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A look back at column; a step forth for writer

By JOANNE WALKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000


Wouldn't it be nice if you could handpick your own neighbors?

That was the lead sentence in the first Neighbor to Neighbor column, Feb. 6, 1993, on the front page of City Times.

Seven years later, residents are hosting bus tours and open houses and writing brochures to advertise their communities -- in other words, taking a role in picking their neighbors.

A cartoon of two neighbors talking over a fence accompanied the first stories.

Mayor David Fischer was implementing his Pursley Tree Planting Project, which put free trees in city rights of way. A column carried the headline, "Where can we put 2,333 palm trees?"

Now the program is called Operation Treescape. The plantings are oaks instead of palms. Residents pay $85 for each 8- to 10-foot tree ordered.

In 1993, the column reported about the city's adding neighborhood symbols to corner street signs; the Council of Neighborhood Associations publishing its first Guide to St. Petersburg Neighborhoods; and the city making $200,000 available in the second year of the Great Neighborhood Partnership Grant program. Fischer set up a separate neighborhood office and named Mike Dove its first director.

In 1994, community specialist Bob Gilder nicknamed the neighborhood office the "N" Team. He gave members matching jackets to kick off Operation Commitment in Bartlett and Roser parks. Besides Gilder, there was Fischer, Dove, planner Susan Ajoc and public works administrator Roy Otto. Now Ajoc is neighborhood partnership director and Dove is neighborhood services administrator, and there are four planners, a coordinator and support staff in the neighborhood office.

In 1997, neighborhood and business associations recognized by the city numbered 81. Today there are 100 neighborhood associations, 10 business groups and five umbrella associations, excluding condominiums.

On Feb. 18, 1996, Neighborhood Times debuted. Now there are two customized versions delivered twice weekly to neighborhoods in St. Petersburg and two others that go to Pinellas Park and Kenneth City and the south Pinellas beach cities.

Neighbor to Neighbor was renamed Neighborhood Notebook. We added Neighborhood Spotlight, and so far 39 of 100 neighborhoods have been highlighted.

This is my last Neighborhood Notebook. Andrew Meacham will continue its legacy on April 2 and can be reached by calling 865-3885.

On a personal note, the experience of covering neighborhoods has been wonderful. I came to the Times seeking a way to underwrite my desire to be a full-time swim instructor. I have never had a journalism course. I came armed with a detective instinct as a Perry Mason enthusiast and a life philosophy, "Take time to be friendly or you'll have time to be lonely."

I was returning to work after 10 years as a stay-at-home mom, Scout leader and community volunteer. My love of neighborhoods grew by leading Denver Gang resident efforts to adopt Shore Acres' Denver Park.

For seven years I have pursued two careers, reporter and swim instructor. Time restraints require that I choose one. Thank you for sharing your neighborhood successes and challenges. I regret not being able to meet in person the hundreds of people I've interviewed over the phone.

It has been my pleasure to speak before neighborhood associations, at CONA leadership seminars and to Florida Neighborhood Conference delegates. I was among several asked recently to discuss neighborhoods with graduate students from the University of Texas and a planner from Austin. St. Petersburg is being studied as one of the top five cities in the United States emphasizing neighborhoods.

In addition to running a swim school, my plans include writing in the off-season. After all, there are still 61 neighborhoods waiting for their time in the spotlight.

Have a happy spring, neighbors!

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