Here comes the neighborhood

Things are looking up in St. Pete's Bartlett Park. So why do the improvements fill some residents with dread?

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At the same time, on the northern side of Bartlett Park, developers Tom Barrett and Len Johnson transformed 11th and 12th avenues from two largely dilapidated streets into Ingleside — a kind of mini-subdivision of upscale homes.

That's significant when you consider just six years ago, according to census data, there were no homes in Bartlett Park worth more than $150,000; the vast majority were worth less than $80,000. Last year, the city's economic development office reported over 35 percent of the homes in the neighborhood were worth more than $100,000. Anecdotes from realtors in the area say the increase in property values has been dramatic, rising by double digits.

Askia Aquil, director of St. Petersburg's Neighborhood Housing Services, which helped many low-income families purchase homes in the mid-'90s, says Bartlett Park exceeded expectations.

"When I started [in 1997], the city was giving away lots," he says, describing 50,000-square-foot vacant lots selling for $3,500. "Now, they can run $30,000-$40,000."

The recent cooling in the real estate market has put at least one project on hold: the Windward complex, which would have put million-dollar condos on Fourth Street South overlooking Tampa Bay and Bartlett Park. But another developer plans to erect townhouses on what was once a crime-ridden apartment complex in the same area. And one businesswoman has even suggested a Starbucks at the site of an old porn store.

"It is so close to so much that is going to be developed," says St. Petersburg City Councilmember Ernest Williams, whose district falls in Bartlett Park. "I think you are going to see some real dynamic changes."

The influx of newcomers has boosted other revitalizing measures. New residents have joined the neighborhood association, organized drug marches and volunteered for trash clean-ups. They started a new crime watch program and pressured the city to send more patrols through the neighborhood. Code enforcement in the area is the strongest it has been in years, and Councilmember Williams is promising improvements in the neighborhood's infrastructure — streetlights, speed bumps and, in Bartlett Park's case, a boardwalk through the park that bears the neighborhood's name.

Revitalization hasn't been without its challenges. City records show renters still outnumber homeowners, which many residents say leads to more crime and less involvement in the neighborhood. Crime in Bartlett Park is far from gone. A 16-year-old who lived up the street from me allegedly raped a jogger in Old Southeast. There have been two drive-by murders in the adjacent Harbordale neighborhood this month.

"I don't think [gentrification] has happened yet," says Julie Richey and Stewart Nicol, a younger couple who bought a house in Bartlett Park almost two years ago. Richey has been mugged and their garage burglarized twice since moving in.

"You don't see middle-class white families moving in here, and I don't think there will be for a long time."

Still, the members of the neighborhood's crime watch group are positive.

"Overall, we're all positive," says Willeen Kelly. "Crime watch is going to work."

But with revitalization there is a duality. A new life for one family becomes higher rent for another. Improved housing to some means unaffordable housing to others. Newcomers take a stand against crime and demand more police attention, in turn making the neighborhood safer for everyone. But at the same time, this raises property values. Slowly, residents sacrifice economic security for physical security. And the ultimate paradox is the neighborhood's poorest residents lose either way.

"We like to tell people that revitalization is a double-edge sword," Aquil says from his office in Bartlett Park. "You can't have the new without giving up some of the old."

click to enlarge FUTURE SIGNS: New construction abounds in Bartlett Park. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
FUTURE SIGNS: New construction abounds in Bartlett Park.

The March 8 meeting of the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association draws an overflow crowd to the Neighborhood Housing Services building. Older African-American women sit together along the U-shaped table in the middle of the room, while younger, and mostly white, residents stand or sit on the chairs lining the back of the room.

After city officials give numbers on code enforcement and crimes in the neighborhood, association president Tom Tito turns his attention to two vacant officer positions.

As nominations begin from the floor, the grumbling begins.

Arguments over who can vote in elections have been heated since the last election turned a largely black executive board into a majority white one. Some of the older African-American women contend the election was unfair because individuals who owned property, but didn't live in the neighborhood, were allowed to vote. The secretary and second vice president resigned in January, creating the vacancies Tito is trying to fill today.

As voices rise, the quarrel turns into a dispute over the association's by-laws. One of the white residents shushes an older African-American lady. That enrages two younger black men.

"You need to show respect!" one of them shouts.

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