MAXWELL:   Midtown needs outrage to make it better

4/24/2002 –  Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


St. Petersburg’s Midtown will never become a viable place as long as current community leaders, which include most clergy, and thugdom remain on the stage and continue their old habits.

As background to the purpose of this column, let me offer two examples of dysfunctional behavior that makes Midtown a bleak zone, behavior that humiliates individuals and degrades life in general.

One afternoon last week, I made the mistake (I will not make it again) of trying to buy gas at the Marathon station on M.L. King (Ninth) Street S and 18th Avenue.

Pulling into the station, I realized that all of the pumps were taken. Then, I noticed that the drivers (young black men) of three vehicles were not pumping gas. Arms folded and leaning against their vehicles, these brothers were shooting the breeze.

They were using the pumps _ at a place of business _ as a hangout.

Not being a fool, I immediately turned around. I know better than to confront young black men in Midtown about anything. Unless you plan to fuss, fight or die, you had better keep your mouth shut and not stare too long.

Although I had a speaking engagement, I decided to wait a few minutes to see what other motorists would do. Like me, none confronted these punks. Some moved to other lines and waited patiently as other customers pumped, walked inside, paid and pulled away. Still others did as I did: They gave up altogether.

As I drove away, one of the brothers, having noticed me, stepped away from the group, thumped his chest with both hands, raised his arms and shouted to me: “S’up, nigga? S’up, nigga?”

Unfortunately, the owners of the store do not care enough about their customers and the community to stop this potentially deadly practice of intimidation, of blocking gas pumps. Residents should not have to live with this insanity.

On Monday, I drove along a narrow two-lane street and suddenly had to stop because two cars blocked the road. The drivers, two black men, had decided (and this happens all the time, all over Midtown) to use the street as their personal chat room. In other words, to hell with everyone else.

Before other vehicles could pull up behind and block me in, I put my Blazer in reverse and took another street. Although angry, I dared not confront these thugs. Why die on a hot, narrow street in Midtown? (I dream of living long enough to see my daughter become a great cellist in an orchestra.)

Anger and fear aside, I was humiliated.

And I am not alone. Much of life in Midtown is a series of humiliations, insults and assaults. Yes, black people are humiliating, insulting and assaulting one another.

Black slumlords abuse their tenants by neglecting their properties; the loud music of many young black males makes sleep next impossible in some neighborhoods; drug dealers make some streets dangerous war zones; many Midtowners use their yards, easements and streets as trash disposals.

I call these quality-of-life crimes.

The tragedy is that _ having always endured such conditions _ too many Midtowners accept the status quo as normal. As a result, they remain silent and resign themselves to their fate.

Humiliation, abuse and fear should not be the normal way of things in the lives of ordinary people.

Here is where real leaders need to intervene. And some are. Quality of life has to become more than a vague concept. It has to become a concrete, ever-present reality. It has to be inculcated. It is wanting and demanding a green, mowed lawn, a litter-free park, access to gas pumps, prompt repairs from the landlord, respectful service in stores, quiet nights.

Quality of life means not accepting inferior goods, services and behavior. I would love to see black leaders convince residents that they deserve better, that they are worthwhile.

Midtowners need to become dissatisfied. On a whim the other day, I asked a Midtown native if he was bothered that he and his family could not sit down and eat a full-course meal anywhere in Midtown after dark.

His answer was heartbreaking: “No, it doesn’t bother me. It’s been that way all my life.”

“What about your kids?”

“They go to the mall or to BayWalk to eat.”

Again, his is a typical view of life here.

Positive change will come when leaders help ordinary Midtowners develop a healthy sense of outrage, outrage that pushes people to act on their own for themselves, outrage that will not tolerate hoodlums blocking gas pumps or blocking streets, outrage that demands a better life.