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Bittersweet goodbye
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Ramon Richardson, 8, is not the first child, though he may be one of the last, to turn a laundry line into a plaything at St. Petersburg’s Jordan Park.

Photos by Amy Toensing
Story by Curtis Krueger • of the Times Staff

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 5, 1999


Mixed feelings swirl around Jordan Park, about to face the wrecking ball. As their old neighborhood crumbles, most residents are rebuilding lives elsewhere.

ST. PETERSBURG -- On a row of battleship-gray apartments, matching squares of plywood cover window after window.

A steady wind blows through, carrying the sound of chirping birds, but not the pulse of music, the aroma of pan-fried mullet or the intermingled smells of barbecue sauce and burning charcoal.

The scents and sights and sounds of St. Petersburg's oldest and largest public housing complex are vanishing.

Family by family, residents are moving out of Jordan Park. In the past four months, more than 100 families have left the 54-building complex. Now the 446-unit development that once housed more than 1,200 people has only about 130 occupied apartments. About 80 more will empty soon.

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As Jordan Park residents move out, empty apartments become targets for vandalism.

The wrecking ball is scheduled to swing in November. Most of this landmark built in the 1930s and 1940s -- a historic center of the city's African-American community -- will crumble, a casualty of the newest federal experiment in public housing.

A new Jordan Park will rise in its place, with fewer homes -- 236 -- and a design that should look more like a neighborhood than the current barrackslike, concrete block buildings. About 50 families who live in the current Jordan Park, most of them elderly, longtime residents, plan to stay and live in the rebuilt complex.

The rest are scattering, most of them to new residences in St. Petersburg. Most say they are glad to go.

But these days, in the twilight of a neighborhood, some people are having mixed feelings about the end of Jordan Park.

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The Jordan Park public housing development was built in the 1930s and 1940s. At one time, 1,200 people lived in this historic center of the St. Petersburg African-American community.
[Times files 1958]
This is a community of contrasts, where some people can cite scripture from memory and others can tell you where to fill a crack pipe. People here have always had hundreds of neighbors, some good, some not so good; there were nosy people who would get into your business, but also friends and family to support you.

"Jordan Park is more than just a development. It is an institution here," said Mitchell Bryant of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority.

Bryant, 31, is coordinating the demolition and rebuilding of Jordan Park. That process has rekindled childhood memories for him.

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[Times art]
His father, Matthew, was born in Jordan Park. A midwife helped bring him into the world in the bedroom of an upstairs apartment. Bryant himself grew up a few blocks from Jordan Park but remembers playing ball with a broom handle and a tennis ball there and buying "flips," a Popsicle-like treat without the stick that a neighbor made in Dixie cups.

As they watch the exodus, people who have lived in Jordan Park recall sweet as well as bitter memories. And some who recently moved are grappling with the reality of life after Jordan Park.

* * *

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Taiwana Jenkins, 21, accepted federal relocation money to leave Jordan Park. She earns $6 an hour at a dry cleaners and hopes she can make it outside the public housing development. "I can do anything I want to because I have dreams," she says.

Taiwana Jenkins, a 21-year-old mother of three, got on her knees on the floor of her apartment. She put her hands together and prayed:

Lord, please let me get my life together ... When I move, please let me be done. Let me leave my troubles behind.

She also asked for help so "that I do right by my kids."

Jenkins, whose children are 4, 2 and 10 months, has found a house in St. Petersburg. She will get help paying the rent through the federal Section 8 program.

Jordan Park residents like Jenkins were given the choice of staying during the construction and moving into the rebuilt Jordan Park, or moving elsewhere. Those who move can receive money for relocation expenses, subsidized rent through Section 8 and other benefits.

Having some residents move is part of the philosophy behind Hope VI, the federal program that will pour $27-million into rebuilding Jordan Park and give $32.5-million for a similar transformation of College Hill and Ponce de Leon Courts in Tampa.

Federal officials want to reduce concentrated areas of poverty by offering an incentive to move to other areas, and by promoting job training and education opportunities. The new Jordan Park will be less densely populated. The new apartments also are designed to look homier. Instead of the current block-shaped structures that house six to eight apartments and offer little sense of privacy, the new complex will consist mostly of duplexes and triplexes with their own parking places and fenced-off yards. A small number of the existing apartments will be remodeled.

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Residents call Jordan Park a "ghost town" now that only 130 of the 446 apartments are occupied. The housing development is scheduled for demolition in November.

It was the relocation money that persuaded Jenkins to move. "They weren't going to give us (any) money if we didn't move," she said. She got more than $2,000 from the Housing Authority to help pay bills, make a security deposit on her new home, a water deposit, and buy a few things for the house. But a week after moving in, she sat in the kitchen shaking her head. "I'm broke, I'm broke," she said.

She works at a dry cleaning business for a bit more than minimum wage and takes a cab to get there that costs $8 one way. She hopes she will be able to afford her new apartment's higher costs: a subsidized monthly bill that has risen from $32 to $152 and a water bill that she didn't have to pay before.

She keeps on praying. "That's the only way I (feel) like I'm going to make it," she says.

* * *

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"I just take it one day at a time," Lewis Stephens, 78, says. He has lived at Jordan Park since 1947 and, like many other seniors in the development, will relocate to another building while renovations are made.

He pulled out a red plastic pouch of tobacco and rolled a cigarette. Stephen, 78, has lived in Jordan Park since 1947. People around here still call him "Mr. Butch," from a nickname his brother gave him as a child

Although some of his neighbors are moving, and others are vowing to stay, Stephen is taking the changes at his own speed. In his younger years Stephen worked many jobs: construction, tending lawns, fixing cars, roofing. But his wife passed on and now he lives alone, retired.

He sits on the porch or in the shade of a tree, sipping a cool drink, talking to passers-by, reading books like Holy Spirit -- The Force Behind the Coming New Order. He does not seem worried about the coming demolition.

Will he move out?

"It all depends, really," he says. "You know what I mean?"

The housing people will come before November to ask the same question one last time. He doesn't mind waiting until then to give an answer.

* * *

Dora Gurley drove by the two-bedroom house on 28th Street S, wishing she could move in. But the sign out front said it was for sale, not for rent. Still, she figured it couldn’t hurt to slip a note in the door.

The landlord called, told her he would consider renting. She could even pick out carpet. She settled on a deep aqua green

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Busher Tucker helps cart boxes for Dora Gurley and her boyfriend, Donie Smith. Gurley said she was happy in Jordan Park, but is even happier now that she's found a house to live in.

"I've been living in the project nine years and thought I'd never get out," says Gurley, 39. Not that she minded. She steered away from trouble; it never found her.

When the St. Petersburg Housing Authority gave her a moving allowance, she analyzed it and divided it up with efficiency. She paid bills at Jordan Park; paid a rent and water deposit, bought some furniture. After moving into the rental house with her daughters, ages 9 and 3, she decorated it with flowers and new blinds.

Is she worried that her salary as a hotel housekeeper might not cover the bills?

"'No," she says firmly. "The bills have to be paid."

Her new house, she said, is "great, great." "It's the best thing that ever happened to me. I ain't smiled like this in so many days. I was happy in Jordan Park, but now I'm so happy I can't keep still."

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Dora Gurley, second from right, celebrates her 39th birthday with daughter Opheria Thompson, 9, in her Jordan Park apartment. Boyfriend Donie Smith is at the microphone.

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