There is no way to sugarcoat it. St. Petersburg's poor, predominantly black neighborhoods south of downtown remain headed in the wrong direction. They have not benefited from downtown's revival or the overall economic recovery. Reversing decades of generational poverty remains a challenge in most major cities, and it will take a renewed commitment from the next mayor as well as more investment from both the public and private sectors to create more positive trend lines.
By virtually every measure, the south St. Petersburg neighborhoods generally known as Midtown and adjacent Childs Park have been headed backward rather than forward since the turn of the century. The comprehensive report by the Tampa Bay Times' Nathaniel Lash shows home values lag far behind values in the rest of the city and have not rebounded from the economic recession as well as other neighborhoods. The portion of renters who spend most of their income on housing has nearly doubled. The average household income, adjusted for inflation, has gone down. And the unemployment rate is twice as high as in the rest of St. Petersburg.
Those depressing trends are not the only reason so many black voters in this area are frustrated two weeks before the Aug. 29 mayoral election. Midtown's only grocery store closed in February. A Walgreens at a major intersection closed last summer. The restaurant in the historic, city-owned Manhattan Casino closed. A locally owned barbecue restaurant recently announced on Facebook it was closing because its landlord dramatically increased the rent. On and on.
Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker have taken different approaches to Midtown. Kriseman has dismissed Baker's successes at bringing a grocery story, credit union, college campus and other improvements to Midtown as investing in buildings rather than people. Baker effectively counters that Midtown residents wanted those amenities and benefited from them, and he blames the closing of the grocery at least partially on inattention by Kriseman. While Kriseman helped create a community redevelopment area for Midtown and reduced the number of abandoned properties, he has less to show for his efforts than Baker.
Regardless of past performance, the next mayor has to do better. Midtown ought to have at least one grocery store. The city should work with financial institutions to provide more capital at reasonable rates to small businesses owners, who are finding lenders even more reluctant as they see high-profile closures. It should work harder at attracting developers to build affordable housing. Education and job training need even more attention, and residents need better transit options to reach jobs outside their neighborhoods. And when Tropicana Field's 85 acres are redeveloped there has to be a better connection to the adjacent low-income neighborhoods.
There are a couple of bright spots in Midtown and Childs Park. The portion of residents who have a high school diploma or its equivalent has gone up since 1999. Crime rates have dropped, mirroring national trends. But even these successes have caveats. Elementary schools struggled as they resegregated, although some have recently seen modest improvement. And while the Police Department downplays the numbers, crime was significantly up in Midtown in the first quarter of this year and increasing faster than in other areas of the city.
Generational change is hard. It takes time. But public and civic leaders in St. Petersburg should be just as concerned about the direction of Midtown as the residents who live there.