MAXWELL:  22nd Street Business District needs help

11/7/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

The fancy sign reads: “Greater 22nd Street Business District.” The subtext is a cruel joke because 22nd Street S in St. Petersburg and its environs are a virtual wasteland of poverty, drugs, street crime and hopelessness.

Here, signs reading “We Buy Ugly Houses” and “Cash for Junk Cars” do not raise eyebrows.

I do business in the area, I have acquaintances here and I drive or walk the streets nearly every day. No matter the time of day or night, the place depresses me. The construction of Interstate 275 chopped Midtown into a warren, a maze of short streets leading to nowhere.

On 22nd Street, many dilapidated buildings are empty or boarded up. The few businesses that remain operate on a shoestring and employ no more than two or three people. Vice and religion, the biggest commodities, vie for warm bodies with a few dollars to spare.

Destitute men and woman pass the time sitting on boxes, old chairs, homemade benches and the tailgates of pickups. Many men cook their meals over open fires, and they drink booze in parking lots, like the one that belongs to Ike’s on 16th Street. Trash and debris are everywhere.

Sure, former-Mayor David Fischer planted a lot of trees, and this effort has yielded aesthetically pleasing results. Mayor Rick Baker also has a thing for aesthetics. But poor people cannot live on aesthetics alone. They need jobs, education, money, affordable housing, wholesome entertainment.

Now enters Goliath Davis III, the city’s deputy mayor for Midtown economic development. If anyone can jump-start progress in the area, Davis is the one. Until Davis was selected for the this project, I did not believe the place would ever change.

If you recall, following the TyRon Lewis riots, federal, state and local big shots made all kinds of outlandish promises for what was then-called the south side. Mayoral and City Council candidates, black and white, should be ashamed of some of the stuff they said to get votes.

Already, Davis has held three public meetings to solicit ideas from the broader community, including representatives of youth groups, clergy, business owners and community agencies.

Davis is going slowly. He wants to produce a viable plan. “I’m going to come back and ask again . . . and probably people are going to say, “What is Davis doing?’. . .and people are going to come out looking for the plan,” Davis was quoted as having said in the St. Petersburg Times. “But I’m not going to develop the plan prematurely.”

Unfortunately, even with heavy public relations announcements and word-of-mouth invitations, neither meeting has attracted more than 80 people. Many attending the meetings do not live in Midtown but have a direct, vested interest in its development.

Therein lies the major flaw in Davis’ effort: The process, like so many other similar ones, is flowing exclusively from the top down.

His meetings (held in spacious venues) should be packed with ordinary residents of Midtown. They need to attend. Perhaps they will not have anything substantive to offer at the outset, but their presence alone would be symbolic and would encourage planners to listen to them as visions unfold and reality takes shape.

I spent several hours on Sunday and Monday talking with Midtown residents. None attended the meetings. Some had heard about the meetings but saw no reason to attend. I asked what kind of business and other establishments they would like to see. Their replies: Supermarket. Skating rink. Amusement park. Night clubs. Nice restaurants. Post office. Manufacturing company.

My next question was this: Would you patronize businesses in Midtown, or would you continue to spend at places out of the area, say, the malls and BayWalk? Many were frank, saying that nothing could keep them away from Tyrone Square Mall and other more upscale markets. Midtown never will return to its pre-civil rights era economic and social vitality.

Davis is smart enough to know that his job will span many years, perhaps a generation. No matter what he does, Davis should remember that something must be done soon to reverse Midtown’s brain-drain. Too many of the area’s best and brightest young African-Americans go away and never return, except for short visits. More people _ like Davis himself _ need reasons to return and use their talents and money to uplift their neighborhoods.

The new deputy mayor is the right person for the job, but he will need the ideas and active participation of ordinary Midtown residents if the “Greater 22nd Street Business District” sign is to stop being a bad, cruel joke.