If you can read this, you can come to Saturday morning’s Mayors’ 49th Street Cleanup. Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman will join the Gulfport Neighbors and the Childs Park Neighborhood Association in a joint cleanup of 49th Street.
In and of itself, this cleanup is not a big deal. Cleanups, especially in Gulfport and thanks to the Gulfport Neighbors, happen all the time. It’s not really a big deal, certainly not worthy of a whole column.But here’s what is: This is not just politicians. Gulfport Neighbors organized this, and I have to credit Margarete Tober, the head of the organization, for engaging the Childs Park community. Gulfport long ago threw up its hands and appeared to have said, “Well, there’s no more we can do to improve things along 49th Street. It’s up to St. Petersburg residents now.” St. Petersburg, prior to Kriseman assuming the reigns, had an “Emperor’s New Clothes” approach to crime and quality of life issues along 49th Street.
I have heard, more times than I can count, that it’s a “community standards” issue and if crime is higher than it should be, or if the arrests are targeted in one way or another, or even if the buildings look like hell, it’s because the surrounding community finds it acceptable.
Margarete doesn’t believe that, and if you know her you know she is a force. To my delight – my issues with 49th Street and the horrid disregard shown for black residents on the east side of the corridor are well documented – she decided it was time to rally the troops.
She found a partner of sorts in a man called Brother John. I don’t know him yet but hope to meet him at Saturday’s cleanup. He’s the president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, and he’s rallying his neighbors to take part in the cleanup as well.
It’s just a cleanup. I know that. It really shouldn’t be a big deal.
But it is. To me, it’s huge, and not because of the cleanup, but because I’ve heard for years that Childs Park and other south St. Pete residents don’t care about the litter in or look of their communities, that they accept more crime and don’t mind lack of decent groceries and other niceties we take for granted. Note that although I said “south St. Pete residents” I don’t really believe that’s what people mean when they say it. I mean, the streets of Broadwater and the pink streets aren’t really rife with old Mello Yello bottles and Swisher cigar wrappers, are they?
So the way I interpret that – and the way most of us do but are too afraid to say it aloud – is “black people.” Childs Park, by one estimation, is 97% black. Surrounding communities, except for Gulfport, are also predominately black. And while we all sit over here and grouse about the crime, most people also say “South Side residents” are content to exist as they do. Which to me screams tons more racism than anything else.
I have never believed that – the notion that people live a lesser existence because they don’t mind. I find it insulting and suppressive. Trying to change this by going through elected officials is about useless, because the folks currently representing the black communities are doing a pretty poor job of representing the residents (I am not talking about Mayor Kriseman, to be clear). A person who cared less about how much she upset people would call such representatives Uncle Toms, because they appear more concerned with what the white people think of them than what they can actually do to help their own people.
Thankfully, people don’t need to rely on those representatives. The swelling of support – simply because Margarete contacted them and asked them to participate – from Childs Park proves that the people who live there care about their community and they consider 49th Street part of it, and will show up to put teeth in their words.
I have high hopes that I will see all of you out there Saturday, supporting this initiative. I also have high hopes that this cleanup will start a greater dialogue and segue into a conversation held between communities about how we can look beyond “this is how it’s always been” and see each other as people. I hope that Gulfportians don’t stay on one side of the street and St. Petersburgers don’t stay on the other. I have faith that once we take, physically, the first steps towards each other, we can start to work with one another, not in spite of each other.
I may be making too much of this, but this Saturday, I suspect, could be the start of a beautiful friendship.