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Residents fight to reclaim 34th Street

Mayor David Fischer said a few words, several St. Petersburg City Council candidates showed up and a dozen anti-drug marchers, clad in glaring yellow T-shirts, bellowed chants they use to annoy drug dealers.

At a combination pep rally and chat session last week, a neighborhood Crime Watch group on 34th Street N laid out ambitious plans. They include:

Development of a "city team," composed of several city departments to attack a variety of problems, including crime and code enforcement along 34th Street from Fifth Avenue S to the city limits at 40th Avenue N.

Formation of a citywide Crime Watch board, composed of a representative from each of the city's neighborhood watches. It is visualized as being similar to the Council of Neighborhood Associations, or CONA.

Creation of a 34th Street business association.

Supporting legislation that would make it easier for police officers to arrest probation violators.

Lorraine Compton, who in late 1996 sparked creation of a small neighborhood watch to fight drugs and prostitution, calls the proposed expanded effort "the 34th Street initiative." She urged formation of the 34th Street city team, which has met once and is scheduled to meet again at 9 a.m. April 2 at City Hall.

"We have tremendous power if we can come together as a community," Compton said.

If the 34th Street effort succeeds, "Then we can use it as a hotbed of ideas for the entire city," said Compton, a City Council candidate who lost in last month's primary election.

Toward that end, St. Petersburg Police Department crime prevention Officer Jim Giambruno is pushing for the citywide Crime Watch board so neighborhood groups can communicate better with one another and address crime problems in a more organized fashion.

For example, such an approach is useful when neighborhood pressure reduces prostitution activity but moves it toward another neighborhood. Warned in time, the next neighborhood can step up its own vigilance.

Giambruno said the city has about 400 Crime Watch coordinators, but that there is no unifying element.

"Instead of just one link working, we need to work all as one chain," he said, citing programs that feature board coordination in Hillsborough and Manatee counties.

Other city departments are active along 34th Street in such efforts as code enforcement, nuisance abatement and identification of problem properties.

Traffic barriers recently were placed at 35th Street and Third Avenue S to discourage drug dealers and buyers from driving into the neighborhood.

Also under consideration is a plan to block incoming calls to some pay phones, which officials believe discourages loitering and disrupts the drug-and-prostitution trade.

Under another plan, hotels could be encouraged to screen their customers carefully to avoid renting to prostitutes or dealers, and could earn "drug-free certificates" to help attract a better clientele. Compton said some hotels along 34th Street are considering joining the Crime Watch.

Compton and about a dozen of her neighbors near 34th Streetand 11th Avenue N took a direct approach to street crime last December when they began picketing hotels believed to be ignoring illegal activity on their property.

The group has continued its Saturday protests, at times joined by the Herman Wrice anti-drug marchers and the city's RESPECT police motorcycle unit that specializes in fighting illegal drug activity.

The effort has been effective, said police Lt. Dave Field.

"We have information from different prostitutes that there's too much heat," Field said. "They're going to go over to Tampa. The prostitutes follow the path of least resistance. They're going to go to a place where their commerce isn't interrupted in a significant manner."

Still, Field warned that such problems don't just vanish and that vigilance has to be maintained.

Despite some success, some residents said at last week's meeting that prostitutes again are "sneaking around" some of the hotels, trying to escape notice.

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