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Police try to keep peace for Bartlett residents, partiers

Residents near Bartlett Park might enjoy some relief today from the traffic congestion resulting from weekly gatherings of young people in their neighborhood.

Police officials say they are sympathetic to complaints residents are voicing about the Chunky Sunday parties and perhaps they will use more police officers than the usual 12 to control hundreds of vehicles at the event.

At the same time, police leaders say they don't want to appear heavy-handed and jeopardize hard-won rapport between youths and police.

"I am trying to do this in a way that will be sensitive to the neighborhood residents," police Maj. Cedric Gordon said Friday.

"I don't want it to appear that we are an occupying force. Maybe we will look at barricades. We are going to try to look at some things to assist us in freeing up the immediate avenues and streets west of the park," said Gordon, who is district commander for St. Petersburg's south section and has been a constant presence at the gatherings.

Said police Chief Goliath Davis: "We are going to be responsible and maintain some kind of order." Davis said police will be prepared for the crowd, which sometimes grows to as many as 5,000.

Parks director Dell Holmes said late last week that vendors may not be allowed in the park today. And Jamaican Funk, a promotion group that has been providing entertainment, has no permit to play music.

But even without formally approved entertainment, Bartlett Park is expected to be the destination of choice for thousands of youths.

"The misconception is that you need a permit to go to a city park," Davis said. "What the permit allows them to do is bring in their musical system. Historically, with or without permits, these kids go to the park."

The large, noisy Bartlett Park gatherings began about a year ago, faded away during the autumn and winter months, then returned as the days began growing longer. The gatherings typically offer music, barbecue and a place for Sunday socializing, a longtime community tradition.

But residents have complained about loud, sometimes vulgar music, traffic-choked streets and uninvited cars parking in yards. They reiterated many of the concerns at a Thursday town meeting called by City Council member Frank Peterman.

Some say they feel trapped in their homes and worry that emergency vehicles will be unable to reach them.

"When I go to church Sunday," Ettercanara Rose told Peterman at the town meeting, "I don't want to go home."

The City Council is scheduled to talk about Chunky Sunday at its meeting Thursday (see related story), a development that doesn't please Mayor David Fischer.

"If it gets politicized, (the crowd) will grow to 10,000. That's just the way it works. I'd like to see us work it out in the neighborhoods."

Gordon said many people miss the subtleties of the Sunday gathering.

"I have been involved with this thing since its inception," he said. "I don't think anyone has a complete understanding of how complicated this issue is."

The weekly parties have happened for years at various sites.

In the late 1960s, it was a spot off 31st Street and 22nd Avenue S, near the old Times Square shopping center. Over the years, the gatherings have taken place at Maximo Park, Lake Maggiore, Campbell Park, Childs Park and smaller, unnamed green spaces. Sometimes they have even taken place on city streets.

Red Ferguson, who owns Red's Snak Shak at 1701 16th St. S, recalls that in the late 1980s several hundred youths would block off 16th Street between 15th and 18th avenues. Ferguson said it hurt his business because many customers couldn't get to the restaurant. Those who did bought only french fries, not the bigger-ticket dishes.

Ferguson's solution was religion. He said he and a pastor prayed inside the restaurant and played gospel music outside. Eventually, the young people drifted away.

"They just left after a while and nobody came back," Ferguson said.

Bartlett Park always has been a gathering spot, say longtime neighborhood residents, but often for picnics and family groups. It was only recently that it began to grow to a size and character disturbing to neighbors.

Even with the commotion, Chunky Sunday has had a positive side.

Police have gone to great lengths to build a relationship with Jamaican Funk, Gordon said, because the group seemed to have contacts with many young adults who attended the gatherings.

For example, he said, police were able to regulate the volume and content of music played in the park. But recent developments could dissolve some of that cooperation and communication, Gordon added.

"There was a time when they won't even talk with us," he said of the youths. "Maybe some of the experiences they had with the police weren't positive. ... They found that we were sitting down and actually talking with them."

Fischer called the gatherings "a happening" that has generated talk about setting up booths to give out information about educational and job opportunities.

"The impact on the neighborhood is not positive, but the happening itself is positive," the mayor said.

He said he does not favor a heavy-handed approach to the situation.

"We could say, "We're the administrators and we order you to shut this down.' That would be a very foolish thing to do. It would be the wrong message for young people looking for things to do, basically harmless things to do."