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'96 riots: After national shame, did city change?

There’s been progress in St. Petersburg’s Midtown area since the riots, but crime, blight linger.

Published October 21, 2006

A fight breaks out between St. Petersburg police and residents at 18th Ave and 16th street following the shooting death of TyRon Lewis.
[Times file photo]
[Times file photo]
Police respond to rioting on Oct. 24, 1996 at 18th Ave South and 16th Street S., following the shooting death of TyRon Lewis by St. Petersburg Police officer James Knight.
Photo gallery

TyRon Lewis.
[Times file photo]

ST. PETERSBURG — Gun blasts and raging fires awakened this waterfront city 10 years ago this week.A chaotic and sweeping race riot engulfed this peaceful community after a white police officer shot and killed an 18-year-old black man.

A national TV audience watched. The White House monitored events.

Before it ended, more than 20 buildings had burned, a police officer was shot and a city faced painful questions.
How did this happen? Why here? Why now?

The race riots of Oct. 24 and Nov. 13, 1996, launched a decade’s worth of promises: more jobs, more security, more equality.

Ten years later, violence and murder in a place now called Midtown remain disturbingly high. City officials concede they have fallen short of the 2,500 jobs they promised. And blight still lingers, beyond the spruced-up throughways.

But progress is slowly emerging.

A new Sweetbay grocery store and a new post office make the depressed, largely black neighborhood look more like the rest of St. Petersburg.

New $300,000 homes are rising on 11th Avenue S, and the city has targeted a pair of blighted structures nearby for demolition. The community’s primary thoroughfare, 22nd Street S, has been rebuilt like an American main street, with decorative lamps and wide sidewalks.

Still, more residents are leaving than moving in.

Jacqueline Shelby left in 1997.

“I couldn’t take seeing one more friend succumb to drugs,” she said.

Her brother, Herbert Mole Jr., didn’t move away. He was shot dead in the street two years later.  

But about a year ago, Shelby, an Air Force veteran, moved back to Midtown and opened an art shop.

Now, “there’s less tension,” she said. “When I left, it was us against the police. Now, people feel less threatened.”
Madness, within minutes

It started over a stolen Pontiac LeMans.

Two white police officers, Jim Knight and Sandra Minor, saw the gold sports car speeding on 18th Avenue S.

Knight, who was driving, flipped on the police car’s emergency lights and stopped the car near the intersection at 16th Street. He eventually stepped in front of the Pontiac to see inside.

The driver, TyRon Lewis, 18, had a criminal record that spanned half his life. That night, Oct. 24, 1996, he was driving a stolen car, one he had traded cocaine to get.

In court documents, Knight says he told Lewis to turn off the car’s engine and show his hands. Instead, Knight says, Lewis bumped him at least six times with the car.

Witnesses would later say Lewis’ car rolled at the speed of a baby’s crawl. Lewis’ passenger, Eugene Young, who was not shot, recalled Lewis saying: “Please don’t shoot, please don’t shoot, I ain’t even got nothing!”

Knight told his partner to smash the car’s windows with her baton. As she did, Knight says Lewis attempted to turn the car. Knight was knocked onto the gold hood.

He fired his Glock semiautomatic pistol three times, hitting Lewis twice in the arm and once in the chest. He died at the scene.

Within minutes, a dozen police officers arrived. So had about 100 bystanders.

As the crowd swelled, residents spoke of past police shootings, berated a black officer and chanted: “Stop the police brutality!”

Rocks and bottles flew. Fires were set across the area. A police officer was shot in the arm.

As the violence escalated, the White House talked with city leaders, and 200 National Guard troops were sent to the scene.

When a grand jury on Nov. 13 determined Knight broke no laws, more rioting broke out. Two more police officers and two firefighters were injured and 35 arsons were reported.

The challenge: a model city

In the days and weeks after the riot, then-Mayor David Fischer created a plan for sweeping reforms. Called Challenge 2001, it targeted education, economic opportunity, public safety and an investment in the community.

Each category included specific goals: reduce the violent crime rate in the neighborhood by 5 percent each year, create 2,500 new jobs, increase the median housing value by 25 percent, increase high school graduation rates.

The broad categories remained the government’s focus even when Mayor Rick Baker replaced Fischer in 2001.
The world, Fischer said, had seen St. Petersburg at its worst.

“Now,” he said, “we have a chance to make this a model city.”

Since the 1990s, the city has spent more than $100-million on projects in Midtown. Some of that money, like the $30-million redevelopment of a 237-unit public housing complex, was in the works before the 1996 riots. The investment has made a marked difference on the face of the community, civic leaders, residents and city officials all agree.

Before the shooting, the city spent less than half of its federal Community Development Block Grant money in Midtown. From 1997-2001, it spent 54 percent of its total in the area. Since 2001, the city has spent 77 percent of CDBG funds, $11.7-million, in Midtown.

In 2001, Baker appointed then-police Chief Goliath Davis deputy mayor and gave him responsibility for Midtown. Davis said he went to the community to find out what people wanted. He said they listed a full-service post office, a supermarket and a bank.

The first two opened in the last year. A bank branch also is planned.

The city led efforts to rehabilitate and enlarge Mercy Hospital and renovate the historic Manhattan Casino and the Royal Theater.

The city also has revved up dormant business assistance facilities, and median home prices in the community have quadrupled in the past 10 years.

“There’s a whole host of small businesses we’ve helped in addition to bringing in a major franchise,” Davis said. “What’s most profound is when somebody who lived here comes back and says 'Wow.’”

A dichotomy emerging

Jacqueline Shelby, the art shop owner, is one who came back.

The fight for Midtown is being fought on the faces of people like Shelby, a 41-year-old mother of three .

Her shop, Black Art Plus, is in a block that used to be home to vacant storefronts and bars, and a short drive from where her brother was killed.

It’s the kind of juxtaposition that largely defines Midtown these days — new businesses trying to survive despite lingering violence and poverty.

“Sweetbay is beautiful, but drive one street back or one street over and it just doesn’t look so good,” Shelby said. “Some of these kids have no hope if all they see around you is poverty.”

Some critics suggest Midtown’s economic development looks good on paper because the city included the more visited, more white Grand Central district when it set its boundaries. That area, rezoned in 2000 to allow a mix of retail and residences, has seen tremendous growth in the past few years. But few residents identify it with Midtown’s black community.

And all the progress hasn’t attracted many people. Since 1990, Midtown has lost almost 5,000 residents.

10 years later, gaps remain

Despite the successes, some of the city’s original promises were never fulfilled. And in recent years the goals have been generalized to make objective measurement difficult.

The number of murders and property crimes in the Midtown area have not significantly dropped in 10 years as promised. But overall violent crime rates have dipped, according to police statistics. In 1997, there were 1,618 violent crimes reported. In 2005, there was 1,295.  

As many as 2,500 new jobs were promised in 1997, but four years later the city said it had provided only 1,000 new jobs. Today, the city says it cannot accurately say how many new jobs have been created.

And residents point out other inequities, not yet addressed by the city.

Gas prices, for one, are 10 to 20 cents per gallon higher in Midtown than elsewhere in the city, according to a survey of several stations last week. Regular unleaded sold at $2.40 per gallon at one Midtown station, compared with $2.14 at a station on the north side of town.

“Each customer spends $2, $3, $5, 50 cents,” said Ray Rajab, a cashier at the Sunshine Food Mart at Martin Luther King and 9th Avenue S.

“They have no money to buy a gallon (of gas)”— so the shop has to keep prices higher to survive, he said.
And how can anyone who makes $10 an hour afford even an average home in Midtown, which goes for $187,000, asks resident Michael Presley.

Presley, 50, said he believes the local black community is being forced out by higher costs, housing in particular. It’s not an uncommon reaction.

But he also sees the palm trees in the medians and the stylish street lamps on the side of the road, and with a smile, hails the improvements.

The people’s movement

Mayor Baker proclaims matter-of-factly that Midtown is the best example of urban redevelopment in the country. Fischer, his predecessor, agrees.

Baker talks up its successes whenever he can, to Gov. Jeb Bush, reporters, even strangers. He especially touts Midtown’s educational opportunities: a branch of St. Petersburg College and eight public grade schools that measure up to their counterparts in other parts of the city.

“We’re not announcing victory,” Baker said.

But he’s optimistic. To city officials, the message of hope overshadows sporadic disturbances that have continued to flare up in the last decade, the last in 2004, when a civil jury said police were not at fault in the 1996 shooting.

To attain true success, residents, not government, must lead, said Askia Muhammad Aquil, executive director of the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services of St. Petersburg.

“The fate of Midtown is in the hands of the people of Midtown,” Aquil said. “Much as it was 10 years ago.”

[Last modified October 21, 2006, 20:20:02]

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