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Racial ebb and flow tosses Tampa's Tract 2

A neighborhood gains blacks and Hispanics. It also becomes poorer. With poverty, comes a spiral of crime, home sales, then renovation.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001

A neighborhood gains blacks and Hispanics. It also becomes poorer. With poverty, comes a spiral of crime, home sales, then renovation.

TAMPA -- For Bruce Holley, Census Tract 2 began to change when duplexes opened up at the end of his street.

For Betty Shaffer, the change began when longtime residents moved away to bigger houses and rented their old ones to federally subsidized low-income tenants.

Whatever the trigger, rapid turnover of residents started 20 years ago in the neighborhood, and continued through the 1990s, according to statistics recently released from the U.S. Census.

Among Hillsborough County's 249 census tracts, Tract 2 recorded the single greatest decrease in white residents during the '90s, with at least 1,936 moving out. It posted the third greatest increase of African-Americans, with at least 1,718 moving in. It had the county's 16th largest increase of Hispanic residents: 906.

"I think I'm the last white guy on the block," said Holley, 60, who is trying to sell his house after 35 years there to move out of "the rat race."

In last year's census, the tract was 34 percent white, 39 percent black and 22 percent Hispanic. (Hispanics can be of any race.)

Holley and other people familiar with the area suspect the census numbers significantly understate the ebb and flow of humanity in Tract 2.

Shaw Elementary School, one of two in the tract, swelled past 1,300 students in the mid 1990s. Earl Whitlock, Shaw's principal until 1997, said about 150 children enrolled or withdrew every month, creating an annual turnover rate that equaled the school's entire student body.

Never wealthy, the tract became poorer over the years.

In the 1970s, nearly half the students at Shaw were sufficiently needy to qualify for reduced-price lunches. In the past two years, more than 90 percent were.

The change was milder at Witter Elementary, which serves the eastern half of Tract 2. The number of children in the reduced-lunch program rose from slightly more than half in the 1970s to more than 80 percent recently.

As everywhere, increased crime accompanied increased poverty. Drug dealers operate openly, particularly west of 15th Street, despite repeated arrests.

Anti-drug marches are held monthly, said Mrs. Shaffer, 73, a longtime Crime Watch leader. A half-hour after one march, undercover drug officers filtered into the neighborhood and snared 21 suspects, just as they emerged from hiding, she said.

Lois Grace Buie, who bought a house on Lantana Avenue in 1996, said she grabbed her broom one day and chased a drug dealer down the street.

New Life Pentecostal Church of God hosts Narcotics Anonymous at noon every day.

Neighbors almost uniformly say they have no problem with the differing races, just the crooks.

"As long as they behave themselves, I don't care whether they're pea-green with purple dots," said Mrs. Shaffer, who is white.

Holley said the black man next door is "a great neighbor."

Mrs. Buie, a 53-year-old African-American, is disgusted with some of her African-American neighbors because, she says, they have shunned her efforts to spruce up the neighborhood. She says she is grateful to white merchants, who have helped her improve her own house.

Whitlock said no major racial incidents occurred at Shaw during his eight years there.

"They're living with each other, essentially, so they know how to get along," he said.

Judi Richardson, who is white, moved onto 19th Street two years ago. "People were swarming here to help us move out of the boxes," she said.

Her husband, Calvin, who is African-American, said he didn't believe racial discomfort was prompting people to move out.

"They're getting tired of the old house," he said. "They're building up and they want something new."

The tract's trend is changing, said Kristie Simpson, who with her husband buys foreclosed houses to renovate and sell, usually to first-time homeowners.

Near Witter, homes have begun selling quickly in the past year. She estimated about 70 percent of the buyers are Hispanic and the rest are African-American. They're professionals and families making $30,000 to $35,000 a year, she said.

Along with other foreclosure investors, Mrs. Simpson said, "We raise the price in these neighborhoods."

West of 15th Street, more and more houses are showing up on the foreclosure lists. "Everybody's trying to get out of there," Mrs. Simpson said.

But investors are taking interest and soon will start renovations there, she predicted.

"I'd say next year is going to be the bottom."

- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469.

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