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It's time to make good on promises made to south Brooksville

I was amazed to learn that county leaders who plan to fix up south Brooksville barely knew about a squandered federal grant that was meant to accomplish this same goal 28 years ago.

It's like a citrus grower saying he'd heard there might have been some pretty bad freezes around here a while back.

So, for a much-needed refresher on local history, I visited Howard Delaine on Friday morning at the barbecue stand he operates out of a converted recreational vehicle on Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard.

A fire blazed in a smoker Delaine had built of concrete blocks outside his RV. Thinking about the planks of ribs he'd be turning out in a few hours, it struck me as a nice place to be on a cold morning.

But it's a far cry from what it once was, said Delaine, 81, and further still from the way it could have been.

The roots of his operation, he said, can be traced to Curly Laster, who ran a famous barbecue restaurant on Rabb Road, the informal name of a stretch of black-owned businesses just south of downtown.

The city of Brooksville forced Laster and all black residents and businesses to move south, partly by passing a 1948 zoning law that prohibited "any person of the negro race'' from living uptown.

Delaine bought the business from Laster at its current location in 1966, and ran it as a nightclub and restaurant that specialized in serving bacon-and-egg breakfasts to fruit pickers before they set off to work.

After the NAACP successfully sued the city, claiming it had neglected south Brooksville, the federal government approved a $2.3-million grant in 1981 to improve the neighborhood's living conditions.

Delaine received architectural plans to refurbish his restaurant and the promise of a low-interest loan to pay for the work. In preparation, he closed his business and gutted the interior, only to be told the pool of money had run dry and, because his building no longer met code, his restaurant could not reopen.

"Yes, sir,'' said Delaine, bundled in a wool jacket. "That's how they did me.''

Residents from all over south Brooksville, which straddles the city-county line, have similar, bitter stories. Most of which was news to County Administrator David Hamilton and county Commissioner Rose Rocco when it came up at a meeting for the current revitalization effort two weeks ago.

They should have known this history. And I don't think they can move on until, as Hamilton said, "we exhume it, clarify it and deal with it.''

Let me pause here to say I was skeptical, when I first heard Hamilton had walked through the neighborhood, that he was talking about "community building'' and preserving "organic'' institutions such as Delaine's stand.

But he's managed to enlist the support of city officials and south Brooksville residents and get them to meet regularly. He's asked for a list of projects that have been done, such as building sidewalks, and that need to be done, such as installing street lights and improving drainage. He has plans to fund this work with money from President-elect Obama's so-called "new'' New Deal.

Hamilton has kept at it, in other words, which is the most important thing. The only way to erase memories of unkept promises, though, is to keep a few.

It's time to make good on promises made to south Brooksville 01/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 12:26pm]
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