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Portraits of Rembrandt

If you think you know what their world is like, try spending a day here.

By RON MATUS and KEVIN GRAHAM
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 14, 2003


INTERBAY -- Hours before dawn, Rembrandt stirs.

Window-unit air conditioners drone next to smudged walls. Crickets chorus under scraggly palms.

In the parking lot, a car door slams; an engine gurgles.

The sounds repeat at ragged intervals, becoming more frequent as the sky brightens. From open windows, alarm clocks wail, as voices and laughter escape in three languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese.

The people of Rembrandt are going to work.

[Times photos: Stefani Boyar]
SPARRING PARTNERS: Carlos Fox, 17, left, stretches with neighbor Demetrius Dudley, 23, in the parking lot at Rembrandt Garden Apartments in Interbay. Fox plans to study culinary arts in the fall at Hillsborough Community College. He also dreams of being a boxer, and Dudley is helping him train.
On this day, like many, they will pick up garbage and serve Egg McMuffins. They will repair appliances, trim hedges, fluff pillows, clean teeth and cut hair. They will build houses for people with mortgages, then return home to these city-owned quarters.

There are 156 apartments housing 443 residents.

You may think you know something about them.

Public housing, after all, is full of drug dealers and welfare mothers, flea-bitten babies and roach-ridden kitchens -- right? Guns are plentiful; crime, rampant; hope, gone.

Reality is more complicated.

If some residents use Rembrandt as a crutch, others use it as a stepladder.If criminals are born here, so are star athletes and scholars. Last year, a Rembrandt family produced Robinson High School's salutatorian, Thy Minh Do.

Some nights there are bullets, and people cower inside, dressers pushed against windows for protection.

More often, they sit out in the open on stoops. They coddle each other's children and laugh with neighbors until late in the evening.

And then, as on this day, morning arrives.

6:44 a.m.

The sun isn't up yet. But Enrique Cabada is on the move.

Today, if he's lucky, he'll find a second job.

Cabada, 46, the father of two teenage boys, washes hotel laundry at a Howard Johnson's.

"It's only five hours a day," he says. Some months, his checks fall short of covering the utility bills, the groceries and the $261 it costs him to live in Apt. 76.He hoofs it across the Rembrandt campus, wearing black shorts, black shoes and a black silk shirt with a dragon design.

If his friend can't give him a ride, he knows he'll have to take the bus.

He's not sure which potential employer he will visit first, but his list of prospects is long.

Which job does he want the most?

"Cleaning carpet, maybe," Cabada says with a shrug. "Anything."

6:57 a.m.

Sara Hawkins gingerly pushes a stroller down the sidewalk, hoping to strengthen a heart so weak she spends much of the day breathing from an oxygen tank.

She walks in the mornings. Only then does she feel safe.

"This place has gone crazy," she says.

Hawkins, 46, a native of Kenya, moved to Rembrandt three months ago, not long after selling the condominium she and her late husband owned in Temple Terrace. She divided the money between two of her three children so they could go to college in Kenya.

Now, they're taking classes while Hawkins struggles in a strange new neighborhood.

One night two months ago, somebody tried to kick in her front door. She was in the bedroom; her daughter was in the living room, watching TV.

"I'm panicking, almost having a heart attack," Hawkins says.

Call back if it happens again, police told her.

Hawkins moans: "I never thought in a million years I'd be in a place like this."

7:20 a.m.

Kids with backpacks pour out of apartments.

Some begin the trek to school on foot. Some are herded into cars. One, crying, stops and stomps on the sidewalk. A woman yells, and he resumes his march, still crying.

From a second-story window, the sound of another woman floats down to the street: "Ay ay ay," she sings to an infectious salsa beat. On the corner, a kid runs to catch the school bus.

Across the street, a car rumbles into the parking lot at Robinson, radio blaring.

7:46 a.m.

Ruth McCray, 63, doesn't own a car. But she does own a $4,000 TV set.

The 60-inch special was a gift from her children.

McCray prefers the 19-inch TV in her bedroom. But when the Bucs play, children and grandchildren flock to her Rembrandt apartment to munch on hot wings and watch football in style.For the Super Bowl, they had to push three tables together to support all the fixins.

LAUNDRY DAY: Tien Pham brings in her washing from the line outside at Rembrandt. A large Vietnamese population lives in the city-owned public housing complex across from Robinson High.
"We had a food day, honey!" says McCray, better known to Rembrandt residents as Granny.

This morning, McCray relaxes with a visitor while her son whips up pancakes.

She has lived in public housing most of her life, at Rembrandt 15 years. Back problems keep her from working. She channels her energy into the residents council. She's secretary.

Life here is good, she says. The Tampa Housing Authority, which manages Rembrandt, just installed a new toilet in her bathroom and a new light outside her front door.

Residents get along, too, she says.

Many of the Vietnamese adults don't speak English. But when they see McCray, they point and smile, she says.

Then their children run up to give Granny a hug.

8:40 a.m.

In the parking lot, fists fly.

Carlos Fox, 17, and a neighbor spar with shirts off, muscles rippling. Jabs are thrown but intentionally do not connect.

Fox's mother calls to him from their second-floor apartment. She wants help with the paperwork that must be filled out before they can move to the new HOPE VI housing project in East Tampa.

"He's mumbling under his breath," the neighbor tells her.

"You're not telling me nothing I don't know," Fox's mother says with a laugh.

Fox runs a cash register at an Eckerd on Himes Avenue. He gets there on his bike -- "my Escalade," he calls it, likening it to Cadillac's tony SUV.

In the fall, he plans to study culinary arts at Hillsborough Community College. He has already mastered fried chicken, french fries and Kool-Aid, he jokes.

Fox is soft-spoken and polite, with an easy smile.

Later in the day, he spies a mischievous toddler ignoring a mother's pleas to "come back here!" From his bicycle, he scoops up the boy with one strong arm, then holds tight until his reluctant passenger is safely returned.

Since moving to Rembrandt from public housing in Indianapolis, he has learned to say "hello" in Vietnamese and "kiss me" in Spanish. He doesn't think the complex deserves a bad rap.

"There's maybe three drug dealers here," he says. In Indiana, "I've seen a whole block of them."

9:42 a.m.

Butch Williams watches as a maintenance man unclogs the pipes beneath his sink. A metal bowl fills with a putrid black liquid. The kitchen begins to take on the smell.

"Grease," the man says.

Williams nods his head. "Grease," he repeats.

photo
COMMUNITY GARDEN: Nghia Dung waters vegetables in a garden tended by some of the Vietnamese residents at Rembrandt.
His clogged sink was fixed just a day after he complained. He has few gripes about Rembrandt.

"I don't see nothing wrong here," he says with a Jamaican accent. "This is a good area."

Williams, 60, a former migrant worker, moved to Rembrandt in 1979. He raised four children by himself.

The two eldest -- Frisky, 24, and Turqeya, 22 -- graduated from Robinson and earned scholarships to DePauw University and North Carolina State University, respectively.

"I would whup their butt if they did something wrong," he says.

Williams keeps a portrait of Jesus on his front door and an open Bible on a living room table.

On his wall, a plaque hangs. It says: "Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor, until I have walked a mile in his shoes."

11:50 a.m.

Destiny Neal, 3, sits outside a second-floor door.

She hunches over in a chair, arms wrapped around two stuffed animals -- a purple frog and a green rabbit.

"She's sad today. I don't know why," says her mother, Lynn Neal, inside the apartment.

They're about to move out, Neal says.

Her explanation:

A couple of days ago, police chased a man through the parking lot on foot. Later that night, the police paid her a visit. They suspected she was letting other people stay in her apartment.

One officer looked at Destiny and told Neal, "She needs a bath."

Since Neal moved in last summer, Tampa Housing Authority officials have inspected her apartment four times, she says.

photo
LONGTIME RESIDENT: Butch Williams, 60, moved to Rembrandt in 1979. He raised four children by himself. Two earned college scholarships and two attend nearby Robinson High School. "I don't see nothing wrong here," he says. "This is a good area."
Their complaint: too much clutter. Neal insists it's not true.

But the city told her to take a house-cleaning class, or be evicted.

Neal took the class. Now she's leaving, anyway.

12:16 p.m.

Just behind Rembrandt, a narrow garden stretches 200 yards along a drainage ditch.

Asian vegetables grow in lush rows on terraced banks. Scraps of lumber restrain the banks. More greens sprout from 5-gallon buckets, Igloo coolers, even city recycling bins.

The brown leaves of freeze-burned banana trees rustle in the wind.

A shirtless and wiry Hong Tran, 57, fills a bucket with brown ditch water, then quenches squash plants with a broken-handled pot.

Once, Tran was a military officer in Vietnam. Now he scavenges to keep a garden alive.

As his vines grow, they'll climb skyward, clinging to thin rods from a discarded sofa; cables made of straightened coat hangers; wire salvaged from wooden crates.

In his hands, trash becomes treasure.

Last year, his mature plants were producing 30 pounds of squash a day until somebody -- Tran suspects neighborhood kids -- severed the vines.

If Tran is angry, he hides it well.

He just started over.

"I don't care," he says with a laugh.

He laughs like a man who has seen worse.

He was once a prisoner of war.

"In life, there are big things, there are little things," he says.

1:34 p.m.

Dogs can't climb trees. But Red is giving it his best shot.

After chasing a cat up a palm, Timothy Nash's pit bull lunges at the tree, trying to finish the job.

"There he go, there he go," Nash says, encouraging him.

Nash, 52, doesn't live at Rembrandt, but his mother and brother do, and he and Red make frequent visits.

"He's got an affliction for cats," Nash explains. "He won't chase humans. He won't bite anybody. But a cat just runs him stone bananas."

1:51 p.m.

A dog-tired Red is getting a bath. And he's not happy about it.

"It's Judgment Day," Nash says before tying Red to a clothes line and turning the hose on him.

The pit bull's tail curls between his legs.

"You got to take a bath," Nash's brother, Lloyd Brown, says to the dog. "Look at me," he continues, splashing his own face repeatedly to prove how harmless it is. He grins at the dog.

Red does not grin back.

3:15 p.m.

Michael Stevens, 19, wants to discuss double standards.

When his brother was robbed and shot in the leg at Rembrandt, it took police an hour to arrive, he says.

When a friend broke his leg after falling off his bike, an ambulance took an eternity.

So why is it that since the gunfire incident near the softball field, police cruisers have patrolled the complex constantly?

"Why do they do it when the white people get scared?" he says outside his apartment.

And another thing: How can police search him and his friends constantly? Isn't that harassment?

As Stevens talks, a thin boy with braids drops a sheet of orange paper in Stevens' lap.

It's a notice to appear in court. The thin boy, 12, was arrested the night before.

"I didn't have no reefer," the boy says. "They said I smelled like reefer."

3:57 p.m.

Holly Heyword, 25, puffs furiously on Newports. Her best friend, Katina Burden, commiserates with another bottle of Natural Light.

Heyword wants her family reunited.

In January, her stepdaughter Sassy, 15, ran away with a 23-year-old man she met at Rembrandt. The man doesn't live here, Heyword says, but he sold drugs here.

For weeks, Heyword and Burden searched for Sassy, passing out 800 fliers in the process, they say. Sassy never came home.

Then, in February, the girl turned up in a mental health crisis center, alleging Heyword had kicked her, slapped her, pulled her hair. Heyword says it isn't true. But state authorities decided Sassy should stay with an aunt, not Heyword.

"It's not right," Heyword says of the decision. "I guess you have to have money and power."

AFTER THE GUNFIRE: The Robinson High girls varsity softball team practices adjacent to Rembrandt. Since gunshots rang out nearby last month, police have been watchful.
She says she's not allowed to even talk to Sassy.

She wants to say: I love you. Come home.

She wants to say: Been there, done that. Don't repeat my mistakes.

Heyword says she, too, ran away from home as a teen.

"I thought I got the taste of the good life. But you know what I got? The projects," she says. "The projects aren't bad. But I deserve better."

So does Sassy, she says.

4:31 p.m.

One of Khang Dong's four brothers is road-tripping to Houston tonight. Another will be fishing from the Friendship Trail Bridge.

One of his sisters plans to watch a Digimon movie.

And Khang?

"I have an essay to work on," he says softly from his living room sofa.

Khang is a senior at Robinson. The essay could win him a $1,000 scholarship.

He wants to go to the University of South Florida. One of his brothers is already there, studying computer engineering. Khang says he'll probably study that, too.

A portrait of Jesus hangs on the wall above him, opposite a portrait of his long-bearded grandfather. On a table in the corner, a rice cooker steams.

Khang and his family have lived in Rembrandt about five years. In a year or two, they hope to buy a house.

"Everybody wants to move out," he says.

But not because it's a bad place. In fact, Khang calls it "quite nice."

There are incidents: Khang's brother says three bullets sprayed a friend's apartment a few years ago, though no one was hurt. Khang says he has heard of a car or two being stolen.

"But it could happen anywhere," he says.

"This is a good place for those who just came," he continues.

"It's a chance to get better."

5:36 p.m.

On a field at the edge of Robinson High, others have dreams of getting better.

Robinson's softball team has gathered to practice.

In the bleachers, parents cheer on the Fighting Knights.

They're the same players who hit the dirt and crawled to a dugout last month, when a car pulled up across the street and someone fired shots in the air.

Now, no one takes chances.

photo
A PLACE TO PLAY: Angela Higgins, 9, center, chats with friends while riding her bicycle with 8-year-olds Ginieashly Morales, left, and Stephanie Morales.
Two uniformed police officers lean against a patrol car not far away. A Hillsborough County schools security officer circles Goya Court, the road that leads into a section of Rembrandt.

5:50 p.m.

Inside Rembrandt, the ball field is a parking lot.

A 5-year-old boy wants to take a swing at a green plastic ball shared by six other kids. He uses a metal rod as a bat.

He complains his friends won't let him play.

He gives up, throws down the rod and emphatically suggests another game.

"Let's play monkey in the middle," he says.

Two 7-year-old boys in the group, playing catch with a deflated basketball, pay him no attention.

6 p.m.

Muoi Phan sees a tan, late-model Toyota Camry stopped by police on the corner of Rembrandt Drive and Lois Avenue and runs out of her apartment.

She reaches the car and peers inside, out of breath, holding her pregnant belly.

She scans the front seat and sees two young women.

She is relieved.

"I thought it was my husband," Phan struggles to say in English.

Phan, 27, arrived from California 10 days ago with her husband and 18-month-old son. She passes other Vietnamese immigrants on the grassy right of way and speaks to them in her native tongue.

6:10 p.m.

It's starting to get dark. Along Rembrandt Drive, porch lights glow.

The smell of marijuana slips out of someone's window.

6:50 p.m.

Jake the ice cream man pulls into Goya Court.

By night's end, he will have visited Reuben Court and Monet Court, two other clusters of apartments at Rembrandt, each surrounding a common parking area.

He drives a faded, white delivery truck.

GATHERING PLACE: Ruth "Granny" McCray, 63, left, watches her 18-month-old great-granddaughter Axzyla Owens and relaxes with her twin granddaughters Shakennia and Yakennia Santiago and her son Ron McCray. Ruth McCray is secretary of the residents council.
Most pizza places won't deliver in Rembrandt. Those that do come only before 4 p.m.

Ice cream is easier.

Jake has been selling it here for 25 years. He's not afraid of the children. He remembers when many of them were born.

"Hey Jake. Gimme what's free," says a man sitting inside a late-model Jaguar parked in the courtyard.

Jake gives a half smile and says nothing.

The man, who doesn't stay long, buys two red slushies for 50 cents each. He keeps one and gives the other to a young girl on her bike, who says she is a friend of his daughter.

Jake rings a rusty, red bell on the side of the truck. It sounds like a fire alarm. The crowd grows each time Jake rings the bell.

Someone buys a sandwich bag filled with Tootsie Rolls, another buys hot fries, another cheddar fries and a Blow Pop. It takes Jake about 45 minutes to make his way to the north end of the complex and then leave.

He'll be back the next day.

7:15 p.m.

Sirens from rescue trucks wail in the distance near Port Tampa.

Five young girls hold onto the skeletal frame of a basketless shopping cart while a larger girl pushes them around.

A marked police car circles the complex.

7:30 p.m.

"Granny" McCray, the woman with the 60-inch TV, still lingers on her porch, laughing with Bruce Williams, a dear friend who lives three doors down.

Friday night on the porch is a special treat. It's not a school night, so she lets her 6-year-old great-grandson play outside. She watches him from the porch.

"Don't let that ball go over the fence," she yells to Javonte Wax, who is busy playing with a plastic blue ball. "You did it once before and got away with it. You won't the next time."

Williams, 40, has some good news. A woman he recently met just called to invite him to a party.

Two years ago, he worked in Atlanta as a program manager for a hotel chain, making nearly $50,000 a year, he says. He was laid off.

"Things change," he says. "I moved here because this was my home stamping grounds, and I knew it was a safe place."

Williams takes college classes when he can. He babysits nieces and nephews. He keeps track of his 19-year-old daughter, a student at the University of South Florida. He hopes to be elected president of Rembrandt's resident association next month.

He spent Friday playing chauffeur to McCray, who needed a new ID card so she could use her food stamps.

"Before I could even get dressed, he was right here at my door saying, 'Come on. Let's go,' " McCray says, patting Williams on the leg and laughing.

8 p.m.

Laundry has been drying outside all day, but now the lines are empty.

With darkness, the crickets have once again found their music.

On Goya Court, they muffle even the sounds of children's laughter. They rival the clatter of the air conditioning unit at a nearby Robinson portable.

Tootsie Roll wrappers lie crushed on the ground.

8:20 p.m.

La Cucaracha blares from a second-floor apartment in Reuben Court. Lightning flashes across the sky over Robinson, and a young man runs through the courtyard. A police car enters the complex.

Two teenage boys circle Monet Court on bikes, shouting out the location of the cops to a group of guys sitting on second-floor balconies, their faces hidden in the shadows.

8:34 p.m.

Burger King or McDonald's? Tateisha Cleary's family can't decide.

Her 4- and 5-year-old boys want McDonald's.

"I don't like McDonald's," she tells them.

Cleary, 25, graduated from Robinson in 1996, but says police harass her as if she's still in high school.

"They stopped me and told me I was a truant two days ago," she says. "I told them I wasn't supposed to be in school."

She flashed her ID, then went on her way.

The bullet hole in Cleary's window reminds her of safety concerns. She makes her boys sleep in her bed. A wooden dresser blocks her bedroom window.

"If a stray bullet comes through here, the wood is the only thing that's going to get hurt," she says.

She's thinking about moving the mattress to the floor. Anything to stay away from the window.

The boys are restless for food.

"Put your shoes back on," Cleary tells them.

9:50 p.m.

Carlos Fox rides his bike up to a group of friends in Monet Court and starts chatting.

He's looking for his sparring partner. They practiced earlier in the day, but Fox can't get enough.

"I'd like to teach it some day," he says. "Maybe make some money. We'll have a little gym."

10:05 p.m.

The teenagers of Monet Court are feeling the call of a Friday night.

They talk about going out.

A few raindrops fall and they scatter, back into their apartments.

10:15 p.m.

Norman Darling takes a drag off his cigarette.

He walks the complex, thinking. For a while, he's pondering his own troubles, then he switches to world war.

He's unemployed and lives with his 66-year-old mother, who is ill.

Darling, 41, is a Democrat struggling to believe President Bush's reasons for wanting to fight Iraq.

"I want to believe what he's saying," says Darling, once a radio operator on a Navy submarine.

10:43 p.m.

Butch Williams pokes his head out of his screen door during a commercial break in the newscast.

He looks down.

Four empty french fry bags and a beverage container are abandoned at the bottom of his steps.

"I hate that because now I have to clean it up," he says.

Williams' daughter didn't do it. She couldn't have, he says. She's out shopping for a prom dress.

It definitely wasn't his son. Besides, he's gone with his coach.

"When I'm here, no one sits there," Williams says. "I'll find out who did it."

10:47 p.m.

A black and white cat crawls out of a second-story window and carefully balances on the tiny ledge.

Most of the windows are unscreened. Bedsheets and comforters double as curtains.

10:50 p.m.

Toddler Angel Diaz, one of Rembrandt's newest residents, leans forward and reaches for a bottle of juice.

His mom, 23-year-old Brandy Rojas, hands it to him.

Mirta Rojas, 52, looks at her shirtless, 10-month-old grandson and smiles.

They're taking a break from unpacking boxes and settling in, hoping to meet neighbors in the process.

"It's not easy when you're working and trying to clean and pick up," says Mirta Rojas.

Since moving to Rembrandt a week ago, "it's been okay," she says. "Quiet. Nobody bothers you."

11:37 p.m.

Tateisha Cleary walks through Monet Court on her way to check the mail.

A group of guys on a second-floor balcony yell to her. They use her nickname.

"Come here, Teisha!"

"What?" she yells.

"Girl, come here!"

She walks over, slowly.

11:47 p.m.

After she leaves, three of them remain on the balcony, talking loudly and laughing.

Bernard Hopkins, 26, sits in the middle. He has lived at Rembrandt, off and on, his whole life.

He knows people don't like the place, including some who live nearby.

He doesn't think it's so bad.

In a few minutes, it'll be midnight. His aunt will lean out her apartment door in a nightgown and scold him for making so much noise.

"Why can I hear you inside my house?" she'll say.

He'll offer an explanation and politely call her "ma'am."

For now, he tends to the cell phone. It, too, calls out to him, delivering the voice of a friend from Sulphur Springs.

"Want me to meet you there?" he asks.

He's anxious to get moving.

"I can come right now," he offers.

He ends the call and beats his chest, frustrated at the response.

For now he'll sit tight.

But not for long.

Outside Rembrandt, there's another world.

Outside Rembrandt, the world is waiting.

-- Times staff writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405. Staff writer Kevin Graham can be reached at 226-3300, ext. 3727.

About this report

Last month, someone fired a gun near the city-owned Rembrandt Garden Apartments, which flank Robinson High School in Interbay.

The bullets didn't hit anyone.

Yet, they managed to wound.

Rembrandt and Robinson are now neighbors at odds.

Tear Rembrandt down, cried an angry parent at a public meeting. The mostly white audience applauded.

Some remember when the bad rap couldn't be defended, when three teens shot and killed a man near the complex, then dragged his body from a car; when another man died of a crack-induced heart attack.

But that was more than a decade ago. Rembrandt is quieter now, says Tampa Police Sgt. Pete Pomponio, who oversees patrols in the area. He calls it "a walk in the park" compared to other public housing complexes.

What is this place called Rembrandt?

Last Friday, two Times reporters and a photographer knocked on doors, hoping to find out.

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