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How a park cleaned up East Ybor

Once littered with drug paraphernalia and broken alcohol bottles, the corner of 26th Street and 12th Avenue in East Ybor City symbolized what was wrong with the community.

Jeraldine Williams insisted the city build a park in the lot.

She told officials providing the neighborhood where she then-resided with green space, a playground and a basketball court will give residents pride. Doing so, she added, will push the crime out.

A dozen years after the park opened, crime statistics show that East Ybor is safer. But Williams, who now resides in Plant City, says she has more tangible proof of its improvement.

In early August, her son's family completed their move into the East Ybor home she still owns. That includes her grandson.

Would Williams let the 14-year-old boy she calls "my baby" live in a dangerous neighborhood?

"Absolutely not," she said.

And while there are other reasons why East Ybor is on the rise, residents say that park sparked the resurgence.

"People needed to know the city cared about us," said Williams, 72. Before the park, "we had nothing from the city."

East Ybor kids used to have no public hangout. She recalled girls making "snow angels" in the dirt on the side of a road. Milk crates nailed to telephones poles served as basketball hoops.

Today, "tons of families use the park for birthday parties and other gatherings," said Jose Cayon, 46, president of the neighborhood association in East Ybor, a district bordered by Interstate 4 to the north and Adamo Drive to the south, from 22nd Street to as far east as 28th Street.

"Kids play basketball there almost every evening. The park creates that sense of community by offering green space residents can enjoy in a safe environment."

In turn, that has made East Ybor a more attractive community for "good people to move to," said Howard Roundtree Jr., 57, who has spent his entire life there. "It is better here than it once was."

Williams' son, Walter Lee Smith Jr., called the park located a block from where he now resides a "family symbol."

"Not my family, but this community that is a family" said Smith, 45 and a candidate for Tampa City Council District 1. "It has become a symbol of who we are."

Williams' father, Judge Williams, built the family home a short walk from his auto mechanic shop in 1945.

"It was the first cement bungalow in Ybor," Williams said. "And the only one with an attached garage."

She was born in that home via a mid-wife and grew up in a neighborhood she called peaceful and eclectic. "We had African Americans, Sicilians, Cubans."

In 1963 she became the first African American to graduate from the School of Journalism at the University of Florida and later earned a law degree from Florida State University.

Careers in those fields took her to Atlanta, Massachusetts, Tallahassee and South Africa.

When Williams returned to Tampa in the early 2000s, she moved into and opened a law practice out of her late-parents' East Ybor home.

But while the west side of Ybor was flourishing as an entertainment district, drug dealing represented the east's main trade.

So, Williams put the police on speed dial, she said, and warned the dealers, "They can do whatever they want, but not here. We got them out."

Williams then helped form the neighborhood association and she, her son and her godsister Stephania Duncan lobbied the city to turn its unused land on the corner of 26th Street and 12th Avenue into a park.

"They told me I could have a piece of it," she laughed. "I said, 'Not a piece, the whole thing.'"

The city spent around $200,000 on the park that opened in 2006.

A year later, when Williams took her grandson Walter Smith III to the park, she chased off kids who were there to fight. Moments later, a police officer arrived, and he played basketball with Williams' grandson.

After that, laughed Smith II, his son called it "his park."

Williams left East Ybor for Plant City four years ago and rented the home until her son's family decided to reside there.

"We were waiting for the right time," Smith II said.

The Tampa Police Department reports there were 60 violent and 209 property crimes in the East Ybor area in 2002, the year the park opened. Last year, those numbers dropped to eight and 23.

"There are pockets with trouble," resident Roundtree said.

Williams may no longer live there, but her grandson does, so she has a message for those who bring trouble.

"I'm back to keep an eye on everything."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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