MAXWELL: Midtown’s collective attitude is changing
8/27/2006 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

What a difference two years make.
When I left the St. Petersburg Times in 2004, I dreaded driving through many sections of St. Petersburg’s Midtown, the city’s poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods closest to downtown. The intersection of 18th Avenue S and 22nd Street S, for example, was ugly and mean aside from the reconstructed – and fenced – Perkins Elementary. It was home to one of the city’s most dangerous taverns.
Now, with a Sweetbay Supermarket anchoring a modest shopping center there, 18th and 22nd is a beacon on the hill in Midtown. The shops are clean and bright, and the overwhelming majority of employees are courteous and professional. I do not mind going there to spend my money.
The center is emblematic of Midtown’s changing attitude and general health. I do not want to overstate the matter, but I am convinced that the Sweetbay complex is helping to inculcate a new respectability and pride in the immediate vicinity. I see many people, even older women, walking home with their purchases. Two years ago, these same people would have been forced to pay for rides to stores more than a mile away.
Other projects are also transforming the area. The renovated Royal Theater reopened as a Boys and Girls Club; the Manhattan Casino is being readied for business; a full-service post office is operating on 16th Street S; a SunTrust Bank is slated to open later this summer; and old eyesores are being transformed into flower beds and tree-lined walkways. These are only a handful of the new ventures.
On another front, many black leaders who had been silent two years ago about the lethal violence and crime smothering Midtown are now speaking out. In the past, they succumbed to the politics and the prohibition against airing the black community’s dirty laundry.
In other words, to criticize fellow blacks publicly is to be an Uncle Tom, a sellout, an enemy of the people.
With so many young black men dying violently and with drug-related crimes rising, many Midtown residents are realizing that silence is a greater sin than speaking out and even condemning fellow blacks.
Here, I must acknowledge that I have not always supported state Rep. Frank Peterman, whose district includes Midtown. I thought he long ago should have taken the lead in publicly confronting youth violence in the area. Instead, in my estimation, he was too politically cautious.
Now, however, Peterman has found his footing, and he seems more than willing to weather accusations of being an Uncle Tom, which he is not.
I commend him for his recent effort in the Legislature. During the last session, he sponsored HB 21, “Council on the Social Status of African-American Men and Boys.” The bill became law in July, creating a 19-member commission that will be appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush. The commission will systematically study and report on the plight of black males in Florida.
When I heard about the commission, I went to Peterman’s St. Petersburg office and talked with him. He is passionate, but he is a pragmatist who is fully aware of concerns that his council is one more feel-good initiative that will yield nothing tangible over time.
Peterman assured me that his mission is to create what he refers to as “small black male academies” in black communities across the state. The goal is to work with boys in intimate groups and individually, to steer them away from the subculture of egoism and violence that traps so many in permanent failure and dysfunction.
He intends to recruit dedicated volunteers who apprehend the value of positive behaviors such as civility, negotiation and respect for authority. In short, he wants to teach African-American boys “the ways” of successful people everywhere.
“We’ve got to do something to stop the violence and the killing,” he said. “We’ve got to change the environment for the black male. We’ve got to change the psyche of the black male. It’s unreal. Enough is enough. We’ve got to give these young men hope. Dying so young isn’t normal. You’re supposed to live a long life, a decent life.”
I agree, of course, and I am glad to see a black man of Peterman’s stature taking the lead in trying to reverse the self-destruction, especially in Midtown. Born and reared in Midtown, Peterman told me that several of his boyhood friends were killed, for petty reasons, on the very streets that he now represents in Tallahassee.
With businesses coming in, houses being built and refurbished and with more leaders, such as Peterman, and ordinary residents speaking out and getting involved, today’s Midtown is a better community than the one I left two years ago.