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Family is key to future

In some communities, the strong mingle with the weak. Attractive homes surrounded by green manicured lawns stand out next to dilapidated homes and yards filled with weeds and debris. Rich laughter from men and women walking in the street or working in their yards falls flat on the somber presence of the homeless and those in need. It all blends together in the inner core of St. Petersburg's black community.

About 69,000 African-Americans live in Pinellas County _ nearly 8 percent of the total population. Roughly 47,000, or 68 percent, reside in St. Petersburg, with the majority living in the city's south side, where they were relegated during the segregation era.

South St. Petersburg is an integrated community, with some areas predominantly white and others intermixed with white and black families. The stereotype, however, remains about who lives on the "Southside."

Many of the African-American residents lament a spirit of togetherness they say has worn thin. They recall days past when it seemed everybody looked out for everybody else. Today, many say, people watch out for themselves.

For this series the Times is showcasing a number of neighborhoods and communities, with the focus on the voices of individual members and residents. Here, then, in their own words is what some of the residents of the center of St. Petersburg's black community have to say about themselves, where they live and what really makes a community.

"Bend the sap while it's young'

This particular Wednesday morning, 13 black women were busy in spiritual pursuits, a theme that often rubs shoulders with hopelessness in the black community. Seated in a room at the Enoch Davis Center on 18th Avenue S, they were attending a class called "Spirit Lifter." Afterward, they would walk across the lobby of the multipurpose facility to join others in the dining room for lunch, prepared by the Neighborly Senior Service Group.

Leading the discussion was Alice Neal. "Let's say it again!" she said. Peering into her Bible, she challenged them with the rhythmic cadence of a black Baptist preacher: "I'm happy, healthy, vital and alive with the radiant life of God. Think about what it says. How many are happy in here this morning? How many are healthy? Don't count your arthritis or bursitis! When we go back to the auditorium to eat, don't go in there dragging your feet!"

About 65 elderly men and women, most of them African-Americans, gather weekly from about 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for fellowship and food. There also were four elderly white women there this day.

This is a special community, one that keeps the heart and soul running for older citizens. African-American elders in St. Petersburg are often the strength of the black community, repairing and nurturing with their ability to provide stability and wisdom. Under overwhelming odds, many now are rearing their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, for some of their own children have been lost to a world of drugs, crime or hopelessness.

Mrs. Neal, a widow and mother of six grown children who are working professionals, believes community problems should be solved with spiritual answers. "Bend the sap while it's young, because if you don't, when you get old, they're going to bend you. It's in the Bible; train up a child the way he should go and he will not depart from it.

"If parents would take some of the televisions out of their homes, it would make a difference in their children. Television is the babysitter now. Most things they're doing and experiencing is what they see on television."

She endorses spanking, she said _ even in school. "It never hurt nobody. It brought me to where I am today, made a lady out of me."

Around the corner and down the street at 22nd Avenue S and Martin Luther King Boulevard, there is another community within the black community. From 11:30 a.m. to about 1 p.m., people meet at Atwater Cafeteria.

Owned and managed by members of the Alzo and Mattie Atwater family, it is more than just a restaurant or cafeteria. It is a place where serious political and social discussions are held.

Black people who don't feel comfortable going to City Hall or to the police department will pull up a chair and talk to St. Petersburg's assistant police chief, Goliath Davis, or to Don McRae, the St. Petersburg mayor's chief of staff, or to other city workers seated around the table. Davis said Atwater provides an opportunity to mingle with people from all walks of life. It is a place where they can talk through their problems, real or imagined, with the city.

People cater more to their own whims and personal desires than they did in the past, Davis says. They're not paying as much attention to the needs of their fellow citizens. He also sees it in the national agenda on welfare. "We seem to be walking away from a sense of service," he said.

"In days past, there was not a dependency on government," McRae said. "Now, there seems to be a tendency toward, "You owe it to me.' I don't think that's good. There is not a commitment to make it, in spite of the odds."

Overall, St. Petersburg is a good place to live, but, "We need to make it better," said Davis, who left the city to go to college, but opted to return because of family ties. The time away helped him evaluate the quality of life in St. Petersburg and what it could be.

"Since one has to make a contribution somewhere, it might as well be here," Davis said.

When people talk to these city officials, some of the conversation generally turns to crime in the community.

"Because of the perception of crime, the whole society is changing, be it in the minority or the majority community," Davis said.

"Violence is permeating every aspect of our lives. Our youth are being socialized by television violence, and we've labeled them Generation X. As a society, we've moved away from helping, and we shouldn't be surprised by what we see. These conditions are being fostered through working parents, and people looking out only for their own.

"There are some efforts to get back to the unity in the past," he said. "But none of what we're seeing today is a surprise."

Crime in the black community was all Charles R. Williams wanted to talk about as he finished off his meal. Since being delivered by a midwife some 51 years ago, Williams has lived in St. Petersburg, and fondly remembers being able to stay up all night with friends barbecuing in his back yard. He can't do it any more because of violence, and he's angry.

"You can't even go to your car anymore," Williams said. "I got mugged coming out of a store. People here have to ride with guns in their car. We need more police doing their job. There are drugs in the street for the little children. People don't sit out on their porches anymore."

"Young and hopeful'

Webb's City Plaza, bordered by Eighth Street S, Third Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard, is surrounded by a diverse community of mostly low-income homes. It is across the street from Graham Park Apartments for the low-income elderly. During afternoons and weekends, the Winn-Dixie store is filled with white, black, Hispanic and Asian families, laughing, helping each other, and even holding each other's children in emergencies. A jeweler, ice cream parlor/Chinese food store, a clothing store and a laundry also are in the complex.

In Webb's City Laundry, patience, understanding and assistance are dispensed in pleasant doses to people who come in loaded down with clothes. It is an uncommonly well-kept place, with managers who enjoy the diversity. They make deliveries to Graham Park, and on Sundays, there are doughnuts and coffee for all.

Manager Laura Gilbert, 56, and her daughter, Lori Northrope, say the owner sets the tone. Even though he grew up in Tampa, owner Ron Gonzalez has lived in St. Petersburg 22 years and has raised three children here. When asked why someone born in Tampa would choose to live in St. Petersburg, Gonzalez said, "Is there any place else to live?"

But even good hometown feelings don't stop him from complaining about what he calls the city's misguided priorities. For instance, he asked why the city built the ThunderDome "with public money" and displaced families who lived in the Laurel Park Housing Development. Displacing families for parking spaces was not right, he said, and just created a homeless community. He also is concerned about what he sees as the city's failure to provide more places of entertainment for young people.

"They don't care about the kids," he said. "These kids come in this laundry young and hopeful. Ten years later they're pregnant, hopeless and on drugs."

Gonzalez says that parents should get involved with the schools and that school officials should find alternatives for disruptive students _ "rather than throwing kids out on the streets. That does not fix the problems. The community must support the schools. It's not government's job to do the whole thing."

Gonzalez also believes businesses have a responsibility to their community. "They ought to give back to the community. From whence they take!"

While helping an elderly woman wash her laundry, Northrope says she lives north of Central Avenue and has been criticized by friends for working in south St. Petersburg.

"They tell me that it's a high crime area," she said. "Yet where I live there are a mother and father who drink and whose children run around screaming like demons. Yet this family thinks they're better than anyone else?"

Yes, she says, it's true that young families live in the vicinity of the Plaza, and that there are burglaries, drug use, fights between teenage girls. Increasingly she is seeing more physical and verbal abuse of young children by their parents.

Teenagers who come to the laundry often confide in her. "They want to be loved. That's why they stay in these bad relationships. They tell me, "My boyfriend hits me, but he loves me. No one ever loved me like he does.' "

Integration caused the demise of many flourishing black businesses concentrated on 22nd Avenue S, and near downtown. Black people forsook many of their own businesses to savor their new found freedom to walk through the front doors of white-owned businesses. In spite of this attraction, the community always maintained a hodgepodge of businesses, which also included white establishments, some of which are around today. For the past 10 years, the new arrivals have been mostly Asian- and Arab-American businesses.

Some business owners are afraid of crime and won't move into the black community, but Shara Smith says crime is everywhere.

"I'm just as afraid of a white man as I am of a black man," says Smith, 29, owner of Ja'Nae's Nail Salon. "I serve all people, but I wanted my business right in the middle of where black people live." She said the best area for black business is on 16th Street S.

Some residents here, like Smith, say owners and managers of Asian businesses sometimes are perceived as people who enjoy economic gains but who rarely give back to the community.

"Koreans are all over the black community gathering their wealth from black people," Smith said. "You don't see white people or even their own people coming down here to buy any of their products, just black people."

She says she left the Lakeview Shopping Center complex because of what she calls a disagreement with Asian landlords. She moved into a row of shops in a complex on Martin Luther King Boulevard that also houses a law firm and the new Center for Islam and Cultural Awareness of St. Petersburg.

A St. Petersburg native, she said the only other place she would live is Atlanta. She believes there's more support for black businesses there, and she is concerned that there isn't enough community spirit in St. Petersburg's black community. Too many people care only for their own, she says.

Many of the African-Americans interviewed talked about discrimination. At work, some said, they experience it particularly in hirings and promotions. Some parents voiced dissatisfaction with the Pinellas schools and what they believe are double standards in the treatment of black students. Others complained about police harassment of black residents, and about the amount of time it took a St. Petersburg police officer to respond to calls within the black community.

Race relations are so-so in St. Petersburg, said Gwen Parker, 40. She has lived in St. Petersburg since she was 7 and was in the first group of black students to integrate Boca Ciega High School.

It often depends on where you are, she said, recalling how two black friends were refused service at a local restaurant.

"I thought that kind of stuff had played itself out a long time ago," she said.

"I'd give back my talents'

Several miles away at Jordan Park Resident Services Center, teenagers were playing basketball. Jaquan Tarver, 16, a point guard on the Dixie Hollins basketball team, said this was his community. "I come here every day."

His friend Kenny Watkins, 15, nodded in agreement. "People come here to play basketball rather than getting in trouble."

Not all black teenagers are criminals, they said, but society seems to be punishing black males for the mistakes of a few who are into drugs and guns. They said crime is down in Jordan Park, and they resent the fact that the police are suspicious of young black males and approach them as if they were all drug pushers.

Both young men say they're concerned about their community. If he could be mayor for a year, Jaquan said, he would start by having talks with parents. "I would tell them to discipline their children more. Then, I would get the city to donate some money to rebuild run-down businesses. I'd take over the abandoned apartments and fix them up and keep people off the street. Then I'd find me some money and go to college, and when I graduated, I'd come back to the community and give back my talents."

Timothy Dudley, 27, stood nearby listening to the teenagers who had just finished playing basketball with him. He grew up in St. Petersburg with five brothers, two sisters and a niece. His grandmother lived in Jordan Park. "A few years ago, the community used to be a war zone. Now," he said, "it's better."

An ex-felon, he says, he can't explain what a community is all about. "It has been so long since I've been a part of the community. I mostly look out for the kids. If I can help these kids stay in school, that would be an accomplishment. I help raise my niece," he said, putting an arm around a teenager standing at his side. "But I can't save them all."

Seated on her porch, talking to her next-door neighbor, Julia Mullins recalled the political and racial climate of St. Petersburg in the past and said she has no complaints about the community today.

She came to St. Petersburg in 1946, when black people had to sit at the back of the bus. "We couldn't eat where we wanted. But things have changed for the better. Children can even go to school on school buses. We didn't have any. I came here because I had kin people here and I liked the weather. It was better than St. George, S.C., where I came from. I've never been on welfare. I just had to work because I had a son. Worked in a dry cleaner and laundry. Now, I'm disabled and retired. Used to go to church every now and then. But not now. No way to get around."

She has lived in Jordan Park for 27 years and says violence and crime have subsided. "It's not as bad as it used to be. We used to have gangs running through here. We don't see many gangs anymore."

Around the corner at another apartment, Theola Pinkney, 88, was raking her dusty, small yard. She smiled from under her wide-brimmed straw hat but didn't want to talk much. One great-granddaughter was inside preparing to go to work. Another, Tonya Cookinson, rode up on her bicycle.

"What are you doing, Noonie?" she asked affectionately. Cookinson sat down on edge of the porch and talked about the community.

"It's not a community," she said emphatically. "A community is when people are together, but people are for themselves nowadays. How can it be a community if you're stepping on other people to get at where you want to be? What makes a community is growing up in a respectful home and being willing to do for others, rather than refusing to volunteer because you always want something in return."

For the past 15 years, Cookinson has been living with her great-grandmother. "She's the best mother anybody could want. We grew up in a strict home and even washed walls every week. It was almost like we were in a girls home," she said, laughing.

About a year ago, Cookinson said, she decided to make a change in her life: no more jobs that pay only minimum wage. "I went to PTEC, and I plan to become a dental assistant. I hope to make at least $10 an hour."

Cookinson says even though there's not as much violence in the Jordan Park community anymore, "I don't like the fact that the police harass guys who come here to visit. Some of the guys are coming to see their children. The police tell them they're trespassing, but this is not private property. They also harass people with criminal records. The police ask them, "Where is your I.D., and who are you coming in here to see?'


She says she sees a decline in family values, too. "People used to respect you more. Older women raised their kids. But today, girls are not raising their kids, they're just letting them grow up. They're disrespectful and they tear up things. The housing authority improved Jordan Park. But as soon as they improve things, these kids tear it up. Their parents incorrectly teach them to hit back if someone hits them.

"I have an 18-month-old daughter, Sha'Kasha Bronson, and I would like for her to go to the playground, but it's too raggedy. The kids have torn the park facilities up. It's hazardous for my kid."

Her family lives in St. Petersburg, and she wants to be close to them. So, despite reservations, she plans to stay here.

"Florida is really for retired people who already have money and can sit back and relax and stay on the beach," she said. "This is not a place for young people to live."

Tell us about your community

We'd like to hear from you. HOMETOWN: Building Communities Around Tampa Bay is a look into our communities _ both those that are place-based and those that are created through commonality. Tell us about what you think unites or divides communities, and about some of the specific needs within them.

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By mail: Address letters to HOMETOWN, Letters to the Editor, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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Percentage of black population within county

Hillsborough 13.5%

Pinellas 7.9%

Pasco 2%

Hernando 3.5%

Citrus 2.2%

Source: 1994 Demographics USA, County Edition


In a poll conducted in March and April, Suncoast Opinion Surveys asked 980 adult residents in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties about their neighborhoods, their lives at work and at play, and their opinions on issues facing their communities. Of the 980 respondents, 115 _ or nearly 12 percent _ are African-American. Here are their responses to survey questions, many of which were open-ended and allowed multiple answers. (In some cases for comparison, answers from white respondents are given in parentheses.)

How long have you lived here?

1-2 years 6% (12%)

3-5 years 10% (13%)

6-10 years 4% (19%)

11-20 years 16% (26%)

More than 20 years 64% (30%)

What do you like most about living here?

48% climate/weather

15% people friendly/variety/friends/family/neighbors

What do you like least about living here?

25% crime/laws not enforced/fear/drugs/robberies

23% everything's okay/nothing to dislike

22% bad weather/heat/hurricanes/no seasons

What do you say about your neighborhoods?

90% feel safe walking during the day

45% feel safe walking at night

50% know most neighbors by first and last names

What are the most serious problems facing your communities?

52% crime: vandalism, violence, drugs/judicial system

13% teens: crime/no respect/nothing to do/need activities

Household income

28% under $15,000 (11%)

22% $15,000-$24,999 (16%)

29% $25,000-49,999 (36%)

11% more than $50,000 (25%)

10% don't know / refused (12%)

Median household income-blacks $22,900

Median household income-whites $35,000

Type of dwelling

68% single-family home

23% apartment

6% duplex/triplex

3% condo/townhouse

Own or rent?

32% own home with a mortgage (41%)

16% own home without a mortgage (38%)

48% rent home (21%)

Does your home have a porch, patio, balcony or area where you can sit outside?

85% yes, can see street/neighbors (77%)

4% yes, but view blocked (15%)

11% no outside sitting area (8%)

Have you had a member of another race as a guest in your home within the last year?

63% say yes (47%)

35% say no (52%)

Is it worthwhile for children to be bused to school to achieve a racial mix?

50% say yes (18%)

43% say no (74%)

Do you think retirees get more than their fair share from Social Security, about the right amount or not enough?

78% say retirees don't get enough (50%)

12% say retirees get about the right amount (34%)

1% say retirees get more than their fair share (5%)

79% attend church (57%)

75% are registered to vote (77%)

+Note: 86% of the black respondents say they are registered Democrats; 5% Republicans. Of white respondents, 37% are Democrats and 42% are Republicans.

55% have children under 18 living in household (29%)

83% have children who attend public school (84%)

17% have children who attend private school (16%)

Survey director: Janet Avallone