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Challenge zone sees population shrinking

Traditional black neighborhoods lose residents as the city's African-American numbers rise overall.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001

Traditional black neighborhoods lose residents as the city's African-American numbers rise overall.

ST. PETERSBURG -- People in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods are moving elsewhere, Census 2000 figures suggest.

The Challenge area's population has dropped about 16 percent during the past 10 years, the numbers show, with one neighborhood alone losing more than half its population.

And yet even as population sinks in the Challenge area, where minorities compose the highest percentage, African-American population has increased citywide. It rose during the past decade from about 47,000 to about 56,000, an increase of 19 percent.

Overall, the entire city's population climbed from 238,629 in 1990 to 248,232 in 2000. That is an increase of fewer than 10,000 people, or a 4 percent rise in overall population.

Several chunks of St. Petersburg lost population, but the Challenge area's drop is notable because it was targeted for special attention after the 1996 civil disturbances.

Former mayor David Fischer's plan emphasized improving housing, creating jobs, raising educational levels and reducing crime. Still in place, the program aims at neighborhoods between Central and 30th Avenue S, between Fourth and 34th streets. Minorities make up much of the population.

Several reasons may be behind the migration from the Challenge area, where the population dropped from about 25,000 to about 21,000, say officials, neighborhood leaders and Realtors.

For example, the neighborhood that lost 52 percent of its people -- falling from 2,398 people to 1,146 -- contained the Jordan Park public housing complex, which was demolished to make way for new living units.

Demolition began in 1999 and many displaced residents moved to privately owned apartments or houses under a subsidized housing program called Section 8.

Situated between Interstate 275 and 15th Avenue S, between 22nd and 34th streets S, the neighborhood also is home to the Wildwood recreational complex. Wildwood is in the midst of a rebuilding project that required taking some houses and moving families elsewhere.

A few blocks east, Laurel Park was bulldozed in 1990 to create parking for what was then called the Florida Suncoast Dome, now Tropicana Field.

It is too early to determine what effect, if any, new census figures will have on Challenge program components.

"I'm not anticipating any changes because of population," said Tyna Middleton, the program's director.

There certainly are fewer places to live in the Challenge zone, said Poul Hornsleth, president of Caldwell Realty, a family-owned business in Gulfport.

Houses and apartments have been condemned and demolished, he said. Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association president Charles Payne said the block-long Doll House Motel, demolished in 1996, was among the aging living accommodations that have been torn down in his neighborhood.

"I've definitely noticed that some of the substandard housing that existed in the past years has been knocked down, so I think there are less dwelling units," Hornsleth said.

Besides, said Hornsleth, who organized the equal housing committee of the St. Petersburg Board of Realtors, "Though there is much work to be done, housing has become more open in the Greater St. Petersburg area. . . . There is definitely less steering and I've seen upwardly mobile people of color moving into areas like Snell Isle, Pasadena Yacht and Country Club and Tierra Verde.

"When I first started in real estate, there was a lot of steering of people of color to south of Central."

And African-Americans are living in neighborhoods not as open to them in eras past.

"I think it would be a shotgun effect. Different people moving in without the old (segregation) preconceptions," said Realtor Lou Brown.

Tee Lassiter used to live in Section 8 housing in the Challenge zone, but when her children moved out, she needed a smaller home.

"I looked in the Challenge area (but) I couldn't find the type of home or apartment that I needed that was decent and up to my standards," she said.

In January, Ms. Lassiter moved to Mariners Pointe Apartments on Pinellas Point Drive S, where she is among 48 families who receive vouchers for Section 8 housing.

She misses her old neighborhood, said Ms. Lassiter, who describes herself as a grass-roots activist and is president and CEO of Successes Unlimited, Women and Youth Business Center Inc., a non-profit organization with plans to take economic development and education to poor communities.

"It's nice out here where I am at," Ms. Lassiter said of Mariners Pointe, where she lives in a two-bedroom apartment.

"But I prefer to be in the 'hood, because I feel more at peace and more safe. I don't feel comfortable to take walks out here," she said.

Neighbors at Mariners Pointe "stay in their own little world," Ms. Lassiter added.

"People don't hang out as much. They have rules about loitering. In the 'hood, African Americans tend to sit out on their porch and they talk and sometimes we have cookouts. It's nothing planned. We just sit out and chill and listen to music and watch the kids play. You feel that closeness more."

Ms. Lassiter is typical of Challenge area residents who search for subsidized housing. Two of the three most highly concentrated Section 8 locations are outside the community and in the city's most southern neighborhoods. One such concentration is in Childs Park and the other is in apartment complexes behind 34th Street S, near Ceridian Benefits Services.

Mike Marshall, director of planning and development for the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, said of the 2,320 families who receive Section 8 vouchers or certificates in the city, 68 percent are African-American, 30 percent are white, 1 percent are Asian and 1 percent are Hispanic. He said most African-American clients live south of Central Avenue.

Parisrice Robinson, project manager for the Jordan Park Hope VI program, a federal program that has given $27-million for the revitalization of the public housing complex, said 98 percent of the 364 families who lived there in 1998 were African-American. With construction under way, only 52 families remain behind, he said. Others have transferred to public housing outside the Challenge area, while 160 families have moved to Section 8 housing. Fifty-two families chose to move to other housing, while nothing is known of 71 others.

Neighborhood Housing Services director Askia Aquil pointed out a dichotomy.

"The irony on the one hand, and the challenge on the other, we're talking about building these areas and stimulating economic development -- supermarket chains look at population density, small businesses want to feel comfortable there are enough residents to support them -- we need to make sure we're not working at cross purposes," Aquil said.

"When you think about the impact of the redevelopment in this area, a lot of it has involved moving people out to make way for whatever. You have whole residential neighborhoods displaced," he said.

Payne, of Bartlett Park, suggested that some have moved out of the area because they feared crime, and Aquil said the high drug-offense incarceration rate of male African-Americans -- a nationwide phenomenon -- has probably contributed to the population drop in some St. Petersburg neighborhoods.

-- Researchers Connie Humburg and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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