Crime-ridden Melrose: avenue of despair
By LEONORA LaPETER
ST. PETERSBURG -- The tattered memorial is propped against a palm tree in a vacant lot on Melrose Avenue S. It is a large heart made of string, flanked on either side by plastic crosses, adorned with fake pink and red flowers.
It's just a few feet from the spot where 24-year-old Jacobie Spradley was killed Monday in a spray of bullets. But this memorial was erected months ago for Joshua Jones, a 19-year-old who was shot and killed two blocks away after a drug dispute last June.
As death revisits, older residents say it is time for police to stop the high-caliber violence, and a parade of activists are calling for intervention in the beleaguered neighborhood.
One need only look at the front yards to see what is going on here. Dozens of empty clear plastic bags used for crack cocaine and marijuana litter the stubbly grass. Young men wander the street day and night and sell drugs, disappearing when police show up.
"This neighborhood has been just completely torn up," said the Rev. Sam Grace, who lives nearby and holds religious services under a tarp in his back yard.
Here in the heart of 13th Street Heights, working class people co-exist with the unemployed. There are security guards and business owners, retirees and preachers, telemarketers and lots of drug-dealers.
In one home on Melrose Avenue S., nine people share a four-bedroom home. Not one of them has a job.
It's the same neighborhood where a civil rights movement sprouted three decades ago and a mayoral candidate emerged just last year.
It was a different time.
* * *
Lattoria Hall, 17, emerges from the gray house at 1018 Melrose Ave. S with an 8-month old baby cousin on her hip. Lattoria is wearing white shorts and a tight blue sleeveless shirt imprinted with 'Diva' in silver.
Hall says nine or 10 people share the four-bedroom home, including herself, but none of them works. "Most of 'em get disability," she says.
More than a year ago, the home had fallen into such a state of disrepair that 62-year-old matriarch Viola Hall could see stars through her roof. With help from a city loan, the house was replaced.
Now, bullet holes from Monday mar its eaves.
On one side of Hall's home is a new cream-colored home built by Habitat for Humanity, sporting two bullet holes in its new glass windows. On the other side is an empty lot where people hang out, play cards, drink beers. Some neighbors say it is also a place where drugs are taken and sold.
Spradley, who Lattoria Hall knew as "Cobie," came here often.
"He'd sit right in that field next to that garbage can, playing cards," she recalled. "He was good people, stayed to himself, walking up and down the street talking on his cell phone."
Out in the street, NAACP President Darryl Rouson pulls up, gets out of his black Jaguar and smooths his gray suit. City Council member Bill Foster is walking down the sidewalk from his car in a pair of khakis and a jean shirt. Several TV reporters show up with cameramen in tow.
And then a young woman walks down the street with two young girls in tow. She's wearing a striped halter dress and fluffy black slippers. She identifies herself as Carlitha Clark, 23, a former girlfriend of Spradley's who says she is the mother of two children. She lives in Bethel Heights and was on her way to get cough medicine and had to see the place where he died.
She and Spradley met when she was 12. She said she had her first child with him when she was 14.
Foster walks up to one of the little girls, Spradley's girls, and kneels down in front of her. Jakasha, 7, is wearing a turquoise shorts outfit, her sprout of thick braids held together at the top of her head with a tie that has two white plastic balls.
Her large, sad eyes peer at Foster suspiciously.
"You OK, sweetie?" asks Foster. "We're going to find who did this, make sure this place is safe to play."
Activist Omali Yeshitela pulls up in his cream-colored Infiniti, gets out and begins talking to news crews. He's wearing a sleeveless white button-down shirt, white pants.
He's telling the news crews that the problem is the lack of economic development, the lack of action by the city, the fact that the cops have always been there and never provided a solution.
And, Rouson says, the community must help itself.
"The reality is this: You will not stop the prostitution here until you stop the prostitution at City Hall. That's where the real prostitutes are," Yeshitela says.
Rouson backs away from Yeshitela and the TV cameras, and moves to the sidewalk.
Across the street, Nora Rolland is selling plastic baggies of Cajun potatoes and boiled peanuts. She grew up on Melrose Avenue S but lives near another crime hot spot, 12th Avenue and 12th Street.
"Melrose is not a bad place to live," she says. "It's just that a whole lot of junk starts somewhere else and ends at Melrose . . . but this is the worst I've ever seen it. It's the drugs."
* * *
A police cruiser pulls up and three officers get out. Several men hanging out on front porches disappear.
"What," asks Officer Patrick McGovern, "you don't want to talk to me?"
He says this area of Melrose has had 15 to 20 shootings in the eight years he has been an officer. He points to the ground. "There's enough crack baggies to make a plastic recycling plant out here."
A young man with dreadlocks, wearing black jeans and a tank top, is sitting on stairs in front of a turquoise duplex, just feet from where Spradley was shot.
"What happened to the killer?" he yells at the officers. "Those reefer bags y'all digging up, that's petty. You just want to talk about dope. This is about murder, man. This has got nothing to do with dope."
Across the street, Dennie Wainwright wonders where the cops are when she needs them. The 67-year-old has lived in her concrete block house with its bright pink shutters for 31 years. She raised six children there.
She's particularly irked about the boarded up house next to her home. It's been boarded up, she says, for almost 14 years. Mayor Rick Baker came here during his election, and said he was going to do something about it but nothing's been done.
She has seen drug deals going down while children are walking to the bus stop in the morning. At night, there are boom boxes and honking cars and cursing. And still, the police don't come.
"Sometimes I sit here and I try to read my Bible," she says, "and I have to go in the back where I can't hear it."
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