with Hernando Today, she examined crime in the most dangerous neighborhoods along the Pinellas Trail. In every case, it decreased once the trail had been built. Cyclists and walkers tend to be law-abiding. Once trails draw a steady stream of them, Bradburn said, they became a "crime watch mechanism.''

Also, real estate agents told her they couldn't keep houses near the trail in stock. And the buyers who wanted trail access tended to be "quality people — people who appreciate the outdoors, people who exercise and who usually have the financial wherewithal to improve their properties.''

It's nice to have actual proof for a claim I've made before: that trails and the access they bring are nothing to fear. That message seems to be getting out, Bradburn said. "We've met with people several times, and they seem to understand it a lot better.''

Of course, this doesn't mean the trail will be finished anytime soon, and it doesn't excuse the city and county from blowing a grant last year that could have more than doubled the funds available for the project.

Still, its start is a sign of progress. And I'm not just talking about construction.

Brooksville's racism no longer a barrier to the Good Neighbor Trail project 05/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 21, 2009 5:48pm]

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