MAXWELL:  Residents can change life in Midtown

5/29/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

The best local news I have read this year was a recent article reporting that the St. Petersburg Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office had teamed up to seriously go after drug pushers in Midtown. Apologists _ who claim to “understand” why able-bodied, perfectly healthy, young black men sell drugs on the streets _ are sure to complain about aggressive police action.

I have lived in several neighborhoods where drug dealers and their customers ruled the streets. Even now, I have relatives, whom I often visit, who live in places where drug trafficking and the ills it attracts are accepted as normal. Until quite recently, my mother’s street in Fort Lauderdale, near Sunrise Boulevard and Interstate 95, was one of the city’s worse open-air drug markets. My son served prison time for selling drugs. I have had at least two cousins in Fort Lauderdale die in drug-related gunfights. As a journalist, my work regularly takes me into areas where drugs are a way of life.

I mention all this to establish that I know the ugly face of drugs from firsthand knowledge, that my personal life has been affected by it, that I will not tolerate any excuses when drugs are at issue.

Open-air drug markets are a curse on the neighborhood. On my mother’s street, before the dealers and their customers were chased away, decent people _ older blacks who worked all their lives to buy or build comfortable houses and sport beautiful yards _ either sold their property, hid behind locked doors or ventured out and endured the insults and degradation that awaited them.

The dealers, all blacks from the neighborhoods, used designated houses, yards, street corners and trees to ply their trade. Each site attracted its own peculiar vices and dangers, but all of them devalued their surroundings. The banyan next to my mother’s house, where a group of teenagers sold crack to white motorists from I-95, became a refuse pile. After a while, someone dumped a refrigerator there, then a couch, then a television. The crack shack on the next block also served as a daytime resting place for prostitutes.

And existence in many parts of St. Petersburg’s Midtown is the same.

Life in the Melrose-Mercy and 13th Street Heights communities, for example, has been so degraded that many residents, including schoolchildren, long ago accepted their circumstances as being normal.

A casual drive or walk through these areas should shame and anger law-abiding black Midtowners into protest. But thus is not the case. And why should it be, when City Hall treats certain vocal, wrongheaded residents and their turfs as sacred cows?

One of the single most important reality lost in this mess is that drug problems in Midtown are not caused by white people (society). Neither are these problems caused by the national or local economy, the school system, the public transportation system, the distribution of city and county parks. Drug dealing and the self-destructive decisions of individual black people are the core problems smothering Midtown.

I, a lone individual, decided to contact my mother’s representative in the Florida Legislature about drug trafficking on her street. At the same time, I complained to her city commissioner and the police supervisor responsible for the officers patrolling her area. I also went door-to-door and asked my mother’s neighbors to support me in raising hell about criminals destroying the neighborhood’s tranquility.

Out of the 22 people I spoke with, only three refused to cooperate. Everyone else wrote letters or telephoned or visited the appropriate government office to complain. All of us learned at least one valuable lesson: If individual lawbreakers do not have the decency to cease and desist, each decent individual must act on his own, by himself to improve the quality of life in his community.

When individuals in a community show concern and challenge city hall and the police to help them, officials dutifully, if not gladly, join the battle. Which is what is beginning to happen in Midtown. When property owners begin to inform the police that drug dealers and their customers are trespassing, the police will start making arrests. When Midtowners let the police know that drugs are being sold on certain corners at certain times, the police will start dispatching officers.

Individual citizens can change life in the Melrose-Mercy and 13th Street Heights neighborhoods overnight if they want to, if they make the police their allies, if they decide that drug dealers diminish the quality of their lives and that they will not suffer the abuse anymore.