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Seeds of hope
© St. Petersburg Times
How does a deputy mayor for economic development in Midtown spend his day? Does he develop economy sitting at his desk? Does the really serious economy developing require a hard hat? At the end of the day is the economy closer to being developed?
Looking to answer such questions is how I wound up recently spending a day with Goliath Davis, St. Petersburg's deputy mayor for economic development in Midtown. Economic development is such a liquid, ambiguous term that I wondered if the man in charge of it could doodle all day and nobody would notice.
Midtown, alias South Side, a.k.a. Challenge Area, has a reputation for weeds. Ask about drug holes and, accurately or not, even the police will give you Midtown addresses. Ask about poverty and people who have never even been there will point to the city's south. Ask about crime and people who wouldn't be caught dead there will give a knowing nod in Midtown's direction.
When you're focused on weeds, it's easy not to see wildflowers, let alone appreciate their subtle, individual beauty.
Ms. Mobley is one of Midtown's wildflowers.
You might have seen her at a Juneteenth celebration or some other event, sitting in a booth surrounded by clothing, artifacts and other merchandise with a mostly African and Asian flavor. For the better part of 15 years, that's what she did, following prospective customers around St. Petersburg and around the state.
No more. Now, customers from St. Petersburg and many from outside the state find her. In Midtown.
Her dream, which started out as a booth bouncing from festival to festival, now has a name and a storefront: Simply Natural Boutique and Braiding Salon, at 1622 Central Ave. She has been there since June 2000, working with two of her eight sisters, Drucella Ndoye and Malissia Daneshpour.
Although the success of her business hinges on the customer appeal of the international merchandise and hairstyling, Mobley speaks most enthusiastically about the things offered at Simply Natural that don't have a price tag.
"It is a healthy place," she said. "Spiritually, politically, mentally and socially. It's named Simply Natural, but we call it the gathering place, where people can come to get fed."
She said she enjoys answering the many questions generated by the merchandise she stocks, much of which she travels internationally to acquire, and some that she handcrafts. "It's going good here," she said.
While Mobley graduated from a nomadic beginning, Bernice Green couldn't have been more stationary. She and her family operated their bakery and sandwich shop in the same location, the 600 block of 22nd Street S, for 24 years. As the street, once the economic and social heart of St. Petersburg's proscribed black community, went from prosperity to devastation, Green's shop kept breathing. As neighboring enterprises succumbed to the slash of Interstate 275 through its main artery and the area injected itself with the poison of the crack epidemic, the Greens kept their "Open" sign up in the impostor of a building their shop occupied.
Last Tuesday, Green's Bakery and Sandwich Shop moved. To bigger, better digs at 3065 18th Ave. S. To a place more accessible, where traffic is heavier and more people will learn about the baked goods and sandwiches that survived the worst conditions and economy time could throw at 22nd Street.
Green's shop is a Midtown wildflower, straining one step closer to reaching full blossom.
So is Shashi's at 16th Street and 18th Avenue S, where you can shop from the shelf as you would at any store, or you can enjoy specialty foods with a Carribean flavor prepared while you wait.
There are many others.
I knew that already. I knew before I hopped into the car with Goliath Davis that Midtown is not just the patch of weeds its reputation in other parts of the city would have some think. Even those who take that reputation as gospel must realize at some level how gullible they're being. Some of the area's wildflowers have been hard to miss for a long time. Some have flourished there so long they're legendary enough that you don't have to use the full name, the part that defines what the business does.
Atwater's. Welch's. Lou Brown. Big Tim's. Red's. McRae's...
They are so familiar, they're easy to overlook, like the trees on your street. You don't think about them. They're just there. Seemingly always were. Seemingly always will be. The only time you take conscious notice of them is when one is no longer there.
But there is a part of Midtown that thrives between the area's famous names and the names that too often lean toward infamy. That's the part Raynetta Mobley and Bernice Green inhabit.
That's the part Davis focused on during my ride-along, a diversity of businesses at various stages of development and levels of success, offering a smorgasbord of goods and services, owned by people who had dreams and were stubborn enough not to give up on them.
Focused on them, I didn't notice any weeds.
As for Davis' job description: It's still not clear enough to sum up neatly in a couple of sentences. Sales, however, is a major part of it, selling Midtown to investors and businesses as a place with something to offer them, and the bigger job of selling Midtown to itself, convincing it to believe in itself.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.