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COVER STORY | Vol. 8, No. 18, May 8, 2008
(What's Going On?)

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What's Going On?

by Duwayne Escobedo

District 3 ignored, frustrated and suffering but not hopeless yet...

My tour guides take me to spots where few white people ever venture. It's always with the command from them to never go there alone unless I want to get robbed or worse. Then, they laugh but they're not joking.

It's a trip they've taken some past white community leaders on who've asked to see the problems first hand, not hear about them third hand.

Where am I talking about? I'm talking about District 3. It is in Pensacola.

After burgers at the Blue Dot in Belmont Devilliers, brothers Lutimothy and Lumon May don't waste time taking me to the "Dope Hole" at the corner of B and Jackson streets.

A black and white Pensacola police car drives by just before we pull up. It doesn't stop. As I step out, the crowd of young men gets ready to scatter, thinking the Mays have brought an undercover cop to Jackson Street. But after quickly reassuring them that I'm not, the crowd goes on hanging out.

Here's where I cite some statistics before getting into this profile on one of the most impoverished -- and ignored -- areas in Northwest Florida. I promise not to cite too many and bore you.

The problems facing District 3, which is the only majority black and Democratic district in Escambia County, happen to be well documented on issues such as education, healthcare, housing and jobs.

The Escambia County Indicator Report points out:

  • "Compared to Florida and the U.S., Escambia County has a significantly larger percentage of households in the lowest income group (less than $10,000 per year)."
  • The percentage of Escambia County residents below the poverty level is 16.9 percent, compared to 12.2 percent in Florida and 13.1 percent in the U.S.
  • The percentage of kindergarteners ready to learn in school is 91 percent for white children and 84 percent for black.
  • FCAT scores show black students scoring three or above on the reading test is 45 percent for fourth graders, 17 percent for eighth graders and 13 percent for 10th graders. For white students, it's 77 percent, 49 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
  • The infant mortality rate for black babies is 14.2 births per 1,000, while for white babies it is 7.8.
  • The percentage of children born to black unwed mothers is 74.9 percent, while it's 31.8 percent for white unwed mothers.

Meanwhile, the Comprehensive Assessment for Tracking Health 2005 study -- a 600-page assessment -- reports that health problems in the area are continuing to get worse and worse since 1995.

The comprehensive study, which is conducted every five years and focuses on 430 specific health indicators, notes that "poor health outcomes tend to be more prevalent in areas where there are large numbers of minority and/or lower income residents."

The study also finds for this population, chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, are not managed appropriately and prescription medications are not taken as needed primarily because of a lack of healthcare access, causing conditions to worsen and become increasingly expensive to treat.

On and on and on the studies and statistics go. Blah, blah, blah.

But those living in Attucks Court, Diego Circle, Lincoln Park, Montclair and other District 3 neighborhoods don't need to be told this. They're living it.

Twenty-year-old Anthony Fleming is not stupid. The tall, lanky Fleming, whose arms are decorated up and down with tattoos and who is wearing baggy, baby-blue basketball shorts and a white tank top T-shirt, knows the score.

He's asked to describe for outsiders the neighborhood where he's hanging out on the corner during the middle of a recent Monday.

"It just depends where you at," the soft-spoken Fleming says. "Different neighborhoods have different standards. If you compare this to Marcus Point this is bad, really bad. Marcus Point is something like you see on TV or the movies. Marcus Point has a big golf course. I've seen it. This place ain't got a golf course. You don't see this place on TV."

His friend Warren Rogers, an 18-year-old, chips in that he would settle for an outdoor basketball court nearby, let alone a golf course.

"I like playing basketball, just a place to shoot ball and hang out, you know," he says. "There's no place close. So, I just walk around talking to myself sometimes."

As we talk, Leskis Finklea, pulls up and jumps out of her black Saturn and bounds over quickly when she thinks a white man with a notepad and pen is offering jobs. The bubbly woman is disappointed when he's not.

Asked what message she wants to pass along to decision-makers, acquiring higher paying jobs tops the 30-year-old's list.

"I want to work," she says. "Everyone needs to pull together and help us get jobs around here. And we have to get the community cleaned up. Our elderly need a lot more help. They're not getting enough help around here in these neighborhoods."

Titus Mixon is an unemployed 27-year-old with no current prospects. He says he'll take a job, any job, that's offered. Right now, he says his faith is pulling him through hard times.

"We're just hanging on," Mixon says. "Look around. I think people look at our world and think nobody can do anything about it, so they just let it go. Well, we're going through it. We're hanging on. That's all you can do."

Mixon doesn't have any faith in the politicians who represent him.

He votes but draws a blank when asked what he thinks about his commissioner, city councilman and state representative.

Marie Young?

"Don't know her."

Robert Townsend?

"Isn't he a movie star?"

Clay Ford?

"Don't know him. They don't come to talk to me," Mixon says.

What about Barack Obama?

"I know him and I'll vote for him, too," he says.

Walter Baker, who lives in the Belmont-Devilliers area with his grandma, is asked to describe District 3 where he has grown up and lived his entire 18 years. To him, "It's just regular," he says.

He agrees to take a quiz about his local political leaders, too.

Marie Young?

"Not sure."

Robert Townsend?

"A cop."

Clay Ford?

"Ain't he a cop, too?"

Ryan McAroy, a 33-year-old who's currently down on his luck, like Mixon and Baker, is hard-pressed to identify local politicians supposedly representing him.

Marie Young?

"Isn't she an inventor."

Robert Townsend?

Silence.

Clay Ford?

Shakes his head, no. And McAroy adds, "I don't know those people at all and they don't bother to know me. That's unfortunate for them and for me."

He recalls growing up that the only thing that ever bothered to chase him and others off the street was the city's mosquito spray truck. He says he's determined to see his children get an education and get out of District 3, unlike him.

"This is like the Devil's playground," McAroy says. "It's some place I don't want my kids living around. I want something more positive for my kids. I want them to have opportunities that I don't have. That adds a lot of stress and a lot of frustration. A lot of us have that building up inside us, because we have no outlets."

Barbara Curry, who is 41, is also determined to keep her son, Lamontah, 9, off the streets. As she walks toward a convenience store that looks more heavily fortified with bars and locks than the local county jail, she passes a crowd of menacing-looking teens.

A dietary cook for a local assisted-living facility, Curry says she only lets her son play outside in her backyard.

"I don't let him rip and run," she says.

But she complains that someone left her gate open after police chased some youth through her backyard the previous night. Now, their German Shepard is on the loose and is lost.

"It could be better here," Curry says. "It could be cleaned up more, a whole lot more. I wish it was paid more attention to because, if it was, I think it would be a whole lot nicer and safer."

Tour guide Lutimothy May comments, "It's almost as if this area doesn't exist. No one is thinking about it or about them."

But all hope is not lost. There are still plenty of good people willing to do their share to turn around District 3.

The Mays, Lutimothy and Lumon, look up to their father, Theophalis May, whenever they get discouraged and think about moving away from the Morris Court area. Their father, who died in 2006 at the age of 78, started the family construction business 52 years ago -- May's Construction -- and also served as a pastor of the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

Lumon May says his 6-foot tall father would offer jobs to young men he saw hanging out on street corners. If they didn't accept, he'd take a switch and break them up, ending their loitering.

"Dad always said when we were growing up, If you can't change your neighborhood, then you can't change the world,'" Lumon May recalls. "I believe that. You have to start block by block."

So, they stay.

Lutimothy says he'll never sell his home -- the first brick house his father ever built in the rundown area. The Mays are responsible for building and renovating hundreds of homes in the area over the decades.

While there's evidence of drugs, crime and decay, there is also plenty of evidence, too, of revitalization in District 3.

There's a $12 million upgrade to Morris Court affordable housing units and the Interfaith Housing Coalition has started its project to build 250 workforce households on 26 acres near Catholic High School.

Angela Thompson, a 37-year-old mother of four children (ages 18, 17, 15 and 12) runs child care out of her home.

She's happy to see new housing going up. Still, the Morris Court project irks her with subtleties of the project not lost on her -- an outside contractor is doing the job, none of her neighbors were hired to do work and barbed wire lines the top of the fence around the work area.

 "I would have liked to see more people hired from here," she says. "There are a lot of people needing jobs and can't seem to get jobs."

She wants better education, too. "We need better pay to bring in better teachers."

Thompson wants lots of things but she also wants to help her community.

"Just come, get out here and knock on doors," she advises anyone who wants to push for progress. "Anybody can see what the needs are. We're not getting outside help. We're not looking for a handout but there are things (public officials) need to hear. And as a community, we need to stand together, get involved and find out what's going on in our city and county. Then, we can all work on the those things we need."

Catherine Andrews has lived in the Morris Court neighborhood for 60 years. It's a neighborhood plagued with liquor stores with barred windows standing like sentinels on seemingly every major street that leads into the heart of the area.

Despite the third world conditions of the area, Andrews and her husband built a 10-bedroom house here. The Andrews have always worked to change their community for the better.

The 84-year-old sparkplug is getting ready to attend a T-ball game one recent afternoon before stopping to talk to a reporter. She's going to the game, even though none of her grandchildren are playing, because she says the parents aren't there encouraging them and cheering them on like they should be.

"I always felt with my children and grandchildren that you don't send them to church and school and the park, you go with them," she says. "Who can step in for the parents?"

Today, she puts the blame on some of her neighbors for the lack of improvements over the decades.

"People don't work to keep things up," she says. "(Elected officials) can only do so much. Things have changed but not like they should or could. I'm trying to sell my house and move out of here. It's too much for me now."

Her grandson, Stefon Andrews, though, plans to keep up the fight. The eight-year veteran city firefighter, who is 34, bought a house a year ago in the neighborhood he grew up in. He volunteers as a mentor at local inner-city schools and helps coach youth sports.

"When I was growing up, Attucks Court and all those places had problems and they still have problems. Problems period," he says. "I do see change coming but we're going to have to do it, not our public officials. They've known about this stuff for far too long and are not helping to alleviate it."

He's inspired by the memory of his grandparents building their house in this neighborhood.

"If I can be just one glimmer of hope, then it's worth it to me," Andrews says. "We as adults need to reach out to others and our children and let them know, 'We still care about you.' We need to help raise up our own neighborhoods."

Another man who is doing just that is Vant Bryant, who started a barbershop on Massachusetts Avenue in December. He had to sell his green, 1991 Chevy Capris to start up Hypnotized Kutz. It's in an area that most people would be scared to go or look down on.

But his "hood" barbershop is bustling. And you quickly learn from the 33-year-old Bryant, who is married with three children, that his small business is more than cutting hair. It's about reviving a neighborhood, being a role model and encouraging wayward young men.

"It's very important to me for (youth) to see I made it and to know that if I can, they can," he says. "Sometimes we solve problems and support people so they can go on with their day. We plant a seed. If they have time to get a haircut, we're thankful for that, too."

He's also working on a gospel/rap CD with Mr. Magic and John Jackson and the Element of Praise that he hopes to have done before the end of the year. Bryant sees it as part of his duty to give back to his community.

"I see this area and this city changing if everyone comes together -- west side, south side, east side and north side," he says. "We can push the issues and make it happen. But it has to be a lot of people working together. No one can do it on their own."

It's the same message that Rev. Lonnie Wesley III preaches to his more than 1,000 members of Greater Little Rock Baptist Church.

Wesley returned to Pensacola to pastor the church more than three years ago. For about 10 years, he lived in Mississippi where he headed a church there near Jackson.

Greater Little Rock is recovering from being torn up by a tornado earlier this year. It moved into a different church just north of Attucks Court. It serves as a child care center by day and church during the evening and weekends, while the main church gets rebuilt.

"We don't look at obstacles as obstacles. We look at it as another opportunity to get the job done," the 38-year-old Wesley says. "Problems are problems. It doesn't matter your race, your age, cultural background or where you live. Everywhere you have the demons of the day. They don't care if you are black or white they jump up on you. No one can look to someone else for help before they help themselves. You've got to stand up and pull up your own boot strap first."

He hopes to see more small businesses like Bryant's spring up, but right now is proud of the new library on A and Cervantes streets.

"I'm so happy to have the library there," he says. "When you live on A and Cervantes and have to see it everyday, it plays a role in your psyche, especially the children in our community. It's beautiful in the library. I go in there just to look around. It's small but it's a beautiful start. I take our two children in there all the time."

Before we end the two-day tour through District 3, Wesley wants to make sure we leave on a positive note.

Ironically, a house across the street from the church exit looks like it is leaning and ready to fall down and empty beer bottles litter the uneven porch.

"Pensacola is still a beautiful place," he says. "I'm proud to call this my home. That doesn't mean we still don't have a long way to go. But working together we can get there. The light at the end of the tunnel is not a train. It's the light of life."

duwayne@inweekly.net