8/12/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
Like thousands of other St. Petersburg residents, I occasionally enjoy going to BayWalk. It is, after all, the unofficial city center.
So when I read John McNamara’s letter last Sunday in Neighborhood Times, headlined “Entertainment complex will get no more chances,” I worried that BayWalk was becoming a hangout for young troublemakers, especially after 10 p.m. on weekends.
If you missed his letter, here’s what St. Petersburg resident McNamara reported: On a recent Friday night, he went to BayWalk and caught the 10 o’clock showing of the film Sunshine. When he walked out of the theater around midnight, he encountered “milling masses of minors” in the crosswalk and the parking-garage side of Second Street N.
As fights broke out and a group of five-plus black males rushed to one of the scuffles, McNamara fell as he tried to find safety near the ATM. After the police calmed the area, McNamara walked to the fourth floor of the parking garage and stayed in his car until he believed he could leave safely. He then saw and heard a young black male “leaning over the garage wall directing gremlins away from cops on the streets below.”
Most disturbing, McNamara wrote that he saw several black teens near the elevator taking off their red shirts and replacing them with white shirts, “apparently to avoid identification.” To make his complaints official, McNamara sent a letter to the city, which was forwarded to St. Petersburg Police Department.
All except one of the few whites I spoke with dismissed McNamara as a racist. The few blacks I spoke with all called him a racist, one saying: “White kids mess around at BayWalk, too, but white people don’t say nothing about that.”
Although I wasn’t at BayWalk with McNamara, I don’t question his version of events, and I certainly don’t dismiss his core reason for being angry: His night of entertainment was destroyed by unruly teens lacking regard for other people’s enjoyment in a private venue that serves the public. Certain details in his letter, moreover, suggest that some of the teens were gang members.
I asked Amber Overby, director of public relations for the Sembler Co., which owns BayWalk, if she knew of gang activity there. Although she said she had heard reports of gang-related run-ins, she couldn’t identify any specific gang problems. Most teen disturbances occurred in the Second Street crosswalk or on the sidewalk away from BayWalk businesses, she said.
St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt said in an interview that acting Sgt. Paul LaMonde sent McNamara an e-mail message and spoke with him by telephone to assure him the department had responded to the incident and that officers assigned to downtown were aware of problems at BayWalk and would respond to them.
Proffitt, acknowledging that BayWalk was on the police “radar screen,” referred to group incidents at BayWalk as “youth activity.” In fact, he said, most of the identifiable gangs in St. Petersburg are Asian, not black.
Serious “youth activity,” the incident that McNamara described aside, has occurred at and around BayWalk. Car thefts and robberies have been reported. In 2005, large black groups from Bethel Heights and Childs Park brawled at BayWalk. The feud between these two groups didn’t ease, albeit grudgingly, until early this year.
After looking into McNamara’s complaints, I’m convinced that BayWalk has late-night weekend problems that will grow more serious, even dangerous, if immediate steps aren’t taken to prevent these teens from bringing their animosities and turf rivalries – their “youth activities” – downtown.
And those blacks and whites angry at McNamara for his letter to Neighborhood Times should thank him for taking a principled stand, for describing exactly what he observed and for bringing a serious truth to light.