At this time of national upheaval, roiled by race, politics and a pandemic, some of us have become reflective about the causes and lessons that might be learned.
Thousands march, while smaller numbers choose to set up curbside pantries, a modest effort to help fill the stomachs of the nation’s growing hungry. Some are taking action on a global, albeit digital level, expressing searing thoughts through social media, while others shout their opinions with yard signs – a few quite witty — fly flags or launch modern-day armadas on behalf of a preferred presidential candidate.
I’ve been thinking a lot about race lately. About fairness, perception and the people of goodwill scrambling to acknowledge Black faces once unseen and voices often ignored.
It set me thinking about St. Petersburg, a city I grew to appreciate long before its new, multimillion-dollar Pier, fancy downtown restaurants and luxury high-rise condominiums even Tampa might envy. I enjoy neighborhood parks like Bay Vista with its spectacular sunrises that speckle the bay, Maximo and its Old Florida ambience and that best kept secret, Boyd Hill.
If there’s a common theme, it’s intentionally geographic. Each of these scenic parks can be found in a part of town often disparagingly referred to as “the Southside,” or “South St. Pete.” And while most people on my side of town consider it home, a safe, diverse and underrated area south of Central Avenue, it’s no secret that in many quarters “South St. Pete” is pejorative for “black, crime-ridden and poor.”
It’s not uncommon to have a visitor carelessly express surprise when venturing across the dividing line. “What a lovely neighborhood,” they might say, or something similar. “I’ve not been in this part of town before.” Little do they know that they’ve been missing the charming, Disneyesque pocket of Driftwood, Pinellas Point with its pink streets, Bahama Shores, Maximo, Lakewood and other unique neighborhoods.
And while it might seem incongruous, many in the city’s Black community embrace the “South St. Pete” label. It is, after all, home of historic 22nd Street S – the Deuces – where the Manhattan Casino once welcomed world class performers such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and once a busy thoroughfare where Black businesses thrived during segregation. It’s also the neighborhood where the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum is striving to make its mark and share stories of Black St. Petersburg and others of the African diaspora.
It must be acknowledged that there are challenges in the area’s poor, Black neighborhoods. But are there no poor, struggling neighborhoods north of Central Avenue, the not-so-secret and embarrassing demarcation for the black and white sides of the city?
Recent mayors have struggled to address inequities in poor southern neighborhoods. Mayor David Fischer created the Challenge zone following the 1996 riots that erupted after a white police officer shot and killed an 18-year-old Black man. The rage and the soul-searching of that time more than two decades ago feel somehow familiar today. Back then, some white faith leaders on the north side of the city sought to make reconciliatory connections with Black congregations. There were other overtures following the violent disturbances that stunned a somnolent and generally self-satisfied city. Then, as they do now, people of conscience wondered how they could have been so blind to the inequities of their fellow citizens.
Mayor Rick Baker would later designate the area he sought to improve as Midtown, a name retained by fellow Republican Bill Foster. Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, dropped the Midtown name. The South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area came into being in 2015.
In recent days, Kriseman posted a triumphant tweet: “St. Petersburg’s African American poverty rate is down to 16.7%…the lowest level ever recorded.”
It was a quote from a report from One Community, “a comprehensive plan for economic growth for South St. Petersburg.”
“Our combined efforts have worked!” Kriseman added. “Truly encouraging data, but our enthusiasm is tempered by the work we’ll have to do related to this pandemic.”
Indeed, in the face of obvious disparities that plague areas south of Central, there are those who are working to help upgrade housing stock, create business opportunities — a supermarket is one of the dire needs – and jobs that pay a living wage. There’s also focus on ensuring accessible health care and improving education for poor black children trapped in an increasingly segregated and unequal school system.
Sometimes, though, those with the best intentions need to make sure that they’re not perceived as condescending and even a party to reinforcing stereotypical beliefs when they – often outsiders – glibly employ such terms as “South St. Pete” or “the Southside.” Yes, those who live there might use those terms, but that doesn’t mean others should.
These communities south of downtown, bordering Lake Maggiore and off the last exit before the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. are wonderfully diverse in race, ethnicity and income. They have no claim to Stepford sameness, but are a mix of million-dollar waterfront homes, others with golf course views, condominiums, affordable apartments and modest dwellings. Their diversity calls for a Starbucks, a Fresh Market, a Trader Joe’s and not the accepted proliferation of Dollar stores.
Why should an entire swath south of Central Avenue, where a majority of the city’s Black residents live, many side by side white neighbors, be dismissed? Entrenched and unsubstantiated beliefs not only harm all of the people who call this area home, but also stall the development and opportunities taken for granted in other communities.