TAMPA — When her son used to leave for work or to hang out with friends, Patricia Brown would linger by the kitchen window and watch him make his way toward “the Cut,” a grass shortcut to get to Nebraska Avenue.
Sometimes, she would wait at the same window when he was due home.
Devanté Brown was 27, but still her baby. The youngest of her six children, he was the only one who still lived with her in their two-bedroom unit at Tampa Park Apartments.
Vanté, as his friends called him, walked the Cut the night of March 21 to meet some friends. He was struck by gunfire that police reports said came from a group of four men between 18 and 25, all clad in dark clothing and armed. He died at Tampa General Hospital before his mother could reach him.
Her son, who worked at a Lowe’s store and had never been in serious trouble with the police, was the victim of a stray bullet, his friends told his mother. He was one of three Black men who died from gunshot wounds in the space of three days in East Tampa.
In the months since, Brown hasn’t been able to walk past the spot near Booker T. Washington Elementary School where he fell. But she couldn’t break the habit of looking for him through her kitchen window.
“Sometimes, I just break down and cry, because I look, and I don’t see him walk through the Cut,” she said.
The neighborhood where her son died was not a place where Brown wanted to linger, and it wasn’t just because of the gun violence.
The aging complex is rundown and prone to infestations, federal inspections show. In little more than a year there, her apartment had flooded and her bathroom ceiling partially collapsed.
But it’s not been easy to leave Tampa Park Apartments. Its rents are about $300 cheaper than average monthly rents in Tampa. And Brown could not afford the deposit and first and last month’s rent required for a new apartment.
She was able to move only because the complex has been sold to Ybor City developer Darryl Shaw, who plans to raze it and build housing. Shaw and Hillsborough County are helping more than 200 families with moving costs and initial rent payments at new places.
Last week, Brown swept the floor of her apartment for a final time, closed the door and returned the key.
“It’s been a nightmare since I’ve been there,” she said.
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Brown moved to Tampa Park Apartments in April 2019 after coming back from California, where she had moved to take care of her father.
The complex of about 320 homes was built in the late 1960s as housing for longshoremen who worked at what is now called Port Tampa Bay. The barracks-style buildings with painted cinder-block interiors are similar to public housing units built at the time.
She lived in the southern half of the complex, which had failed four federal inspections in as many years, prompting the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2018 to tell the owner it would no longer subsidize rents there.
Inspectors reported infestations of roaches and mice, exposed wiring, damaged doors and windows that wouldn’t open. About 170 families who received rent subsidies were given Section 8 vouchers, so they could move. Most of the families who replaced them paid full rent. Another 34 families in the north section of the complex still receive subsidies.
The complex is owned by a nonprofit group led by Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper publisher S. Kay Andrews. Andrews did not return two calls and a text seeking comment. In an article published in her newspaper earlier this year, she said it had become increasingly difficult to maintain the property after losing the federal subsidies.
Brown, 54, paid $700 a month for her apartment. After five years with AdventHealth, she makes $11.57 an hour working overnight shifts that begin at 10 p.m. at a hospital where she leads a team of housekeepers.
Things began to go wrong in her first days at Tampa Park, when a toilet backed up and the bathroom flooded. She and her mother had to sweep sewage water out of the apartment.
It was usually a struggle to get the maintenance crew to come out, she said. On one occasion, when her tub was leaking, she was told the complex owed money to the plumber. Another time, she got so fed up waiting, she called state Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, and begged her to intervene.
Twice, her bathroom ceiling partially collapsed, she said.
“You have to keep calling and calling,” she said. “You have to say some things to make them come out.”
But it was home for her and Devanté. It was close to his work at the hardware store on Dale Mabry and close to where Brown grew up.
Devanté came home early from work on March 21. The family was celebrating the 85th birthday of Brown’s mother with a small party. Afterward, he went to see friends.
Brown was in the shower when someone banged on her door and told her that her son had been shot. At first, she couldn’t believe it, then she broke down crying.
“My baby never came home,” she said.
His death came just as pandemic stay-at-home orders were enacted by city and county officials. The family held a private service for him at The Center for Manifestation, a church north of Ybor City. Those paying respects were asked to sit apart.
A Blake High School student, Devanté transferred to a job-training program before he graduated because he was having trouble at school, Brown said. Her son was affectionate and affable, always ready with a hug and an “I love you.”
He loved playing basketball and playing with his nieces and nephews. When he was at work, he called his mom six or seven times a day to make sure she was okay.
“I would give anything in the world, anything, just to hear his voice again,” Brown said.
After he died, a friend of a friend made Brown a life-sized cardboard cutout of Devanté for his memorial service. In the picture, his short dreadlocks hang over his face. His hands hold open a denim shirt to reveal a T-shirt with a picture of Byron Pringle, a close childhood friend who graduated from Robinson High School and went on to win a Super Bowl playing wide receiver with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Underneath the picture are the initials C.P.V. It stood for Central Park Village, the now-demolished Tampa public housing project where Devanté and Byron played as kids.
* * *
Devanté‘s was one in a spate of East Tampa deaths that prompted Hart, the state lawmaker, to form a task force to try to reduce violence in the community.
On March 19, a 36-year-old man was shot and killed outside the East Side Grocery on N. 15th St. Suspects fired multiple rounds from a distance into a group of people outside the business. The man, whose name has not been released by police, had just arrived to pick up his mother from the store, police said.
One day later, 18-year-old Talance Callins was riding with his girlfriend down E 18th Avenue, just north of Ybor City, when someone fired a gun from the roadside.
Hart said Devanté was an innocent victim of gang violence when he died the next day.
“They were not trying to shoot him; he was not involved in anything,” Hart said. “It was a terrible accident that this young man was killed.”
In a three-week period through the end of March, the Tampa Police Department reported 10 shootings and three homicides across Tampa.
Hart was in Tallahassee when the East Tampa shootings happened. She heard from community activist Connie Burton and City Council Member Orlando Gudes that action was needed.
The task force they formed will include politicians, business owners and young people, she said. A group of local elected leaders met Wednesday to discuss how to set up the group. Its aim is to bring jobs and opportunities to more young people to curtail the violence.
“I call it all gang activity,” Hart said. “Folks don’t have the things they need, and many will try to figure out how to get it, whether it’s legal or not.”
Two months after the tragedy, Brown watched the death of George Floyd spark nationwide protests and marches supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
She struggled to feel the same anger. She is glad that the issue of racism is getting attention, she said, but if Black lives matter, then why is no one coming forward with the names of those who fired at her son? Doesn’t his life matter, too?
Even his friends aren’t helping with the investigation, she said, adding: “This no-snitch, no-tell thing, it goes out the window with me.”
Brown’s new home is a one-bedroom apartment in River Oaks Apartments. Even though it’s smaller, the rent is $120 more than she paid at Tampa Park.
But the complex is nice. It has a community pool and is close to the Hillsborough River. It’s also close to Rest Haven Memorial Park Cemetery, where Devanté is buried.
Brown has the cardboard cutout of him in her new bedroom, but his picture is facing the wall. It’s too upsetting to look at, she said.
When she woke her first morning at her new home, it was quiet, she said. It felt different.
The anguish is still there, still deep. But for the first time, there was calmness, too, a little peace.