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Waiting in Midtown

In one St. Petersburg neighborhood, a trip to the grocery store, the doctor's or the bank can be an arduous process.

By SHARON L. BOND, Neighborhood Times Business Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 18, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- So what if your neighborhood doesn't have your choice of a large grocery store or full-service post office or branch bank?

Very few people have the luxury of being within walking distance of all the everyday things they need. So they get in the car and go.

But in some areas of the city, a lack of basic services is more serious. Midtown is one of them. Many of its residents rely on the public bus system, family or friends to get them around. And they have to go farther for basics unless they are satisfied with only one large grocery store -- one that is nowhere near the heart of Midtown -- few branch banks and a post office substation.

Midtown is a 5.5-square-mile area that sits mostly south of downtown St. Petersburg. It is home to 22,295 residents as of 2001 who have a median income of only $19,277 -- half the households make more, half make less. In St. Petersburg at large, the median household income is nearly double what it is in Midtown.

"The larger issue is not having basic services," said Deputy Mayor Goliath J. Davis III, whose job it is to improve the economic life in Midtown.

Midtown is an area bordered by Second Avenue N and 30th Avenue S and Fourth and 34th streets. More than 86 percent of its residents are African-American.

Davis said he is courting all the grocery chains to try to get them to come to Midtown.

"A lot of outsiders don't understand there is money to be made in Midtown," Davis said.

Mayor Rick Baker believes that if a grocery can be convinced to move in, a bank will follow. He even has called on Gov. Jeb Bush for help.

"I asked him to call heads of grocery stores, and he has done that," said Baker, adding that he is optimistic Midtown will get another large grocery. Already plans are under way for another health care facility on the site of the old Mercy Hospital on 22nd Street S. And Baker still is pressing postal officials to add a retail center to the distribution center on 16th Street S. So far the post office's answer has been to add a so-called contract unit inside the 18th Avenue Grocery.

Davis said the need for a large grocery is obvious.

"When you look around Midtown at the Mom-and-Pop stores, it becomes blatantly obvious" people are spending money, he said. And the answer is a resounding yes, that they should be able to get groceries at better prices.

"The smaller chains have got to mark up. I don't want to try to put them out of business," Davis said. "All the small stores speak to a need. They wouldn't be here if people did not have a need for their products and spend money purchasing their products.

"The products are basically food stuffs, food items," he said.

Here is a look at how some Midtown residents go about getting the basics they need.

By bus to the doctor

Midtown resident Fannie Howard, who has diabetes and arthritis, recently had a 3:30 p.m. doctor's appointment at St. Anthony's Medical Office Building on Fifth Avenue N. Neither her son nor her friends, on whom she regularly relies for transportation, could take her.

Howard, 39, rides the bus to her work as a preschool teacher and this day would take the bus to her appointment.

About 10 minutes before 2 p.m., she walked from her house to the PSTA stop on 18th Avenue S in front of the Enoch Davis Center.

The No. 14 was a few minutes late. Howard sat in the covered shelter chatting with others. It was sticky and close but not in the direct sun.

The bus runs by the Enoch Davis Center every half hour. Howard thought taking the 2 p.m. bus would put her at Central Plaza with only a short wait for her connection.

But when she arrived at the transfer terminal, she found out her connector wouldn't be along for another 45 minutes. She said PSTA did not give her the most direct route when she called that morning. At least the terminal was shaded and had plenty of benches.

"You definitely have to have patience to take the bus," she said.

Just before 3 p.m., No. 5 rolled up and Howard got on board. What should have been a short ride to the St. Anthony's building turned into more than Howard expected. The bus left Central Plaza, wound over to Fifth Avenue N and passed very near her doctor's office. But it didn't stop, instead moving on toward downtown to Williams Park, another major transfer point. There, the No. 5 parked for about 10 minutes to await its scheduled departure time.

Howard probably could have saved an hour's time if she had gone directly to Williams Parks from her home.

No. 5 headed back toward St. Anthony's Medical Office Building on Fifth Avenue N. Howard arrived at the doctor's office with about three minutes to spare. It was an hour before the doctor saw her, keeping her in his office 30 minutes.

About 5:15 Howard walked out to wait for the bus. No seats, cover or shade were available. It was uncomfortably hot waiting in the sun. After 10 minutes, bus No. 5 arrived, and this time Howard was lucky.

The bus got to Central Plaza in seven to eight minutes. As it pulled in, another passenger spotted a No. 14 waiting, which Howard also needed. They quickly left No. 5 and boarded No. 14. It took off and deposited Howard in front of the Enoch Davis Center at 5:35 p.m.

Howard lives only 2.5 miles from the medical building where her doctor's appointment was. The trip there took more than an hour and a half, including the 45-minute wait, and two bus fares of $1.25. The trip back was less than 30 minutes, plus two bus fares.

By bus to the grocer, by cab to get home

Monique Middleton walked the half block from her apartment on 22nd Avenue S to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority stop near Atwater's Cafeteria on Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street S. She was on her way to Winn-Dixie at Webb's Plaza, 850 Third Ave. S. It is the only chain grocery in Midtown and sits at the area's northern edge. There she will do her monthly shopping.

Middleton, 21, likes Publix grocery stores. "They have a Bank of America inside," she said. But there is no Publix close to where she lives. In fact, there are none in Midtown. There even used to be a Publix billboard in Midtown, but no store.

Bank of America is Middleton's bank. It has two branches in the southern part of the city, but neither is very close to Middleton, and neither is in Midtown.

The intersection of 22nd Avenue and Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street S is a busy one in Midtown, but it doesn't have all the basics.

By contrast, a busy intersection in the northeast section of the city, Fourth Street N and 38th Avenue, has two chain grocery stores, Publix and Albertsons plus several banks and a drugstore. Only a few blocks away, at M.L. King (Ninth) Street N and 34th Avenue, is a Kash n' Karry and a full retail post office.

Middleton, who is married and has an 8-month-old son, graduated from Advantage Training Systems on 22nd Street S at the end of July after a 13-week computer course. She is job hunting.

The bus is air conditioned so the short ride up Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) S to Webb's Plaza was cool for Middleton. There was a bit of chatter during the ride. One passenger asked to borrow another's St. Petersburg Times. A number of people got off at Webb's Plaza.

Before Middleton went into the grocery store, she used a pay phone outside to check the balance in her bank account. She does not have a telephone in her home. Once inside the store, she stopped by the coupon sheets stacked near the door and took one with her as she headed to the produce aisle.

She planned to cook a roast for Sunday on Saturday night. "It will be ready when I come home from church."

By 3:15 p.m., she had her full grocery cart in line for checkout. She decided to take a taxi home because there was no way she could handle 15 plastic shopping bags of food and three 12-packs of soda. Besides, it was starting to rain again.

Middleton called for the Yellow Cab at about 20 minutes to 4. Winn-Dixie has a direct line to the cab company, which Middleton prefers because she says it has better service.

The cab took about 15 minutes to get to the grocery store. Driver Robert Hans got out and helped Middleton load her groceries. He is used to this trip.

As they were clearing the shopping cart, Middleton put her carton of eggs aside just after Hans put the bread aside.

"I want to take the bread and eggs with me (in the cab instead of the trunk)," Middleton said to Hans.

"I know. I get that a lot," Hans answered.

The short trip back south on M.L. King cost $4.40, compared with the bus ride of $1.25. Middleton was home by 4:15 p.m. She probably could have saved half an hour or so if she had had her own car or a closer, large grocery in which to shop.

By bus to the credit union

Frances Morris, 77, sat on a bus bench facing Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street N in front of the MacDill Federal Credit Union.

"This is when you wish somebody who knows you would drive by and offer you a ride," she said. That happened once before when she had made her monthly bus trip to the credit union.

Not this time.

Morris, mother of 11 children, has never driven. She gets relatives or friends to take her places and she rides the bus.

It was a warm summer day when Morris started out for the credit union at 11:25 a.m. She dabbed her face occasionally with a tissue while waiting for her bus at a covered stop about half a block from the house where she has lived for 26 years.

Morris does not carry a purse, just a stack of plastic cards bound by a rubber band that she puts in her skirt. One of the cards is her monthly bus pass.

To go to the credit union at 2600 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. N, she caught her bus at a stop on M.L. King (Ninth) Street S, about half a block from her house.

At Williams Park downtown, she switched to another bus. After a 15-minute wait at the transfer point, she was on her way north.

After her business was finished, Morris was outside on the uncovered bench, wishing a friend would drive by. It was a 10- to 15-minute-wait for her bus. Then she retraced her travels, down M.L. King (Ninth) N to Williams Park where she arrived about 1:15 p.m. She changed buses and was headed home after a short wait. She arrived at 1:40 p.m.

By car to the dentist

"Thank God for transportation," said Burnell Davis, 67, as she headed for the Pinellas County Health Department office on Seventh Avenue S where her two granddaughters had dental appointments.

Transportation for Davis and her grandchildren, whom she is raising, is a 1988 Lincoln Town Car. It adds convenience to their lives and saves them time.

With Eugenia, 15, and Angelica, 8, settled in the back seat, Davis lowered the front windows before pulling out of their driveway onto 29th Street S. The Lincoln is air conditioned, but to save money she doesn't use it. She has had the car two months.

"I wanted a car bad," she said. "I needed one bad. So some friends got it for me. It needs some minor work. I need it for something like we are going now, and going to their schools."

Davis said she was without a car for four years. Sometimes she would borrow a girlfriend's car. A lot of the time she took the bus. To get to a nearby coin laundry with her clothes, she bought a wire pull cart for a $1.50 at a yard sale.

She and her granddaughters arrived at the Health Department at 9:30 a.m. after a 10-minute drive. They found a space in the parking lot across from the health building, fed two quarters into the meter and went in. Their appointment was at 10 a.m. but Davis had to check in and allowed a half hour for that.

The girls got in for their checkups fairly quickly, and the Davis family was headed back home in less than two hours.

On the way home, Davis saw an older man riding a bicycle. "Bless his heart," she said as they rolled past on 15th Avenue S. "You've got to get where you are going."

Davis goes to her bank, Bank of America, once a month and to get there she has to leave Midtown. She drives into downtown St. Petersburg on First Avenue S.

"Everything is so inconvenient," she says. When asked why, she answers, "I don't know."

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