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Finally, a pragmatic view of south side

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001


For the first time during the seven years I have been in St. Petersburg, a high-level city official is showing signs of speaking with brutal honesty about the city's predominantly black south side -- dubbed the "Challenge Area" by former Mayor David Fischer and now euphemized as the "Midtown" area by new Mayor Rick Baker.

Police Chief Goliath Davis gave St. Petersburg Times reporter Leonora LaPeter some refreshing straight talk about the south side. Baker has appointed Davis, who is retiring as police chief, as deputy mayor in charge of revitalizing the troubled area. Baker wants his Midtown to be a "seamless" part of the city.

Until now, outright lies and inadvertent ones have come out of the mouths of officials. Following the TyRon Lewis riots of several years ago, for example, south side residents were led to believe that money would fall from the sky like manna, that new businesses would mushroom. That did not happen, and many of the old resentments have rekindled; many of the old sores have reopened.

I am sure that Davis is aware of residents' views and feelings. Best of all, he already is approaching his new job without making empty promises.

"People need to realize that Go Davis is not the messiah," he told the Times. "Economic development doesn't come overnight. We have to create some reality about what it is. Every idea is not marketable or fundable."

No one asked for my opinion, but here is part of the "reality" that I see: Nostalgia, a longing for the good old days before integration, must be tossed out. Pre-integration was when night spots thrived, when a neighborhood movie theater and a hospital served African-Americans, when the aroma of delicious soul food filled the air, when black teachers lived next door to their students, when finely dressed couples strolled hand-in-hand along 22nd Street.

Here is what Davis told the Times: "A lot of people, when they look at 16th Street S, 22nd Street S and others, you could say to some extent there's a lot of history that people are trying to reclaim."

That history cannot be reclaimed -- ever. The Midtown area is basically a bedroom community with scattered rows of impoverished mom-and-pop businesses. These businesses cannot buy cheaply and, therefore, cannot pass on savings to their customers. Crowds will never storm these businesses looking for bargains.

Another distressing fact is that most of the businesses that I occasionally need, convenience stores, are owned by foreigners. I have no problem with this trend except that these owners have no stake in the community. They take in money, and they take it out of the community. Precious few live in the area.

Now for another reality: Black people on the south side are just like everyone else. They want nice things. They love Tyrone Square Mall and the other shopping hubs. They love BayWalk and other spots downtown. My point is that people in the area want to get out. They want to enjoy the diversity of the big shopping areas in other parts of town.

I agree with business people who believe that a popular business would be a magnet for others. What would that business be? Some people worry that the area is becoming a dumping ground for social service agencies.

They have a point. But what about the approach being tried in Fort Lauderdale? There, city and county officials are thinking of putting government facilities on and around Sistrunk Boulevard, an impoverished area that is equivalent to St. Petersburg's 16th Street S. The hope is that the presence of government workers will spark the establishment of restaurants that serve good breakfast and lunch, which in turn may generate other businesses.

If truth be told, I believe that entire swaths of buildings on the south side need to be razed, and new blood needs to come into the area. Sometimes, the wisest move is simply to start from scratch. Hardly anything along stretches of 22nd Street is worth saving. Look at many places along 18th Avenue S.

The south side lacks an old, shared business acumen that one generation passes on to the next. Remember, we are talking about reality.

Again, I like how Davis describes his cautious, pragmatic approach to the many deep-rooted economic, social and cultural challenges he will face in his new job, as reported in the Times: "My role at this point is to gather input and try to assess whether these areas are still viable in terms of what they need to be. It may be that times have changed, and we need to do things differently."

Indeed, times have changed. I have no doubt that we must do things differently. If not, we will continue to spit in the wind and recycle the same failures.

Recent coverage

Goliath Davis will need help from residents with the right attitude (April 22, 2001)

Residents of St. Petersburg south side want to be recognized (February 25, 2001)

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