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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Tito can't keep order as the dispute escalates. Some of the members leave the room. Officer Santiago, the neighborhood's former community police officer, follows outside to make sure no fights ensue.

"This is one of the more well-behaved meetings we've had," vice president Scott Swift sighs. "We never get anything accomplished. We come here and argue, argue, argue and never solve anything."

Tito knows emotions are too raw to get anything done today, so he adjourns, with the tacit approval of the rest of the membership.

When residents, black or white, are asked why there's so much tension at the neighborhood association meetings, they all say the same thing: "It's a race issue."

But to ask who is making it a race issue would start an even bigger argument.

Thelma Patterson says that argument needs to happen. She's even called on City Hall to help organize it. Patterson, a "60-plus" woman who has lived in her small Seventh Street S. home for 37 years, sits on her floral-patterned couch, speaking carefully about the tensions that surfaced when white people started coming back to the neighborhood.

"When they come in they want to make this too quick like Snell Isle or Tierra Verde," she says, peering grimly at me. "They are trying to force the low-income out of here."

Patterson says she speaks from experience. She was forced out of her home when the city decided to level sections of Jordan Park to make room for I-275. So she moved to Bartlett Park, looking for an affordable place to raise her family. Patterson says she has "seen the best and the worst" of Bartlett Park. Now, as she puts it, "The music is coming back, and people want to be where the music is playing."

But the recent changes in the neighborhood overwhelm her.

"I welcome change, but it's how you present your change," she says. "It takes time for change to come about."

Sherry Howard, who lives around the corner from Patterson on Newton Ave., tries to be diplomatic. Howard, a 36-year-old real estate broker in St. Pete, knows the good changes that come with revitalization. But she also notices the empty rentals on her block and her friends, unable to afford rent, who have moved back in with relatives. And as a former resident of places like downtown Atlanta and Chicago's Uptown, she has seen what happens gentrification takes hold.

"Growth is inevitable, change is inevitable," she says matter-of-factly between bites of salad at Chattaways, the quaint burger joint on the neighborhood's southeast corner. "It's a good thing, not a bad thing. But my concern is how is it going to impact the people who live here. Me too, as a homeowner."

Overall, Howard says she is happy with the changes, but she cautions that newcomers are "too aggressive" about making decisions that affect the entire neighborhood. For older people, most of who lived through St. Petersburg's segregation days, that doesn't sit well, she says.

"These people are 50, 60, 70 years old," Howard says. "They remember how things used to be. They couldn't get white people to come into the neighborhood. Now they're coming in and want to change everything and do it the way they want to do it. ... Change is good and all around us. However, it is the way that we choose to do it."

Swift, 41, has heard all of this before. And frankly, he can't understand it. He organizes neighborhood clean-ups. He works heavily in the neighborhood crime watch group. He petitions city officials to do something about the pervasive litter in the neighborhood.

In his view, residents are either on the rising boat or not. It's not his place to play the race card. He's too busy picking up trash.

"I have an interest here," he says. "I own property and I want equal say."

Thom of Vision Investments has much the same attitude.

"Where there's change, it's automatically associated with some turbulence," he says, carefully choosing his words.

But as far as raising rent on the properties he buys, Thom makes no apologies. "We're businessmen," he says. "We raise rents for a living."

Councilmember Williams has sat on several association meetings. He's talked to the newcomers and the older residents. He doesn't think racial politics or even gentrification is the cause of neighborhood tensions. He prefers "growing pains."

"It has become racial," he acknowledges. "I don't think it's rooted in racism. That's more of a result [of conflict] than it starting out that way."

Nobody can predict what Bartlett Park will look like in five years, although everyone seems to have an opinion.

click to enlarge MANAGING CHANGE: "Growth is a good thing, not a bad thing," says real estate broker Sherry Howard. "But my concern is how is it going to impact the people who live here." - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
MANAGING CHANGE: "Growth is a good thing, not a bad thing," says real estate broker Sherry Howard. "But my concern is how is it going to impact the people who live here."

Swift and Thom say as Bayfront Hospital and University of South Florida expand, Bartlett Park could become a haven for college students escaping dorm rooms and nurses looking for affordable housing. Tito thinks the abundance of vacant lots should prevent some of the displacement that occurs when affluent buyers eye the neighborhood for real estate. Former neighborhood association president Betty Beeler says the older African-American residents will stay put in the area instead of trying to start over somewhere else.

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