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Willie Kelly remembers the way Newton Avenue used to be, 30 years ago when she and her family were the first African-Americans to move onto the block.

"Everyone watched out for everyone," she recalled a few days ago, standing by the garden gate near her carefully tended roses. "They'd watch out for your house. There wasn't all the breaking-ins and stuff."

But gradually older residents died or moved away, and the new residents "were not as careful. They just don't care."

Now, she says, "They should bring it back up like it was before."

Maybe that will happen when new people move in next door. At 828 and 830 Newton Ave. S in St. Petersburg, two new homes have been built by a non-profit developer, Phoenix Enterprise Group.

Other improvements are planned along this shady street of small cottages in the Bartlett Park neighborhood. The city is repairing retaining walls along the sidewalk, and later this year will plant trees along the street and create a landscaped entryway at Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street. There are plans for more new homes along Newton.

Phoenix, the city's Working to Improve Our Neighborhoods program, and First of America bank held an open house May 8 so neighbors could tour the two new homes, which will be open Sunday for the Parade of Neighborhoods. The 1,200-square-foot houses, with three bedrooms, two baths and a one-car garage, are for sale for $59,900, and down payment assistance is available to buyers in certain income brackets.

Among those visiting the homes was Shirley Collins, 37, a potential buyer who already has been preapproved for a mortgage. She works at the Happy Workers Day Care Center and is the mother of a son, 21, and a daughter, 7.

"I'd love to have our own home. We need more room," she said. She may take her elderly mother in to live with her. But home ownership has been an elusive dream until now: "A three-bedroom masonry house costs more than you can afford," she said. And a new home such as these _ with new appliances, bright carpeting and countertops, ceiling fans and sparkling bathrooms _ seemed beyond her means. But the right price and the right mortgage program may change all that.

Darrell Cassell, 38, studied a flyer about the houses pointing out that monthly payments could be as low as $489.95 a month. "I can afford this," said Cassell, a mechanic at Professional Auto Repair. "I'm figuring. I'm deeply looking," he said. He, his wife and their two children have been renters for several years while he established his employment and credit record. Now they're in the market for a home and also have been preapproved for a mortgage.

The concentration of effort on Newton Avenue is deliberate, said Tom de Yampert, an official with the WIN program. Creating "focus blocks" has a greater effect at turning around a neighborhood than scattered efforts.

"Critical mass is five houses, rehabbed or new," he said. "The rest of the neighborhood starts responding and it just starts growing." The city helps to jump-start the efforts, attracts private investment, then can back away and let the private sector continue the efforts. "Three, five, 10 years ago, you wouldn't have found a bank here," he said. "Now, they're actively soliciting business."

The neighborhood association selected Newton Avenue as the focus for efforts by Phoenix and the city because it was a depressed area, with many vacant and boarded-up houses, said Bob Brown, president of Phoenix.

"Part of our marketing strategy, as we change the image of the neighborhood, is to encourage those who work in downtown to begin to live downtown," he said, pointing to Bartlett Park's location near Bayfront Medical Center and All Children's Hospital as well as to the campus of the University of South Florida. The neighborhood is bounded by Fourth and Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) streets and by 15th and 22nd avenues S.

"What we try to be is realistic," Brown said. "Perception is one thing, reality another. We want to change the current perception. Our goal, of the community and city, is to continue to revitalize our communities."