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Neighborhood notebook

Founder of 13th Street group ends 22-year stint

Dorothy Gilliam, the leader of her neighborhood association through three mayors, steps down at age 83.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Dorothy Gilliam, founder and president of the Thirteenth Street Heights Neighborhood Association, is stepping down after 22 years.

"I am at the age where I can't get out and cut and rake and push and shovel and do the things I need to do," said Gilliam, 83.

Gilliam moved to St. Petersburg in 1970 from Montclair, N.J. Her husband, Thomas Gilliam, died in the Korean War. Gilliam raised two grandchildren here while her daughter attended college. She started the neighborhood association in 1979 after noticing that the area needed a facelift. That neighborhood is quite different from the Thirteenth Street Heights of today, which stretches from Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street S to 16th Street S, from 11th Avenue S to 18th Avenue S.

"This was a rough neighborhood," she said. "Homes were run down and needed painting. Sidewalks were broken or not there. Branches hit you in the face when you walked by."

A couple of areas lacked not only sidewalks by the streets but any ground to walk on. Beside 15th Avenue S, between what is now Dr. M.L. King Street and 10th Street, Gilliam recalled, "There was just a big hole where sidewalks were supposed to be, and you had to walk around it however you could."

Another block on 12th Street S, between 13th and 14th avenues, was just as bad. "I saw a need to make it look like human beings lived here," Gilliam said.

Neighbors met with city engineers. Residents began clearing away brush and cleaning up what they could on their own. They got sidewalks three years later, in 1982. The city also agreed to supply paint, which they used to paint their houses.

In her term at Thirteenth Street Heights, Gilliam has outlasted Mayors Edward Cole, Corinne Freeman and David Fischer. "No one took an interest like Mayor Fischer," she said. "He always responded. Whatever you asked for, you got."

As the city and neighbors made improvements, other residents followed suit. People began remodeling their homes. In the 1990s, the area also acquired Silver Lake Park, at 13th Street and 11th Avenue S. Gilliam fought drug activity there.

Bernice Darling, president of the Lake Maggiore Shores Neighborhood Association, credits Gilliam with helping to push drug sellers from the park.

"Because of her leadership, that neighborhood has remained stable," said Darling, who also works for the city as a neighborhood planner. Gilliam's activism has stretched beyond her own neighborhood, Darling said. "Whatever you're doing, she's one of the first people who will come forward and say, 'What can we do?"'

But after two hip replacements, heart surgery and a broken leg in recent years, Gilliam is ready to step down. She wonders why more people are not involved.

"In a neighborhood this size, you should have 40 to 50 people at a meeting. I have put out fliers, called people on the phone, knocked on doors, asking and begging people to come to meetings. But they will not. It's time for someone else to take over now."

Even so, Gilliam said of her 22 years, "I loved what I was doing."

Thirteenth Street Heights will elect new officers at its 3 p.m. Saturday meeting at the Enoch Davis Center, 1111 18th Ave. S.

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