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Residents complain city ignores their neighborhood

Neighbors near a strip of 34th Street S in St. Petersburg say they need an ally to win their war on crime and deterioration.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 20, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- They say they are growing desperate.

Residents near a strip of 34th Street S have been trying to wage a war on crime and neighborhood deterioration for nearly six years. They say they have seen no improvement and that they have gotten inadequate support from city government.

They plan to take their concerns to City Hall and, if necessary, march in the street.

About 10 gathered Monday evening in Lillian Lawrence's carport, literally within a stone's throw of a vacant building at 34th Street S and 24th Avenue.

Neighbors say transients use it for sleeping, sex and drug use.

Mrs. Lawrence calls it "the six motel" because a half-dozen people seem to stay there at any given time. She doesn't sleep well at night for fear of what might be going on outside.

Last year, she said, a transient used her house's outdoor shower, placing his clothes on a boat to dry. When the clothes later disappeared, a man wandered into her house looking for them, she said.

Neighbors want the city to demolish the building, which they say has been empty for years.

Trash litters the alley between it and Mrs. Lawrence's home, where she has lived for 15 years. Old rugs lay crumpled, and playing cards are scattered amid the detritus of crushed drink cups and paper bags.

"If that was in my neighborhood, it wouldn't be there," said Winnie Foster, an activist and longtime friend of Mrs. Lawrence's. Foster lives in Bahama Shores.

Last week, residents were surprised to see a crew putting windows and doors in the building.

"We were sure it was going to be demolished," said Alma Frazier, president of the Federation of Inner-City Organizations.

Despite repeated complaints, city officials "don't have respect for us," Frazier said. Problems in the neighborhood are "not a perception; it's a reality. (Officials) ignore you as if you are not a taxpayer."

Sevell Brown III, 31st Street Neighborhood Association president, said neighbors fear the property will become a motel providing a place for prostitutes and drug dealers to base their activities, which they say is a problem with two other neighborhood motels.

"Every day we are fighting this," said Shirley Houston. Prostitution, she said, is escalating in the neighborhood.

Improving the area has been a long and sometimes discouraging battle, Brown said.

In 1996, residents and business owners demanded more police protection after several homicides along 24th Street S. In 1997, they marched in front of an adult video store, hoping to get rid of it.

Drugs get sold every night on the corner of 29th Street S and 17th Avenue, said Shirley Onu. A man fired shots at another man a few nights ago, she said.

"We are citizens entitled to the same treatment as the citizens on Pinellas Point and North Shore and Coquina Key and everywhere else," Brown said.

A few years ago, city government ordered demolition of a motel on 34th Street N that had been identified as a haven for illegal activity. The tear-down prompted a neighborhood block party.

Said Maggie Brown, who lives in the 31st Street neighborhood: "Enforce the law! If you can enforce it one place, you can enforce it in another."

Residents plan to restate their grievances to the City Council.

Besides the federation and 31st Street association, representatives from the Bayview Perry and Mel-Tan Heights neighborhood associations attended Monday night.

"You need to feel safe in your own neighborhood," Christine Hayes said.

City officials couldn't be reached for comment in time for this article.

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