Residents of St. Petersburg south side want to be recognized
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001
Chicago has its Southside. New York has historical Harlem. Los Angeles has Watts. Fort Lauderdale has the Northwest. Gainesville has its Eastside. Each is a sector that is mostly African-American, where generations of families have lived and died.
Why, then, do so many people in St. Petersburg refuse to use the terms "south side" and "south St. Petersburg" to identify the area south of Central Avenue? Even the St. Petersburg Times, my employer, struggles to describe the area. Reporters are advised to avoid both terms because, according to our stylebook, they "are, at best, imprecise, and at worst, code for the black community."
Many people, including me, believe that although such efforts to avoid using the terms are well intentioned, they rob the area of its authenticity, its real history and traditions that many residents remember fondly and with pride.
The current mayoral and City Council races are fraught with infinite opportunities for the candidates, black and white, to step up and confront the many deep problems plaguing what Mayor David Fischer has officially dubbed the "Challenge" zone or area. To confront the issues, however, the candidates and ordinary citizens must speak honestly and accurately about the south side.
What do residents of the area, black and white, think of their community? Do the terms "south side" and "south St. Petersburg" offend them? What do they think of their quality of life? Whom do they believe will best represent them? And why? When I was invited to meet with a group of south-side residents in one of their homes to discuss these issues, I did not know what to expect.
The outcome was sobering.
John Taylor, 58, is white and has lived on the south side for 27 years. He has been a businessman there for just as long. He and his wife, Ann Thompson Taylor, who is black, own Lundy's Liquors, a beverage catering outlet and an income tax preparation office. John Taylor says he likes his neighborhood, his neighbors and his customers. He is convinced, however, that the south side gets a bum rap because most African-Americans live there.
"I feel that it is a racial thing," he says. "Every neighborhood has problems. Ours just gets more negative press. South St. Pete is never spoken of positively. It's spat out instead of spoken. White people spit it out. It defines a dislike or hatred that is not superficial. And being a white person, I can look over it. But for a black person, it strikes you to the heart, and this affects me. I am concerned about it, and I am ashamed of it.
"I love the south side because of its racial diversity. Diversity makes us all better people. In other parts of town, we seem to live in our little microsystems. We need to get out of our bubble and meet our neighbors. But let's be honest. The term south side is a euphemism. It doesn't refer to everything south of Central Avenue. It refers to what a generation or two ago would have been called "the quarters." We're talking essentially about the black community as it can still be geographically defined. I can tell you that in the mayor's race, the only person who understands the south side is Omali Yeshitela."
Marvin Jefferson, a 44-year-old employee with Pinellas County schools, is black and agrees with John Taylor. He long ago embraced south St. Petersburg as a term and as his home. He believes that most politicians, even most black ones, are disconnected from the area. For that reason, little progress has occurred over the years.
"There are a whole lot of promises about giving people jobs and opening up benefits for minorities," he says. "I haven't seen a thing happen, and I've seen a lot of lip service coming from downtown. I see signs everywhere. Everyone is claiming to be the best candidate. But I never see them after the campaign. But I can see Mr. Yeshitela every day. I can see him whenever I want to. He's out there. The south side is his home, and he understands what the problems are, and he knows what it takes to fix them. He's the only one who understands."
John Taylor firmly believes that because elected officials and other powerbrokers ignore the south side, residents there are easy victims of various scams. He and others point to the home loan business as a prime example of out-of-control abuse. While preparing income tax returns, he sees many black people who want their returns quickly so that they make make down payments on the American Dream: their first home.
"In too many cases, the home is being sold by some unscrupulous person who knows that the people are not able to make the monthly payments," he says. "Most of these homes are cheaply rehabilitated, and the sellers know that the buyers cannot maintain the buildings. They know that nine or 10 months down the road, they will be repossessing the home. This is the kind of thing that happens all the time on the south side because no one downtown cares. . . . A mayor who understands this could make a difference."
Ann Thompson Taylor, 55, whose daughter is a police officer, says that St. Petersburg Police Chief Goliath Davis understands the south side and does not run away from the term. Because Davis was born and reared there, he has transformed police-community relations in the area, she says. "When Darrel Stephens was the chief, you couldn't find him," she says. "Today, you can find your chief of police. Goliath is hands-on. The officers nowadays come in our business and say, "May I help you?' They don't come in, like in the past, bossing you around and telling you to "shut up' or "you can't talk.' They are more respectful of the people and their surroundings.
"The other thing is that Goliath removed the term "black cop' from the oxymoron category. That is to say, for a very long time, we had schizophrenia. On the one hand, we wanted more black police. At the same time, if you were black and you became a police officer, you were told you can't be both. Since you had to prove yourself to your white counterparts, you were not going to be any different and maybe a little worse than some of the good old boys. Goliath has made law enforcement a respectable career for a black man or black woman in St. Petersburg. It's all about understanding what life is like on this side of town."
Although the people with whom I spoke praised Yeshitela for his understanding of the area, I must in all fairness point out that three other candidates, Larry Williams, Karl Nurse and Maria Scruggs Weston, also live on the south side and understand many of the issues facing the area. Scruggs Weston, in fact, never fails to point out that she "lives in the hood."
My hosts believe that few so-called black leaders, like their white counterparts, understand or truly care about the area. Most of their efforts to improve the area have not materialized.
Longtime south-sider Ron Lowe, who is white and a Yeshitela campaign manager, believes that black leadership is false leadership.
"To understand the impotence of so-called black leadership, it's necessary to understand that they do not owe their position to the black community," he contends. "They owe their very existence to forces outside their community. Black leadership is appointed from the highest levels of the white community. So if your leadership does not spring from the people but instead is appointed from outside, those people don't have anybody following them because no one put an investment in them.
"Essentially, black leaders are surrogates for an invisible white leadership in the black community. If they were to stand up for the needs and interests of their community, they would no longer be designated black community leaders. The relationship of white people to black people in the United States has been based on control."
Lowe argues that the next mayor should not be deluded into believing that life has improved on the south side since the riots of nearly five years ago.
"We're in a far more dangerous situation today than we were in October of 1996, when the police killing of TyRon Lewis took place and the strong reaction in the black community that followed," Lowe says. "We're in a much more dangerous position situation today because politicians raised expectations on the south side. They brought in people from Washington, there was talk of tens of millions of dollars that was going to be put in community, and ordinary people were going to have a chance to get a piece of the pie.
"On 16th Street, we have a nice new median strip and some beautiful palm trees and some rather decorative lights. If anything else of any substance has happened south of Central Avenue to have any effect at all on social and economic justice in the city, I haven't seen it. Things are quiet in St. Petersburg now, but the underlying situation is more dangerous. We, the entire city, needs someone in downtown who understands this and understands that there is a real south St. Petersburg."
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