MAXWELL:  A hard road ahead for 16th Street S

4/15/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Let’s get real about Major League Baseball and 16th Street S and its surrounding areas.

In last Saturday’s Times, Melvin Hall, an owner of Connie’s Bar B Que at 16th Street S and 18th Avenue, said that business in his restaurant “will pick up when people start realizing we’re here.”

I hope that Hall is right (I like his ribs). But I do not think so, despite the city’s newly installed fancy lights and freshly planted palm trees, marigolds and turf.

In view of my experiences along this strip Monday night, when the Devil Rays played the Minnesota Twins, I doubt that Hall and other African-American merchants will see real profits for many years to come _ especially if they are depending on white baseball fans.

At 5 p.m., I parked in the empty parking lot of Shirley’s Soul Food cafe, which had a “Closed” sign in the window. For an hour, I monitored the traffic going toward Tropicana Field. I saw few white motorists and honestly could not imagine why any of them would want to stop.

What could they buy? What services are available? Where is the entertainment?

Sure, Connie’s is on the corner; a snack shack is in the same block; a hair salon is across the street near the U.S. Postal facility; a weekend jazz club that I frequent is next to a seafood store; an income tax and insurance office is nearby; a bail bonds office anchors the next corner.

Then, of course, there is the liquor store and its debris-strewed parking lot that serves as a hangout for men preferring to drink and roughhouse outside.

Most of these places look unkempt and project a sense of general chaos: A car repair shop _ complete with broken-down vehicles, smelly oil rags, cans and other junk that come with such a business _ is next to the snack shack, in full view of anyone buying food. A radiator repair shop sits a few yards away.

An auto body repair shop operates directly behind Connie’s, giving the corner an unwholesome appearance. All along 16th street, in fact, eating establishments and foul-smelling auto repair outfits are neighbors. Is this a zoning problem? In short, the community is uninviting to the newcomer unaccustomed to such disorder.

Sixteenth Street has another burden: It feels unsafe to most whites. Too many black males, many of them young, loiter on corners and drink in full view of Devil Rays fans passing by.

Let’s not kid ourselves, white folk talk among themselves, warning one another to avoid certain areas, especially in our communities, that feel dangerous. They, too, remember the riots, the fire, the smoke.

Black business owners on 16th Street have the awesome task of making the community feel safe for baseball fans and for year-round residents, who can provide a steady source of money.

At 6:10 p.m., I drove to 16th Street S and 14th Avenue. Here, a police car, its lights flashing, had pulled over two young black males, reminding me of TyRon Lewis. The white cop was on the radio; the black one was making notes.

I studied the white motorists passing. Most slowed to observe the spectacle, then sped away. Fifteen minutes later, another police car arrived. I drove to 16th and Central Avenue, where thousands of fans marched toward the dome.

This was another world. Cops were helping people cross the street, not preparing to jail them. The sounds were festive, not menacing. I drove east on Central to Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street, where I turned south and returned to 16th and 14th. Now, the two black males were handcuffed and in a third squad car that had arrived in my absence.

From here, I drove home and watched the game on TV, which ended at midnight after Bobby Smith clobbered a 14th-inning home run. Wanting to know what 16th Street is like at this hour, I drove back there. The snack shop was open. Everything else was closed. Few cars came from the direction of the dome.

At the Trop, traffic headed directly for the interstate, away from 16th Street S. I kept thinking of the old black woman who prophesied about baseball’s fate. After the building of the dome displaced scores of black families, she predicted that ancestral spirits would never let baseball come to town.

What would she tell these merchants now that baseball is here? I do not know, but here is my advice: Find a way to make the area feel safe. Make it attractive. Conduct a feasibility study to determine the kind of businesses that can thrive here. Work together and pool your resources. Adopt a can-do attitude.