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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Baldwin, Fla., wants its kids to hitch their britches
Old-timers in a North Florida town really aren't interested in seeing the generation gap.
By Michael Kruse, Times Staff Writer
Published February 24, 2008
Baldwin Mayor Marvin Godbold Jr. says the issue is perpetuated by inaction. "People just don't want to get involved. Nobody wants to speak up. Involvement is the whole issue to me."
[Edmund D. Fountain | Times]
[Edmund D. Fountain | Times]
Baldwin Town Council member Guy Ambrose proposed a law that outlawed low-riding pants. "This town, in a lot of ways, built who I am," Ambrose said. "I think we're losing that nowadays."
[Edmund D. Fountain | Times]
Dolly Thomas, 46, says that kids' fashion statements are a result of their parents being scared of them. "Let's face it, society ain't right."
BALDWIN - Guy Ambrose says he sees it everywhere.
He says he sees it in town, at the IGA grocery, at the Kwik Mart, at Everybody's Restaurant across from City Hall.
He has seen it, he says, even in his own home.
So Ambrose, 54, a retired Army medic turned Town Council member, decided to do something about it.
"WHEREAS," begins Ordinance 2007-17, "the Town Council of the Town of Baldwin has found that the welfare of the residents of the Town of Baldwin is hampered and imposed upon by persons intentionally wearing their pants below their waist for the purposes of exposing themselves and their undergarments ..."
The new law in this little place in northeast Florida makes it illegal within town limits to wear baggy, below-the-butt pants, and comes with punishments ranging from 40 hours of community service to a $500 fine. The five-person Town Council passed it last month unanimously.
Baldwin has joined a debate that's gone national, raising issues of freedom of expression, indecent exposure and the possibility of racial profiling because the majority of the wearers of the baggy pants are young, black and mimicking hip-hop stars. Over the past few years, this has popped up from Connecticut to Missouri, with laws actually being passed in a handful of mostly small, southern towns - Louisiana, then Georgia, then Opa-locka in South Florida. Now here.
Ambrose read in the Jacksonville paper about Hawkinsville, Ga., and decided to follow along.
"Pull up your pants!" he said in a recent interview. "It's common decency, y'all!"
"They are underpants," said Marvin Godbold Jr., the longtime mayor. "They are to be worn under your pants."
"It's offensive," council member Libby Willis said.
Maybe most interesting, though, is this: When the folks here talk about this, they talk about the baggy pants, at least for a little bit, and then pretty quickly the conversation isn't really about the baggy pants. Not really at all.
* * *
Baldwin, in the rural western end of Duval County, is not quite two square miles and has a population of about 1,600, two-thirds white, one-third black. The town is made up of small homes laid on tight grids. Restaurant rest rooms show snapshots of boys and their fathers posing with bloody hogs and deer. Pickup trucks have Jesus fish.
"This town, in a lot of ways, built who I am," Ambrose said. "It's the people in the town. All these people influenced a lot of the ways I think. They build who you are. And I think we're losing that nowadays."
Who set his rules when he was little?
"It would've been my dad," he said. "It would've been anybody in town."
"It's almost as if people are afraid to say something," he said. "Are people just plain afraid to say you can't do that? I had to really think hard about whether or not I was going to do this because, of course, it's a touchy subject. But somebody has to say it, and I figured, well, I'll say it."
He did more than just say it. He proposed a whole new law.
The people in town agreed that something had to be done.
"The kids now want to be boss," said Mellivene Johnson, 67. "They don't want to be bossed. They want to be boss."
"Now they're sassin' the teachers," said Marvin Braddock, 91. "From one generation to another, it keeps getting worse."
"There is no brotherly love anymore or compassion for your own community," said Godbold, the mayor, who's 61. "People just don't want to get involved. Nobody wants to speak up. Involvement is the whole issue to me."
The population of Baldwin has grown from just more than 1,000 in 1950 to what it is now, but it has never spiked. What has changed, say the older residents, is what's in that number: Older families have died off, not all of them, but a bunch of them.
More people used to work locally, too, at the Southern Wood plant or the Eastern Electric factory or the CSX freight yard. Now people work in Jacksonville, or at the Winn-Dixie or Publix distribution centers over a ways on Interstate 10, or the state hospital in Macclenny, wherever - just not so much in town.
"At one time, I knew everybody that lived here," said Lula Hill, 64, who was born and raised in Baldwin and has been the town clerk for almost 40 years. "Now I don't know a third of the people here."
Misty Sloan, 35, grew up here, too, and is the assistant town clerk.
She says she was at dinner at a Chili's in Jacksonville not too long ago, with her husband and her parents, and there was a man at the bar who was being loud and foul. After a while, her father got up and asked him to cool it, please, on account of his wife and his daughter who shouldn't have to hear such talk.
Sloan was scared for her father.
"You never know how people are going to react," she said.
Dolly Thomas, 46, has waited on tables at Everybody's for 22 years.
"I think the parents are scared of their kids," she said.
"The hoodlum starts right at the home," the mayor said.
"It represents a society that really has lost a lot of its morals," said the Rev. Chris Drum, 40, the pastor at the First Baptist Church downtown.
The people here blame all this on lots of things: DCF, MTV, the Internet, Roe vs. Wade, Bill Clinton, Dennis Rodman, the end of corporal punishment, the breakdown of family values, just general godlessness. They say this mess started in the '90s, or maybe the '60s, or maybe right around World War II.
"Let's face it," said Thomas. "Society ain't right."
* * *
But neither, many say, is this law.
It's unconstitutional, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. It's potentially unenforceable, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, which wants to tighten the language. It's late, according to James Peterson, a professor at Pennsylvania's Bucknell University and an expert on hip-hop culture who says the style peaked in the late '90s or early part of this decade.
"All they're going to do," he said, "is extend the fashion life of this dying-out trend."
And spend a few days in Baldwin, walk around town, watch the kids come out of Baldwin Middle-Senior High School, which already has a rule against wearing baggy, sagging pants. Some students - white and black - wear their pants that way. Most of them don't.
Some students say it should be a town ordinance, some say it shouldn't - but few of them get too worked up about it.
"It's just natural to me. That's how I dress," said Yvandar Moring, 14, who's in the eighth grade. "But I'm going to try my best to follow the rules."
"I don't think it should be a law," said Omarnia Curtis, 13, who's in the seventh grade. "People should be allowed to wear what they want to wear."
"It doesn't really matter," said Eric Green, 19, a senior. "It depends on how far you take it."
His pants were belted around his waist. But he said some of his friends' do sag.
"They sag bad," he said. "They sag real bad."
Not that he tells them not to.
"They're grown men," he said. "They can do what they want."
* * *
Back at City Hall, before this month's council meeting, the mayor sat in his office and talked about how he used to grease back his ducktail hairdo. And tuck his Marlboros into his socks. And carve his girlfriend's initials into his knuckles.
He laughs looking back.
He has been mayor for 20 years.
Ambrose talked about how he was a junior in high school when he got caught drinking Michelobs with his cousin Ricky. His dad took away his driver's license for a month and made him do more chores.
"I learned my lesson," he said.
A few years ago, his son, who's now 25, started coming home with his pants hanging low. It lasted about a month.
"I didn't let it go," Ambrose said.
"'Pull up your pants!'
"'Pull up your pants!'
"He's pretty much got them where they belong now," he said. "I think it was just him growing up."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4617.