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When night falls, a moral battle plays out

Crime watch members try to keep a stretch of 34th Street clean.

By MICHAEL MAHARREY, Neighborhood News Bureau
Published August 1, 2007


They thrive under the cover of darkness, craving anonymity. They are prostitutes and johns, dealers and addicts, burglars and thieves. They operate in neighborhoods while fearful residents sit behind double-locked doors, some too scared to call the police.

But a handful of ordinary St. Petersburg residents are committed to shedding light on the criminals and ensuring they can no longer operate in anonymity.

Each Thursday night in July, they kept watch in the parking lot of the Shell station on the corner of 34th Street N and Fifth Avenue N.

They were hard to miss. In bright yellow shirts, they sat under a 7-foot banner reading, "Up with hope, down with dope."

They are members of the 34th Street Federation Crime Watch and they want to rid the community of criminal activity.

Visibility is key. "We serve as a visual presence," vigil organizer Lou Del Prete said. "We don't get directly involved, but we serve as eyes and ears for the police."

On a recent Thursday evening, nine people sat in a loose circle of lawn chairs under the darkening sky. They drank bottled water and chatted quietly as they observed the comings and goings in the area.

When they saw suspicious activity, they called police.

Experience has taught them what to look for: a slow-moving car canvassing a parking lot for the sixth time; a woman standing at a bus stop as several buses roll by; a car sitting idle while two men exchange items through the window.

Del Prete has been part of the 34th Street Federation for about four years. He got involved because he was tired of the criminals and realized he needed to make a difference. He challenges others to do the same.

"Would you want your daughter to live in the neighborhood?" he asked. "If not, do something about it."

Far-flung helpers create a united front

Chris Kelly lives in the southern tip of St. Petersburg but drove up to participate in the vigil.

"People need to be proactive in their neighborhoods," he said. "In many neighborhoods, people are so cowed by the dealers they are afraid to even look out the window, much less call the police. Together, we can be a force."

Although the 34th Street Federation organized the vigil, members of other neighborhood crime watch groups also participated. Willa Kelly, Rutha Gavin and Tom Tito are involved with the Bartlett Park neighborhood crime watch. They lent their support and learned from their neighbors.

"Sometimes you get more accomplished by working together. You get ideas from the other neighborhoods," Gavin said.

Tito, the president of the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association, has seen the ravages of drugs and crime in his own neighborhood.

"They used to call it 'the hole,' " he said. But he has seen improvements in the last few years, as more residents have gotten involved in fighting crime. "Even one or two people on each block can make a difference," he said. "Just watching places like this can deter and displace crime."

'Police can't be everywhere'

Vigil participants agreed that citizen involvement and cooperation are crucial to stop neighborhood street crime.

"The police can't be everywhere," Kelly said, "but you can put yourself right on the fault line."

Patrick Patterson, a community service officer with the St. Petersburg Police Department who was assigned to the vigil, said such neighborhood action is effective.

"People dealing in narcotics certainly don't want to see us on the corner with a sign saying, 'Up with hope, down with dope,' " he said. "I think it's working."

As traffic picked up near the motels on 34th Street, two children rode toward the group on bicycles.

When they saw the congregation, they quickly sped back into the darkness. Del Prete explained that the drug dealers use children as lookouts.

"They know we are out here," he said. "It makes a difference. I don't care what anyone says. When we are out here, they know."

Michael Maharrey is a reporter for the Neighborhood News Bureau, a program of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

[Last modified August 1, 2007, 01:30:09]

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