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Lakewood: A proud integrated community worries

Would you like to be my new neighbor?

I know where you can get a good deal on a great house. It's just down the block in a neighborhood called Pinellas Point. I've been inside. It has four bedrooms and a Florida room, and a lawn green and lush from the summer rains.

If you buy this house, you will move in between two great neighbors, wonderful people, retired professionals. Both from New Jersey, I think.

Oh, by the way, they're black.

Still interested? If so, and if you're white, you belong to the rarest breed of American: the citizen willing to live next to a person of color. If you join our neighborhood, the rewards will be many, not the least of which is participation in a noble American experiment.

But if you're not interested, if the act of moving into this house is unthinkable for you, all is not lost. At the very least, you may come to understand why my neighbors and I, white and black, are so concerned about the proposals to increase the ratio of black students in our schools south of Ulmerton Road.

Our point of view has not been well represented in the debate. School board candidates and editorial writers have dismissed our concerns without walking in our shoes. Our passion has been misinterpreted as panic. And our commitment has been mocked as an unwillingness to change.

I don't claim to speak for all of south St. Petersburg. No one can. But I do think we citizens who live south of Lake Maggiore, in integrated neighborhoods like Bahama Shores and Pinellas Point and Lakewood Estates and Maximo Moorings, have the most at stake in the current deliberations, and because of our unique experience, the most to offer.

Putting down roots

When my wife Karen and I moved to St. Pete in 1977, the first person we talked to, a waitress in a downtown restaurant, warned us not to rent or buy south of Central Avenue. "The Southside is mixed," she said.

So we rented for a year in the Lakewood Park Apartments on 54th Avenue S, and then bought our first house south of there in Pinellas Point, on a street filled with tall trees and friendly neighbors. We paid $43,500 for three bedrooms and two baths. We looked at an almost identical house north of Central Avenue priced at $65,000.

I call the $20,000 we saved our Race Discount. We were not afraid to call African-American families our neighbors. I'll go a step further. We represent a group of white folks, call us The Tolerant Minority, willing to live where we live, not in spite of the presence of black people, but because of it.

We are not paragons of liberal virtue. We have all felt the pangs of racism within our souls. But we have chosen to live in a place where integration is not an abstraction, but a work in progress.

Where we live

We love the Southside for many reasons. Gorgeous sunrises and inspiring sunsets are ten minutes away. Dolphin shows, framed by the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, are free. Eagles build huge nests in the tall trees of the Boyd Hill Nature Trail and then soar over the nearby athletic fields to watch children, black and white, playing football and soccer. Families ride bikes along the distinctive Pink Streets. Children and old-timers fish for delicious trout off the edges of the peninsula. Joggers take their turns around the mile dirt track of Lake Vista Park, greeting neighbors with a friendly "Hey" or "Good morning."

Every neighborhood has its familiar institutions, the glue that holds community together, and we have the Tropicana Bowling Lanes, Spartan Family Restaurant, Maximo Presbyterian Church, Skyway True Value Hardware, O'Neill's Boat Basin and Eckerd College, to name a few.

Ours is a neighborhood of great athletes, of Dwight Gooden and Ernest Givins, of Olympic champion Nicole Haislett, and the Lakewood High School state championship girls soccer team.

The southernmost schools in Pinellas County are in our neighborhood: Bay Vista, Bay Point, Maximo, and Lakewood. All have played a role in helping preserve the area as a place where black and white families can play, pray, study, and learn together.

My three daughters attended Bay Point Elementary, so we had a child in that public school for 15 consecutive years. The oak tree we planted when Alison started there now towers above us and shelters our house from the blistering sun, a symbol of our rootedness in this community.

Last Sunday, as I walked through the neighborhood, two children, Chris and John, approached me to get a look at my new dog Rex. Both boys, about 10 years old, rode nifty dirt bikes and wore helmets, and looked almost identical, except that Chris is white and John is black.

This sight is so common where I live that I'm almost embarrassed to mention it. Except to say that Dr. King's dream of little white children and black children playing together has become a reality for us, one we'd like to cherish and protect.

A salad bowl

In 1903 the great African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois wrote powerfully of the challenge of "two-ness" in the life of a black American, "two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings in one dark body." To succeed in America, black citizens have no choice but to master two cultures: one that nurtures them and one they must struggle against.

Whites who live where I live have the chance to experience two-ness in our own way, to savor and celebrate a culture that is different from our own, but helps illuminate it.

We've learned that integration need not result in the death of distinctive ethnic or racial cultures if we think of America not as a Melting Pot, but as a Salad Bowl. It's taken a while, but I'm beginning to savor the distinctive flavors, colors and textures that African-American culture contributes to the Southside Salad.

Put another way, here are some things you'll learn if you move into that house on my street.

You'll learn that your African-American neighbors represent a culture of hope. It was not until I traveled to Africa this year that I realized how American African-Americans are. Overcoming personal and institutional obstacles, and suffering the inevitable indignities of racism, my neighbors have embraced and realized the prosperity and spirit once thought of as classically American.

In spite of what you've read about the so-called social pathologies of black families, you'll be delighted to learn that your neighbors have found ways to overcome the fragmentation and rootlessness suffered by all of us Americans. While my closest relatives live 1,000 miles away, my African-American friends seem able to count on the aid of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even more distant relatives to help in the rearing of children. They seem to embrace the important notion that it takes a whole community to raise a child.

Whatever your faith, come tap into the deep well of spirituality that has been among the most inspiring aspects of African-American culture. Mostly white churches on the Southside, such as Blessed Trinity Catholic Church, have worked hard to integrate their congregations. It is now common in my parish to experience black priests, deacons and altar servers. When you turn at the Kiss of Peace to shake a neighbor's hand, there's a good chance the skin color will be different from yours.

I'll be happy to take you to a Lakewood graduation ceremony. I've attended five. You'll notice how expressive many African-American families are in the audience. When a child or cousin or friend is called up to receive a diploma, sections of the audience rise up in frenzied cheering. I once thought of this as impolite. Now I recognize the value of that soulful celebration of a child's triumphant moment.

Last year I coached a soccer team of exuberant 14-year-old girls. Three of the girls are black, too rare an occurence in youth soccer. I talked to these girls _ Felicia, Deenae and Daphne _ about soccer and race. We talked about what to do when they heard the inevitable racial slurs from white teams in white neighborhoods. They were cool, talented, and funny. And they taught me how to behave, and were pleased, I think, when I would express my pride in public at being coach of an integrated team from an integrated community.

One day, when Felicia saw that I was trying to grow a goatee, she looked at it with approval, and noting my slight resemblance to Denzel Washington, said, "Coach, you should change your name to Roy X."

I took this as a great compliment.

We're only half-racist

There is a sign on Bay Point School that indicates that here exists a Racism Free Zone. That's a great ideal and a noble program. But the school and the neighborhood are anything but free of racism. Young teens feud and fight over turf, respect and sweethearts. Some of it has to do with race. Students, seeking a zone of comfort during a turbulent time, resegregate themselves in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias and gyms.

Some of the nastiest jokes and racial slurs have come from the lips of Southsiders, some right after church. And, over the years, the Lakewood Country Club, despite the beauty of its golf course and the best intentions of many of its members, has been known as an exclusionary, sometimes hateful place.

And not all expressions of African-American culture seem quite so noble. I've learned to "play the dozens," that swap of insults in which you get to say things like "Your mama so stank, she make Right Guard turn left." Even more obscene examples seem like harmless fun.

Not so the "gangsta" rap that black and white children listen to these days, with its denigration of women as "hos" and its celebration of violence and rapacious sexuality in men. Recently, for the first time, I've noticed ominous graffiti scrawled across some public buildings, and it has made me nervous.

One night, at the Lakewood Sports Complex, I learned what it means to be The Other. I walked across the fields watching the youth football practices. Out of hundreds of players, cheerleaders, parents and coaches, at that moment in time, I was the only white face in sight.

I stood near two children. The boy, about 8, looked at me and then at his sister and said, "What's that Cracker doin' around here?" The sister looked at the boy with total disgust, grabbed his hand and said, "Why can't you leave that poor old man alone." I'm not sure which remark hurt more.

Here's the secret irony of racism Southside style: No matter how hard we try, we can't generalize. A typical conversation over the years in the Clark house:

"How was school today?"

"I hate it when the black kids walk down the hallway so you can't get by."

"Do all the black kids do that?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well does Rodney do it? Or Desiree?"

"No, they don't do it."

The lesson is always the same. You can't generalize.

Most interesting to me is the behavior of the most persistent white racists among us. They may growl about blacks in general, but, confronted by real black neighbors with real black children, their behavior is, at times, at least civil, if not downright neighborly. It seems like a crude form of progress, but progress, nonetheless. Living here has a way of turning full-blooded racists into half-hearted ones.

What we fear

I'm old enough to remember watching a TV show called Mr. Wizard, a man who taught science experiments to children. My favorite was the one where Mr. Wizard takes a clear liquid and begins adding tiny drops of another clear liquid. Drop after drop. Nothing happens for a while. Then the solution produces a dramatic change of color. The clear liquid turns red in an instant.

It must seem racist to our African-American neighbors to talk about the dangers of a neighborhood or a school becoming "too black." But we are afraid. In the last 10 years, the nearby apartment complexes have gotten blacker, and so have the neighborhoods.

We now hear our white neighbors say that the new desegregation plan is the last drop _ the drop that will alter the delicate chemistry in the neighborhood. They talk about leaving. We want them to stay. You should know what they are afraid of, and unless you're willing to move onto my street, you should take their fears seriously.

We are afraid of violence and crime, on our streets and in our schools. No American, white or black, can be blind to the culture of guns, drugs and violence that infects American society, and has had such a terrible impact on young black males. Television hypes it. Politicians exploit it. As a people we are irrational about it. But don't tell us there isn't something to fear.

Consider this:

Our local video store: robbed. A favorite family restaurant: robbed twice. The local sporting goods store: robbed. A young girl is injured after a football game in a drive-by shooting. A man on my street is robbed at gunpoint in his own driveway. In each case, the perpetrator is said to be black.

But it's not that simple on the Southside. I go one night to pick up a bottle of milk at the supermarket. An old white woman has her purse snatched in the parking lot by a young black man. She is hurt and crying. Another woman has called the police and holds the woman in her arms until an officer arrives. The Good Samaritan is black. So is the cop.

We're afraid of commercial degradation. A local shopping center stands almost empty. The supermarket: gone. The florist, where I've bought Easter flowers for my daughters: gone. The gift shop and post office: gone. The economy booms and busts. But in our volatile neighborhood the flight of businesses fuels our fear and distrust.

We're afraid of unscrupulous realtors. One of them came to my house a few years ago, when the Lakewood racial ratios were allowed to creep above the 30-percent mark. "Would you like to sell your house," she said. "I've sold several others in the neighborhood."

"No, thanks, we like it here fine. But why would you ask?"

"Well, I live in the neighborhood, too. But I'm selling my house. The place is changing. Too many kids cruising down the street with their boom boxes blasting." The feds call this technique "panic peddling."

Most Southsiders I've consulted know at least one person who talks about leaving. There are two on my block.

Just as the 30-percent ratio of black students in our schools was allowed to creep to 35 percent in the 1980s, they worry that 40 percent will become 45 or 50 percent. This may encourage more white families to leave and more black families to replace them.

There is one powerful reality we should remember as we contemplate this prospect: Black schools lose resources. It is our history.

The loss of white families means a drain of volunteers, of financial and in-kind contributions, and of community support in general. Schools in black communities, such as Sixteenth Street Middle School, have seen their prospects rise when they have been able to attract more affluent families through magnet programs.

Dr. Hinesley's plan

I have worked closely with Dr. Howard Hinesley, Pinellas school superintendent, on several projects and consider him a friend and professional ally. I trust him. He believes in desegregation, community and the well-being of all children. He fears that if we don't reform the desegregation plan, the court order could be challenged and completely overturned. Only chaos and demagoguery would ensue.

He may have created the least objectionable plan for change, perhaps the only one with a chance of approval. But it is not the best plan. The best plan may be outside of his control, because it would deal with the deep causes of our current predicament: racism and where people choose to live.

The best plan would not accept the current demographic patterns as inevitable, but would say: How can we help, over the next two decades, to create more neighborhoods that look like Lakewood? How can we preserve, rather than disturb, the delicate balances in already integrated communities?

Here, from a vantage point near the Skyway Bridge, are my hopes for resolving these difficult problems:

I hope the mayor and city government of St. Petersburg can become more involved in the process. I hope they can bring together representatives of neighborhoods, churches, businesses, zoning boards, the police, the media and other key institutions. This is not a school issue, but a community issue. The future of our city may depend on the outcome.

I hope leaders in the school system will work harder to build a relationship of trust with African-American families and The Tolerant Minority of whites on the south end of the county.

I hope that before it votes to change the racial ratios, the School Board will recognize the profound effect that decision will have on the stability of integrated neighborhoods.

I hope the Lakewood community can come out of this process with a renewed determination to maintain its pride, prosperity and sense of identity as a model of desegregation.

To Dr. Hinesley and the School Board: Please take your time. Use the entire school year to consult widely and to listen. Keep talking with us and reassuring us.

To the NAACP representatives and my African-American neighbors: Continue to reach out to us so that we can earn your trust in the search for common ground. The goal should be a public consensus, not a court fight.

To my white neighbors: If you've put up a FOR SALE sign, please go out now and take it down. Besides, the place you're thinking of moving to has too much traffic and is too far from The Hurricane Lounge and Big Tim's Barbecue.

The color line

On Oct. 5, I delivered a three-minute version of these ideas at Lakewood High School at a public hearing on the desegregation plan. I was stunned by the response of the gathering: a standing ovation, tearful expressions of gratitude, warms hugs and handshakes from black and white neighbors. I felt a keen sense of citizenship and community that night, people working together to solve their problems, a feeling all too rare in America these days.

Last July, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to South Africa to work with some high school teachers there. During my visit to that amazing country, a country that has dismantled apartheid and embraced democracy, I wore my Lakewood High School jacket, and I gave out copies of my book Free To Write, which contains stories of my work as a volunteer teacher at Bay Point Elementary.

I bragged to them about the place where I live and the schools where my children have learned so much. In spite of their own great accomplishments, they seemed in awe to think of schools and neighborhoods built on tolerance and hope, rather than on guns and razor wire.

That experience reinforced in me the determination to preserve what's best about the Lakewood community and to invite other communities to follow our lead.

W.E.B. Du Bois also wrote that "the problem of the 20th Century was the problem of the color line." He was speaking, of course, of American apartheid, the social and political forces that kept black and white Americans separate and unequal. Let's all keep talking and working in the months ahead, so that in the next century our legacy to our children will not still be the problem of a color line _ a line whose name is Ulmerton Road.

Roy Peter Clark has lived in south St. Petersburg for 17 years, and in 1992 was named "Layman of the Year" for his contributions to public schools. He is a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the Times Publishing Co.

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