Within park, its neighbors find unity
Neighborhood residents use the park as a community green, staging festivals and reunions on its 22 acres.
By JON WILSON
© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Caprisha Phillips, left, and Annie Thorn talk while resting in the shade of a tree at Campbell Park during the Juneteenth celebration. The neighborhoods developer, Thomas Church Campbell, sold the parkland to the city for $22,500 in 1943.
One element above all others unifies the Campbell Park neighborhood.
That is the park of the same name.
Pleasantly sliced by Booker Creek and spread across 22 acres in Tropicana Field's shadow, the park anchors its neighborhood both physically and emotionally.
With the exception of a stretch along Fifth Avenue S, few African-Americans lived in the neighborhood until the 1960s.
But long before that, many played in the park, held family reunions there, embraced it as a cozy community green.
"We had that bonding because Campbell Park was where Gibbs played football," said Iveta Martin Berry, referring to the days when Gibbs High School was an all-black institution.
As a girl, Berry and her friends would see a movie at the old Harlem Theater on Third Avenue S. On the way home, they would cut through the park, then across 16th Street S through a since-uprooted cemetery, where old men sipping beverages might be sitting on headstones, singing soft harmony.
Berry graduated from Gibbs, Class of '53. She recalls the commencement exercises at a park band shell. All the seniors wore bright white gowns. "You talk about a sight . . .," she said.
Such ties wrap the park in perpetual attention. At the moment, neighbors are battling to turn an old swimming pool bathhouse into a community center.
"We have had to fight for everything," said Berry, adding that she bought her house from one of the neighborhood's last white residents 30 years ago. She is now the neighborhood association president.
In the shadow of Tropicana Field, Campbell Park's official neighborhood boundaries are Fifth and 11th avenues S between Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) and 16th streets. More black families began moving into the area when integration took hold and more housing opportunities opened.
Years ago, cane fields and a dairy occupied the area. Thomas Church Campbell, a Pennsylvanian, bought much of the property to develop, starting in the 1920s. The neighborhood, park and an elementary school are named for him, and in 1943 he sold the parkland to the city for $22,500.
In the neighborhood itself, frame and concrete-block houses dominate. Few new structures have been built recently. Many houses went up in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, with a few dating to about 1915. On average, homes are assessed in the $40,000 range, according to county records.
Many are trim and well-kept; others could use repairs and a paint job. Bob Gilder, who leads a city-sponsored team that helps needy people fix up their homes, said his crews have done hundreds of jobs in Campbell Park during the past few years.
It is a neighborhood where people like to sit outside in the evenings or on weekends. Food and drinks are set up on picnic or card tables. A barbecue aroma sometimes wafts through the streets, perhaps from backyard grills or the Hogley Wogley store on Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street.
Cabretti Wheeler, 14, left, and Michael Lindsey, 13, wait to climb the diving board at E.H. McLin Pool in Campbell Park. Neighbors are battling to turn an old pool bathhouse nearby into a community center.
"To me, it's a community," said Annie Young, who has lived in the neighborhood about 50 years. "Like everybody else, you always have a rotten apple somewhere."
Neighbors cite rental houses whose owners don't always keep them up.
And they say drug dealing has been a problem from time to time, though they say it less frequently takes place in plain view on the streets these days.
"The problem now is we don't have enough to do for kids," Berry said. Not all youngsters can afford fee-based programs at the park's recreation center, she said.
But the younger generation is carrying on a community legacy.
A year ago, the recreation center's Teen Council produced a Campbell Park history, interviewing older residents of the neighborhood.
And much of what they produced focuses on the park itself.
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