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Fear and anxiety rise from the flames

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2000


As soon as he spotted the white man heading down the alley, Charlie Turner started asking himself: What if he was the one?

The man looked to be about 25, and was carrying a bag with what could have been a bottle inside. He had a white cloth overhis head. Charlie Turner is black, and he has lived in Tampa Heights for half his 65 years. He knows everybody. But he'd never seen the white man before.

Turner watched him go down the alley, turn right and then come out a block away, without the bag he had been carrying.

The man might have been dropping off groceries to a friend. But early the previous day, last Wednesday, three fires were set in occupied homes in the Heights. One night the week before, three other fires were also started, and one of them was set under Charlie Turner's rambling house. Turner put it out with a hose. The flames never burned through the floor. That didn't make for much of a fire. But four of the other Heights fires were also set in homes where black people live.

Charlie Turner never used the word Klan. But what does a young white guy with something white on his head otherwise sound like?

If you're white, the answer may be absurdist fantasy. Not if you're black.

Write it off as human nature, if you want. What Charlie Turner thought he saw was no different from what white people frequently think when they see somebody black in their neighborhood: the worst possible thing.

No different, but for this: The fires are real.

No different, but for this: When he called in his fire report, he thought the dispatcher dismissed him. He told Turner the smell of smoke was probably coming from another house fire nearby.

I've got the feeling Turner might not be convinced by the department's explanation, that the dispatcher's remark was understandable and routine. The department often gets panicky calls from people who mistakenly think their house is on fire, when it's another house nearby.

And there's this. Charlie Turner said he called the hotline established to receive tips three times after he saw that white man, and nobody called him back.

The fire department, through spokesman Bill Wade, said that shouldn't have happened.

That would be small consolation to Charlie Turner.

Fear is fear. Racial anxiety is racial anxiety.

Even without the fires, Tampa Heights is changing, and the change has racial implications. The Heights is undergoing revitalization. Revitalization almost always means driving out the poor and the black and replacing them with the wealthy and the white.

And Dick Greco, who doesn't have a lot of fans among black people, has made the Heights a pet project. The city's program to turn the neighborhood around even calls the area the Mayor's Heights Project, as if it is to be rebuilt just as Greco wants it.

Since the fire under his Tampa Heights house, Charlie Turner has taken to getting up in the middle of the night and walking around the property.

He even thought briefly of standing watch on the roof, not the wisest move a man his age could make -- even a burly one like him. His face is barely wrinkled, his graying hair is combed straight back, his white mustache is precise and narrow.

Without saying much, he communicated that nothing surprised him. But the fires have rattled him to his core.

"I look over my shoulder 24 hours a day," he said, "but you can't look over your shoulder when you sleep."

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