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Longing for days of true community

One in a series exploring communities through voices and faces of individual members and residents.

It is odd listening to 22-year-old James Archer wistfully wax on about the "good ol' days."

The burly, baby-faced barber is a product of Belmont Heights and still lives and works here. But to hear him tell it, life in the east Tampa community these days just isn't what it used to be.

"Things these kids are doing at 12, 11 and 10 _ what we didn't think about doing until we were 17 or 18," Archer said from his station at the Total Image Barber Shop on 40th Street. "You know where those houses _ Osborne Woods _ are now? We used to play baseball and softball and have picnics out there."

A lot of people in Belmont Heights echo Archer's longing for days gone by. The residents in this aging, predominantly black community lament a spirit of togetherness they say has worn precariously thin.

They talk about watching helplessly as drugs boldly slithered into broad sections of the community. And even as this was going on, the neighborhood was further crippled by upwardly mobile professionals triumphantly moving out.

From the middle class neighborhoods just south of the Hillsborough River to the massive College Hill public housing complex and the rows and rows of scattered homes north of Ybor City and beyond, those who remained behind now shake their heads and grimly declare something needs to be done.

They reminisce longingly about the days when it seemed everybody looked out for everybody else. They talk about church and family ties that used to bind tightly, but now hang loosely.

To an outsider, much of this talk seems exaggerated.

Despite spoken feelings of disconnectedness, it appears these residents share a silent, natural connection that transcends the difficulties of everyday life.

People in the various shops, restaurants and businesses dotting the city landscape all seem to know one another, if not by name, then at least by face.

There is a sense of ritual and togetherness when longtime resident Arthur Randall brings his son to Archer for a haircut in honor of the boy's 7th birthday.

The folks who wander into Jermarc's Bar-B-Que & Restaurant on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard greet the owner and other customers like long lost pals before hunkering down over steaming plates of savory meat and vegetables.

And that same spirit of camaraderie and connection pervades the chilly media center at Middleton Junior High School on 24th Street one evening when members of the Middleton High School Alumni Association gather to reaffirm a commitment to restoring the school's senior high status.

Middleton was turned into a junior high during the shuffle of desegregation more than two decades ago, but east Tampa still hasn't recovered from the blow of losing what was once a source of pride and unity, alumni association president Fred Hearns said.

The invisible bond linking east Tampa's people is especially strong in the old residential areas, where elderly ladies still sit on their porches in the afternoon sunshine and happily talk to a stranger about better days.

The community used to be really tight, they say.

"Now I just don't know anything about these people," fretted Ruby J. McCall, a resident of 22nd Avenue for the past 60 years. She points to each of the houses within view.

"I wouldn't know those folks over there if they walked out the door right now," she said.

The family that used to live over there moved to Washington back in the '70s, she said, gesturing off into the distance. And those over there moved to New York not long after that.

And that vacant lot over there. Why, there used to be such a lovely house on that spot, the retired nurse's aide said. But after the elderly owner died, no one paid the taxes to keep the place going.

Grass and weeds in the yard soon grew tall and the structure itself became an eyesore. The city moved in last year and finally tore the whole mess down.

"This used to be such a neighborhood," McCall sighed. "It was like one big family out here."

"Now", she simply continued, "it's different."

Archer describes his vision of the ideal community as "everybody sticking together. Everybody working together."

It is a recurring theme in this broad area east of Interstate 275.

Though many residents seem unaware of it, this collective desire for greater unity has become a bond in itself. It is an unconscious acknowledgement that where they are and the lives they have forged here are worth holding on to.

It is unusual to find a Belmont Heights resident or business person who doesn't feel a part of this community. Even those who despair that life is falling apart around them still recognize they are part of the whole.

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 a little of what east Tampa's residents have to say about themselves, where they live and what really makes a community.

"I thought I could be something of a role model.'

James Young, the owner of Jermarc's, opened his cafe in the heart of Belmont Heights because he thought it would be good for the community.

More than that, he thought he would set a good example.

"I'm a black man, running my own business," he said. "I thought I could be something of a role model."

The area isn't pretty, but the restaurant, connected to an open-air coin laundry, is clean and neat. It is a weekday after his lunch rush, and Young is eager to talk about this area he invested his family's future in nine years ago.

He quickly zeros in on a subject that is obviously near and dear to his heart: the condition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, east Tampa's central artery. Jermarc's fronts the street.

"It should look more decent," Young said. "I think this end in Belmont Heights should look a little bit better to honor the person it was named after."

The whole stretch from Nebraska Avenue out to 50th Street is a disgrace, he said.

"If they came along and put lights and cleaned this area up, I guarantee you it would make a difference to Tampa's black community as a whole," he said. "It could be a source of pride."

He would love to keep his business right where it is, but it has become dangerous outside his doors. Drugs are the culprit, he says.

"We're not together as far as our black community," Young said. "Why can't we have a beautification project out here like they have on Davis Islands and other communities?"

There are plenty of parks and other places for kids to go in the neighborhood, he said, but older teenagers and adults up to no good have made them unsafe.

After his son gets out of school each day, Young said, he goes to Grace Mary Baptist Church. "He's there seven days a week because there's no place else for him to go. He should be able to walk up and down this street."

The solution is simple, he said. The residents and businesses need to band together. They need to resurrect the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, an organization of minority-owned businesses that once had its offices on Dr. King Boulevard.

"A lot of people say this is a ghetto," he said. "This is not the ghetto."

Young still sees promise outside his door.

"You can do a lot of things here. There's a lot of opportunities here," he said. "It's exciting to me."

George Washington, the owner of two day care centers and an adult congregate living facility, lives nearby on the Hillsborough River. His is a $150,000 home, he said, surrounded by others in the $40,000-to-$70,000 range.

Many of these houses were built through then-Mayor Sandy Freedman's Challenge Fund, a program that provides affordable housing to qualified buyers.

Although he's happy to see affordable housing move in, their proximity has sharply lessened the value of his home, he said.

"I think that any place you sit down and say, "I'm going to make my living here,' that becomes your community," he said.

It would be a better community if there were more lighting and more of a police presence in east Tampa, Washington said.

Houses that have been condemned need to be taken away, he said. Many have become the fertile ground of drug users and dealers.

"I think a lot of people are afraid in their own community," he said.

He feels safe within his house "because I have control over that," he said. But there are nights when he is afraid to let his 18-year-old son out.

Washington credits area churches for doing their share to keep the community together. Some offer parenting programs, others have programs designed to keep teenagers off the streets. There needs to be more of these community-based efforts, he said.

Residents here also must accept more responsibility for many of the problems, Washington said.

"We don't vote, we don't make our voices loud enough to be heard," he said. "A lot of this is our fault."

"I miss people talking to each other. That to me was community."

It is a short drive down Dr. King Boulevard and one left turn from Jermarc's to the Total Image Barber Shop. The shop on this day, a "slow" weekday afternoon, is bustling.

Young and old men, some of them in business suits, others in shorts and T-shirts, wait at the front for their turn with one of the shop's three barbers.

The young man in James Archer's chair has listened as the young barber talks about his view of the community.

What is the point of all this, James Weaver asks? He is suspicious that Archer is unwittingly fueling all the stereotypes about rampant drugs and violence in the inner city.

"When you want to do a story about a black man making it in the corporate world, give me a call," Weaver says before stalking out.

There is a brief and uncomfortable silence before barber Anthony Williams picks up the conversation.

Williams, 32, has lived in Tampa for eight years. He was transferred here by his former employers, the TGIF Restaurant chain.

"Home is still Philadelphia," Williams says with no hesitation. "That's where my mother is. I was born and raised there."

He's happy to be here because he doesn't think the opportunity would have presented itself up there for him to open a business. He feels safe and comfortable in Belmont Heights, he says. The pace is easy and laid-back.

"It's predictable," he says of this neighborhood. "You know what's going to happen here."

Parts of Belmont Heights still have the comfortable, small town aura of the past, agreed Arthur Randall, the gentleman who has brought in his little boy.

Randall, 40, is a skycap at Tampa International Airport and lives in the River Grove subdivision. His family is here and he grew up here.

Even though life in his immediate neighborhood remains good, he misses the east Tampa of old, he says. He went to Blake High School, the second of Tampa's two black high schools before desegregation, and wishes his children could benefit from the nurturing, close-knit environment that existed between students and faculty there. They took good care of the kids, he said.

"No doubt about it, they were the good old days. I miss people talking to each other," he said. "That to me was community."

Now people are so spread out, he said. Cable television keeps them inside. "It used to be that we'd be outside and we had to communicate with each other."

He spoke of seeing periodic news reports about Tampa's crime rate.

"It seems like they're always finding out Tampa has the highest this and the highest that," he said. "I mean, it's kind of scary."

"I like where I grew up, but it could be better. A lot better."

Off the main business arteries, east Tampa's residential neighborhoods lie for the most part in quiet obscurity. There are a variety of them, some strong and middle class, others poor and a little bit frightening. Sometimes only a block or two separates the extremes.

Within east Tampa, Belmont Heights is perhaps the dominant community. Jackson Heights and River Grove are others, but many folks don't seem to mind it too much if you refer to the whole area as Belmont Heights.

Actually, a few Jackson Heights residents do take exception to this, because they say crime and drugs are worse in Belmont Heights.

Patricia Williams, 44, moved back to the area from San Diego to care for her ill and aging mother. The small blue house where she grew up has seen better days.

Despite being gone for several years, Williams still feels she belongs here. She enjoys sitting on the porch with her young daughter in the afternoons, but sometimes the loud young men who hang around on a nearby corner make it uncomfortable.

Teenagers often get a bad rap here in Belmont Heights, as they do in a lot of neighborhoods these days.

Williams talks about the neighborhood being hurt by a loss of values in the home. The Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services has made it impossible for parents to properly discipline kids, she said.

"I like where I grew up, but it could be better," Williams said. "A lot better."

She is sorry to see how much her neighborhood deteriorated in the time she was gone. "You take a chance wherever you live, but the drugs here are outrageous," she said. "You have to work at it to keep a community intact, and I don't see that here anymore."

Still, Williams thinks there is something of value to living here. "My daughter needs to see where I grew up," she said. Her little girl, Sharon Stokes, is 5.

It is also typical to find "70-something" Matherine Nurse out on her bright yellow and white front porch enjoying the fine spring weather these days. In a jaunty little cap with Nassau printed on the front, neon pink plastic pants and a white T-shirt, she is joyous in describing life as it used to be here north of Ybor City.

"I've lived in this house ever since I was 8 years old," Nurse said. "This was my parents' house."

Of course, most of the people who lived here during her childhood are gone, but "we still have a friendly crew," she said. "Around here, everybody calls me "Mama.'

"

She has spent her life here _ except for the years she was at Florida A&M University. She says she feels safe here on 18th Avenue, thanks in large part to the 18th Avenue Crime Watch program. Nurse is active in the organization.

"We can sit out on our porch in the night time and not worry," Nurse said. "Everybody is friendly."

Some of her well-intentioned friends have tried to talk her off the porch with frightening talk of crime, but she remains undaunted.

"I'd just as soon sit out here until 3 or 4 in the morning," Nurse said. "We sit out here, and people look and speak and keep right on down the street."

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.

There are several ways to reach us.

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

By fax: Send to HOMETOWN, Letters to the Editor, (813) 893-8675.

By computer: People who want to send us letters directly from their computers should use this E-mail address:

131:spt001 dialcom.tymnet.com

As with all letters, please include your address and phone number.

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

WHAT BLACK RESIDENTS SAY

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

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