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Waiting for city to see the light

The dark had settled in on Morgan Street, obliterating the familiar outline of houses and porches, trees and backyard sheds.

A dog behind some unseen fence yelped. A teen-ager whooshed through the shadows on a bike. I found myself glancing too often over my shoulder, so I hurried to get into my car and drive home, the night's work done.

This was a few weeks ago. That night, during an interview with some people who live along Morgan Street in Tampa Heights, I heard one complaint several times over: Why won't the city of Tampa fix the street lights to make the neighborhood safer?

There was at that moment another column to be written about Tampa Heights, the rundown neighborhood atop a hill overlooking downtown. So the question of the street lights was shelved for another day and another chance to ponder it in print.

I raise the question now in memory of Lilly Franklin.

Last week, in West Tampa, Lilly Franklin was stabbed to death as she left for work. Before she died _ the fourth black woman to be stabbed to death in West Tampa recently _ Lilly Franklin complained repeatedly to the city about the overgrown lot next door, which was thick with brush and garbage and a criminal's perfect hiding place.

The city didn't respond, even though the city owned the lot. The city owns 400 others like it. There are many more, privately owned, similarly sinking in trash and neglect. The city says it can't afford to clean them up.

I read that, and I understand. I just can't accept it.

If a government _ especially a government like Sandy Freedman's, that has spent so much time, talk and money on neighborhoods _ cannot provide a basic service like this, either something is out of kilter in City Hall or it ought to do the politically incorrect but courageous thing and raise taxes to pay the bill.

This would seem self-evident, as self-evident as the legitimacy of Lilly Franklin's complaint, or the legitimacy of the similar complaints made by some of the people in Tampa Heights.

Having well-lit streets is as basic as having the vacant lots on your block cleaned up. Both contribute to the most prized commodity of city living: safety, or at least a shot at it.

The city of Tampa, spending its own money and the state and federal governments', has joined with several private groups and poured at least $3-million into Tampa Heights, which became the city's first residential neighborhood a century ago.

Several houses _ including the childhood home of Florida's former first lady, Mary Jane Martinez _ have been bought and fixed up. Streets were repaved. Sidewalks were rebuilt. The city spent nearly $300,000 to pull the trash out of the vacant lots.

(This will be bitter news to Lilly Franklin's survivors, but it is proof that a government can do what it decides it wants to do, where it wants to do it.)

But incredibly, nobody thought of street lights. Not the city. Not the non-profit groups working to fix up Tampa Heights.

(You'd think somebody would have taken a cue from Sulphur Springs, which has spent the last two years trying, usually successfully, to get better street lights. Or taken a cue from the city itself, which spent $30,000 last year improving street lights in other neighborhoods.

The city says it fixes the lights but only when people ask, which is what members of the Tampa Heights Civic Association finally did.

A year ago, they walked their streets, mapping the street lights, writing down which ones were too dim, burned out or shrouded by trees. They forwarded their report to City Council, says Russ Bomar, the president of the association. The report went from department to department. Nothing happened.

Even today, Bob Harrell, Tampa's chief housing official, can't find the report. Nobody in City Hall seems to know where it is.

They're looking, because the people in Tampa Heights finally got the city's attention two weeks ago. The various parties will meet at month's end to discuss the street light problem _ a year after it was raised.

But the story does not end. There are neighborhoods in this city less well-lighted than Tampa Heights. There are poorer neighborhoods, where people are too busy surviving to keep calling City Hall, and where there are other stories of frustration, like the one Lilly Franklin must have told when she was alive.

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