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Struggling for hope in a town divided

By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2000


We passed by the new, single-family, candy-colored houses in Bartlett Park. Only a few are up now. Someday, there will be 50, each selling for about $70,000.

We drove by the new apartments in Wildwood Heights, with their wide, clear windows and their slender, off-white stair railings. These are not places for cell-phoned yuppies, but for people who hold down two jobs out of necessity.

Bob Gilder, aging warrior in the struggle to make the rules of the game apply the same to blacks like him as to whites, is slumped in the back seat of a city van.

Still, he points as we pass these landmarks.

This is progress, he says. Don't forget it. Don't let it get lost in the -- my word, not his -- mess.

Okay, Bob, okay.

What he showed me Wednesday are the building blocks of hope for people who live in the area just south of Central Avenue, the psychological divide between white and black St. Petersburg that has outdone the Berlin Wall for durability.

More, most of it in the dreamworks stage, is along 22nd Street S -- sagging property that could be the site of what this part of town needs more than air and light. Meaningful work. The kind of industry whose ups and downs get big headlines on the business pages, not the single jobs, no benefits included, in tiny type at the bottom of the classifieds.

Tom de Yampert, St. Petersburg's manager of housing programs, is driving the van. As he drives, he says that for the first time, property values below Central Avenue are rising faster than property values above it.

This is another measure of change.

So is the old building on Dr. Martin Luther King (Ninth) Street. So, too, the abandoned nursing home that come November is expected to reopen as the drug rehabilitation center that police Chief Go Davis insisted should be the alternative to a federally sponsored crackdown on the dope trade that has eaten alive parts of these neighborhoods.

We take a short walk inside the nursing home. Even the furniture was left behind. Bob Gilder, the tired warrior, has to sit and hold his wool hat in his hands. But his smile is wide. Ear-to-ear wide.

The promise contained within these walls is what he lives and works for.

The rest he does not. The rest, Gilder, a man who defines the word voluble, does not like to talk about.

So I will.

All these things have come about as the result of the smoke and fire and shooting of October and November 1996. You could argue that if those troubles were a demand for change, then what happened was overdue.

But here's what else is overdue. Here's what no federal grant will fix: St. Petersburg's alternately mean-spirited, mealy mouthed politics.

You can listen to a discussion in City Council with your eyes closed, and it's not hard to imagine them poking each other with pencils, trying to see who can score the most points, inflict the most pain.

You can walk around City Hall and ask yourself why they don't put up an APB on the whereabouts of the mayor.

And, yes, you can walk around the Police Department and ask yourself why everybody's knees knock when the chief passes by.

And you can stroll past the small shops that have recharmed downtown, on the sidewalks where carefully restored office buildings house the prosperous, and ask yourself, where are the business executives capable of stepping up to the plate for more than baseball?

And you can go through the neighborhoods and ask yourself why the noisiest, not the most thoughtful residents, get the most ink.

Why aren't these other people taking Bob Gilder's arm? He is 69 and tired. More to the point, there's only so much one man can do in a city that seems incapable of doing more than fighting with itself.

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