One of the first campaign promises new St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman kept was to hire an administrator to oversee economic development for Midtown, the predominantly African-American community south of Central Avenue.
He chose 40-year-old St. Petersburg native Nikki Gaskin-Capehart for the job. Her official title is director of urban affairs. Kriseman also hired 38-year-old Kanika Tomalin, another St. Petersburg native, as deputy mayor. A large part of her job will be to work on projects to improve Midtown. Kriseman has hired two women with proven records of solving problems.
Call me a curmudgeon and a cynic, but I doubt that this dynamic duo can accomplish what needs to be accomplished to reach the mayor's lofty goal of bringing substantial economic improvements to Midtown.
Ironically, the very strengths and advantages these two administrators have — being born and reared here — are their Achilles' heel. Will their deep roots in the community permit them to work effectively, or will those longtime bonds tie their hands, forcing them to do what is safe and acceptable?
Midtown's most serious problems are generational and systemic. These problems include high unemployment, high crime, low graduation rates, a high number of single-parent homes, a high number of out-of-wedlock births and a disproportionately high number of incarcerated males, especially the young. Another debilitating problem is the no-snitch code that enables crime.
How will Gaskin-Capehart and Tomalin effectively deal with such problems? Before they can get anything accomplished, they must accept the reality of their challenge, and then they must engage in unrelenting straight talk, going to the core of the issues that have isolated the area.
They also need to consult the best scholars in sociology, economics, psychology and related fields. They will need to read the best bipartisan studies to aid them in devising sound policies and strategies for the greater good. A commitment to serving the greater good is the key to success. And the greater good includes the rest of the county. After all, many of the projects in Midtown — Sylvia's restaurant, Job Corps and the St. Petersburg College campus — involve large infusions of tax dollars.
The key is to not be naive and cowardly. They must defy taboos. To be effective, Gaskin-Capehart and Tomalin must be willing to openly discuss debilitating cultural traits and trends. As a group, we blacks resist airing our dirty laundry, even when that dirty laundry is toxic.
How, for example, will they handle the legions of uneducated young black males who refuse to work, who take misplaced pride in being hustlers and "playas," who measure manhood by the number of babies they produce? What will Gaskin-Capehart and Tomalin say to this misguided lot? Will they dare say that this is a self-destructive practice that must be eradicated?
What about the ingrained criminality in parts of Midtown? Too many young males think nothing of robbing others or conducting drive-by shootings. What will the two economic czars do about this?
Where will they start: in homes, in schools, on streets, in churches?
How will they tell parents that the love of learning has to start in the home? If adults love learning and teach their children to love learning, doing well in school and beyond becomes a natural fulfillment of the family's expectations. How will Gaskin-Capehart and Tomalin address this essential subject?
And what will they say to the area's army of black clergy? I do not know how many churches there are in Midtown, but in some areas there are three or more near one another. What are preachers doing to materially improve the community?
Will Gaskin-Capehart and Tomalin tell black elected officials to stop being apologists for self destructive behavior or staying silent on such behavior?
Everyone welcomes new businesses to the community. But merely attracting more places to spend money will not solve Midtown's enduring problems. If Midtown is to change, the people there must change. Gaskin-Capehart, Tomalin and Kriseman must acknowledge this.
They also must acknowledge that as long as Midtown is perceived as being a dangerous ghetto, it will remain isolated from the rest of the city and continue to struggle economically.