Charles Payne and his Bartlett Park neighbors stood alone for more than a year.
Complaints to city officials about blocked driveways, clogged streets, litter and thunderous, vulgar music related to weekly Chunky Sunday gatherings had fallen on deaf ears.
Starting today, police promise to work harder at regulating traffic.
On Thursday, even the City Council will listen.
Payne, an indefatigable worker for his neighborhood, is pleased. He credits an alliance of neighborhood associations that was forged to fight the problems associated with the weekly happening that attracts as many as 5,000 young people to his community.
"Until last week, that was the first time anyone has ever told me they would address the concerns of the neighborhood," Payne said Thursday. "It was like talking to deaf ears. . . . It felt very good to know that you had such support from surrounding neighborhoods. I was no longer alone trying to discuss the matter."
Don Bartlett, president of Old Southeast, climbed on board after receiving a call from Payne. Brent Fisher, president of the Greater Pinellas Point Civic Association, got involved later, when it appeared that the noisy party might move to his neighborhood.
"I am willing to get in the boat with my brother Charles," he said late last week.
Perhaps such an alliance should have been formed earlier, said Barbara Ellis, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations. Nonetheless, she added, it has come at the right time.
"I believe there has always been strength in numbers," Ellis said. "I believe in compromise.
"Unfortunately, I thought that Bartlett Park was doing all the compromising and when we sat down at the table, it was the neighborhoods that were doing all of the compromising. . . . This has been going on for such a long time. I can remember last summer attending some meetings and it was like this was the way it was going to be, period. It does take people getting together and saying no, "Let's stop and evaluate this.'
"I am hoping that we can come up with something that is acceptable to everybody."
City officials listened only when they learned that Bartlett Park and the surrounding neighborhood associations of Harbordale and Old Southeast were collecting petitions against Chunky Sunday and planned to take their grievances to the City Council, said Theresa McEachern, president of the Harbordale Neighborhood Association.
"Then they got busy and wanted to listen," Payne agreed. "The chief of police had never been involved. All of a sudden, he was holding every meeting."
For the past year, Payne said, he had been meeting each Wednesday with Jamaican Funk, the group that provides entertainment for Chunky Sunday, and city officials including chief of staff Don McRae, police Maj. Cedric Gordon and parks director Dell Holmes.
"I always aired the views of the neighborhood and I was not very fruitful ever, because they always seemed to make up their minds that they would try to appease the people having these parties," he said.
"They were not listening to the neighborhood. They never would address the parking. I can never understand why the voting majority, the tax-paying majority, we were not being listened to."
Harbordale's McEachern was the first to team up with Payne.
"I suspect that what happened was once we started the petition drive, that this trickled back to the city administration," she said.
A meeting was arranged with Bartlett Park, Harbordale, police Chief Goliath Davis, other city officials and representatives from Tropical Shores, Lake Maggiore Shores and the Council of Neighborhood Associations.
Davis, who headed the talks, announced that Jamaican Funk had agreed to meet with the neighborhood groups to discuss the gatherings.
That meeting quickly followed and a compromise was reached to rotate Chunky Sunday around three parks: Bartlett, Campbell and Maximo.
But no one had asked Campbell Park residents or those who live in Pinellas Point, in whose neighborhood Maximo is located.
At the next meeting, to which representatives of those two neighborhoods were invited, city officials were confronted with an even stronger alliance. Neighborhood representatives arrived with almost two pages of questions and demands for city officials that had been worked out at a secret meeting days earlier.
"I wanted to hear what they wanted to say without benefit of the chief, if they had a problem or if they felt uncomfortable with something they wanted to voice," Fisher said of the meeting of neighborhood leaders.
"I am a strong proponent that the neighborhoods voice their concerns, because we are the city and as such I think the neighborhoods need to take a more proactive role in controlling their destiny," he added.
To that end, Fisher and his colleagues got together and mapped out their strategy. Not part of the group was CONA's Ellis and Bernice Darling, president of Lake Maggiore Shores Neighborhood Association. Ellis said she was not told of the meeting. Darling, a city employee working in the neighborhood partnership office where the meetings between the neighborhood groups and city officials are being held, said she was told there had been efforts to contact her.
"I would like to think that they tried to contact me," said Darling, who at times has disagreed with other neighborhood leaders' approach to the Chunky Sunday problem. "I am sure everybody knew that I was not there to represent the city."
When they met with Davis, the neighborhood associations appeared ready to accept Chunky Sunday.
"The event has made great improvements since its inception," said Payne, who had attended the gathering the previous day.
Fisher also had looked in on the event.
"It was fairly orderly except on the streets," he told the police chief. "The volume from the entertainment was not unbearable. . . . It (Chunky Sunday) was not everything I was led to believe."
Then the group fired the salvo.
Yes, they would agree to rotate Chunky Sunday, they said, but parks throughout the city also should be part of the rotation. And while that was being considered, they asked, there were certain questions they wanted answered.
"Who is providing liability coverage for the park? To what extent and at what cost," they asked.
"Would the same rights be granted to any other group?" the associations queried. "Boy Scouts, Southern Baptist Convention or the Klan? What makes this group so special?"
Fisher said he wanted the neighborhoods to cooperate with the chief's proposal to rotate Chunky Sunday.
"But I wanted it to go throughout the city," he said. "It isn't a situation where I am trying to make the entire city suffer. I don't think it is as bad as it has been projected, but at the same time I think there are some things that need to be done administration-wise or law enforcement-wise to make it more palatable for everyone."
Wanda Ricks, a board member of Old Southeast, presented the representatives' questions and demands.
"The community is united," she said. "It is not that the community is against the kids. We are paying taxes for services that are not being provided."
Darling disagreed with some of the issues raised by other neighborhood representatives.
"I don't think the answer to our problem lies in burying our heads in the sand," she said Friday.
"To move those young people all over the city. . . . I think that the parks we wanted to rotate to didn't want the kids there. Are we saying they don't belong anywhere? We don't tell anybody else that. But I am just one person. I am afraid I am not going along with the masses."
Later Fisher gave a report of the meeting to an uncompromising crowd of Pinellas Point residents. They made it clear they were unwilling to welcome Chunky Sunday to their neighborhood. It was at that point that Larry Williams, council member for the district, stepped into the fray to announce he would put Chunky Sunday on the City Council agenda and seek suspension of future permits for Jamaican Funk.
That week another City Council member, Frank Peterman, also got involved. During his quarterly town meeting Thursday, which he began and ended with prayers, he listened as residents spoke both for and against the gathering.
Bartlett Park resident McDaniel Drayton said he approves of the weekly party. With the proper resources, he said, traffic congestion can be alleviated.
"Just like the officers monitor the dome, let them monitor Bartlett Park," he said. "Bring them to Bartlett Park."
Sobukwe Bambaata, media coordinator for the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, stated his case to an attentive audience of about 75.
"I am a youth. I go out to the park. You can't recall one incident where the police have to disrupt something down there. People have a right to be down there and it is not a threat to the stability of the community. It is constructive," he said.
"If you don't like it there you can move somewhere else."
Doris Tillman, a Bartlett Park resident, is more interested in peace and quiet than moving.
The problem is not what is going on in the park, she said. It is what partiers do to the neighborhood that surrounds it.
"If they have a beer can, when they are done with it, they toss it in your yard," she explained the next day.
"If you are not home to say don't park in your driveway, don't park in your yard, you are doomed. They curse you out," she added.
"All the kids aren't bad, we know that. You can't hear your TV. You can't hear yourself think. You can't have any company. You are a prisoner. Everybody wants to say we don't care about the youth, that is not true."
Friday morning, police Maj. Cedric Gordon said that starting this weekend efforts will be made to control traffic in the Bartlett Park neighborhood.
"It's about time. I will be there on Sunday to see how things go," Payne said. "It will take more than one Sunday. We have to monitor it and see how it works out.
"It is just strange that it took all this to get their attention. I think of the stigma it has left on the area."
"You can't turn back the time, you can only hope for the best and move forward. I am awfully excited about the fact that they have decided to listen. I can't be angry. I would hope that in the future the city fathers will take time to listen to their voting citizens."
During the 1996 disturbances, Payne saw the community's resource center destroyed by arson. Today the office is housed in a trailer, awaiting the arrival of a donated, prefabricated building that will serve as a permanent structure.
Payne says he just wants to make a difference in the neighborhood.
"I like to see my community look good and people living good, like in other communities," he said.
"As a property owner and now as president of the Bartlett Park association, I took on the responsibility that I would like to see a change. That change is housing, for one. There is so much housing in the Bartlett Park neighborhood that is undesirable. Drugs are a big problem."
Despite its challenges, Payne values his community and praises the park that has become a mecca for thousands of young adults.
"The park is a very beautiful park and it should be used by all of the people, not just by some special people," he said. "I have so many people who ask why can't they use the park on Sundays? We all would like to enjoy the park, not just a special group."
Neighborhood leaders hope for a resolution before the City Council this week.
"I think that is where it belongs, probably," said Darling, of Lake Maggiore Shores.
"I am hoping that council will briefly discuss this and open this to public hearing," said McEachern, of Harbordale.
Added Ricks, of Old Southeast, "I am glad it is an open forum. I would like to see it put on as a referendum."
Payne, in whose community the gatherings probably will continue each Sunday until a compromise is reached, is realistic.
"It is far from over," he said.