MAXWELL: Upscale housing one answer for Midtown

3/12/2003 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

I am one of those lucky African-Americans who can afford to live pretty much anywhere I want, that is if a race-conscious agent does not steer me away from the home of my choice. I have lived most of my life in ordinary neighborhoods, such as Stock Island in Key West and Coquina Key in St. Petersburg, because they suit my need for freedom inside my home and in my yard. I would never live in a deed restricted area because, well, I do not like being restricted.

I would never live in the ghetto, either, because life in the ghetto is severely restricted. Life in the ghetto is restricted because of the lack of amenities that average people take for granted. I am talking about a chain grocery store, such as an Albertson’s, a full-service bank, a U.S. post office, a drugstore, a public library, perhaps a few discount stores, a well-marked bicycle path, a few good restaurants that stay open late, a general sense of personal safety.

Because few of these amenities exist in St. Petersburg’s Midtown, I would not live there at this time. Midtown is the area bordered by Second Avenue N and 30th Avenue S and Fourth and 34th streets.

If I stay in St. Petersburg long enough to see Mayor Rick Baker’s and Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis’ plans for Midtown become reality, I could change my mind.

Most recently, Baker said he wants to bring a large grocery store to Midtown. To this end, he plans to ask the City Council Thursday to designate land near Perkins Elementary School on 18th Avenue S a blighted area, thus qualifying the property for public money. Then, Baker will ask the council to allocate $1-million to purchase the land and prepare it for construction.

The hope is to attract a major grocery chain to build there. The store would be the anchor of a large-scale community development effort.

Baker’s plan is bold and will be criticized for risking city funds on a project that may not work, even in the long run.

If the grocery store were the only project in the works, I would not be optimistic. In addition to this store, a new public library has been built on 18th Avenue S near Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, the Center for Achievement under construction on 22nd Street S should open by summer and nearly $1-million in federal dollars has been secured to restore the landmark Manhattan Casino.

Midtown residents (I have interviewed several dozen on the street) believe that Baker and Davis genuinely want to see the area regain some of its pre-civil rights movement vitality, where people enjoy living, where they want their loved ones to live.

“You can’t find a good meal nowhere on 22nd Street,” said Johnnie Gilmore, who has lived on 18th Avenue since 1959. “We used to be able to find the best soul food anywhere down here. I just don’t feel like going all the way over to Atwater’s. It’s a shame to say it, but there ain’t nothing over here I want.”

Right now, I share Gilmore’s sentiments. I cannot think of anything I want or need in the area except a haircut and shave.

In my estimation, this is what Midtown needs in the very near future if it is to become economically viable: It needs to find a way to attract upwardly mobile African-Americans, educated people with good incomes, who can financially support the kind of businesses _ apartments, condos, restaurants and entertainment venues _ many planners dream of for the area.

I, for example, would move to the area in heartbeat if new apartments were built, places that give me a sense of safety. They would have to be places where I knew that my car was secure while I slept; where I could entertain special guests in my backyard; where I could invite my children and grandchildren to visit whenever they wanted; where I would be proud to tell others about.

I know many other blacks with decent incomes who would be proud to live in the “hood.” Doing so would be like “coming back home.” Imagine the vibrance that people with high incomes and a willingness to spend would bring to the new Manhattan Casino.

No, I have not spoken with the mayor, and I have not spoken with Davis since last summer. If I did speak to them, I would tell them this, which I am sure they already have thought of: Find a way to bring some safe, upscale housing to different parts of Midtown. Then, advertise aggressively for new and returning residents.

After all, south St. Petersburg, already the city’s most ethnically diverse area, is a great place to live. We need to find a way to entice blacks with financial means, who will have a real stake in the community _ who will want to invest.

Safe, upscale housing is one answer.