Hookers and hoodlums.
That's what Louis Del Prete of the 34th Street Federation is looking for on this stiflingly hot Thursday night at the Shell station on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue N. in St. Petersburg. He's joined by his wife Janice, his son Louis Del Prete Jr. and Chris Kelly (of local shuffleboard court fame), binoculars in hand, watching the cheap motels and gas stations lining this busy corridor.
"Some of these merchants are afraid to call [the police]," Del Prete says. "We aren't."
This is no Guardian Angels chapter. The group, launched in 2000 by former resident Ginger Brooks, acts only as the eyes and ears of police. Members don't confront criminals directly and they rarely leave the parking lot on patrols. Most of their time is spent sitting in fold-up chairs, munching on chips and drinking Gatorade, behind an old banner from the Wrice Marches of the '90s that declares: "Up with Hope! Down with Dope."
"Why should you sit down in front of the boob tube when you can come out here and talk?" Del Prete says in a thick Boston accent that hasn't gone away in the 46 years he's lived in Florida.
Watching over the watchers is Community Service Officer Patrick Patterson, assigned to the group's weekly meeting to make sure the crime-fighting citizens aren't the victims of crime themselves. He's sucking on a Tootsie Pop, his eyes always on alert, even when talking.
"We've been spit on, things thrown at us," Del Prete says proudly. "But since [Patterson's] been here with us, we haven't been threatened as much."
Del Prete and his gang used to come out only once a month, but recently they've stepped it up to once a week in an effort to stem the cycle of prostitution and drugs at this busy intersection.
"When I first got involved, [the police] response rate was excellent," Del Prete says. "Now I see a big difference."
As residents deal with police officer shortages (as of July 13, the department is short 50 officers from its authorized strength of 540) and an officer attrition rate that rivals other major Florida cities, citizens are increasingly addressing crime in their neighborhoods with innovative ideas and, so far, with some success.
That's evident on this night. For three hours, the small group encounters not one criminal. No arrests are made. The small posse almost look bored (and that's a good thing).
"It's cleaned up quite a bit since we first started," Del Prete admits, though he worries the group may be pushing the problems to other neighborhoods.
"The police can't be everywhere," Kelly adds. "The answer is people in the neighborhoods saying they don't want it here."
It's been a year since drug dealers firebombed Matthew Culp and Wade Burghardt's Palmetto Park bungalow, beginning a campaign to harass the stubborn gay couple into moving from their predominantly poor African-American neighborhood. But the mood on this stretch of Second Avenue S. has changed.
Many of the houses have fresh coats of paint. Trash doesn't line the gutters. Youth don't linger on corners and block traffic. Most neighbors wave to Culp and Burghardt instead of glaring at them.
"I know it sounds weird, but we actually hear birds now," says Culp. "Persistence pays."
"We have so many good things happening," he adds, "and not because the city has attacked the cancer, but because the citizens have begun to."
Still, Palmetto Park is far from crime-free.
Just last month, a rival drug dealer shot up a house on 25th Street. Baggies with remnants of crack still litter the Tot Lot, a children's playground (and drug dealers' haunt) on the neighborhood's east side.
Although police have conducted a handful of drug raids in the neighborhood since last summer, Culp says more needs to be done.
"The cops can only do so much," Culp says, driving down the streets and pointing out suspected drug houses. "They aren't addressing the cancer."
So the 37-year-old real estate agent is trying a different tactic: Instead of trying to convince police to raid known crack houses, Culp buys them. He already owns two.
Culp pulls down Second Avenue S. to a house stripped of paint. Inside, the home is completely gutted -- only the wooden beams remain. He walks excitedly from one corner to the next, talking about planned improvements.
"We're not making a profit," Culp says. "We're not here to make money. We're here to make the neighborhood better."
Culp hops back in his car to a small cottage, also on Second Avenue S., that he just remodeled. The house features bamboo wood floors, Italian ceramic tile and granite counters -- a far cry from the dingy rental it used to be, one that reputedly contained dead pit bulls before he bought it.
Culp purchased the house for $88,000. He estimates he's put in another $110,000 and sold it recently for $200,000 to a "nice couple."
"We didn't make any money," he says, "but we have fabulous neighbors."
Bartlett Park's Scott Swift doesn't do patrols. Nor does he have the funds to buy up crack houses in the neighborhood. But he does type letters. Nice letters, too. To slumlords. Or maybe good landlords without any clue of what's happening at their properties.
When the Bartlett Park Crime Watch Group formed last July, Swift and his neighbors were dealing with an aggressive crime wave. Murders, burglaries and assaults kept residents inside, too fearful to call police. Drug dealers operated openly on street corners. Several vacant lots were home to loiterers and hustlers.
But instead of pressuring the city for more help, the newly formed crime watch group began to educate the residents. The problem wasn't police doing too few patrols of the neighborhood, the group argued; it was residents who never called in crimes.
"You don't call, you don't get service," Swift says from the Bartlett Park home he bought three years ago. "It took some time for people to understand that. ... use the system you're paying for."
Calls began to increase -- they've gone up 133 percent in the last year -- but some drug houses continued to operate with impunity. Police officers stressed their limitations on raiding homes, so Swift decided to use a little-known tactic available to crime watch members: nuisance and abatement letters.
Swift drew up the complaint letters, carefully written and researched with police call records, and sent them to owners of properties with a history of police calls. The letters list the calls for service at a property, ask the landlords to take care of the problems and invite them to neighborhood association meetings. The letters are then approved by a police sergeant and sent certified mail.
"They're not negative in any way," says Swift, a landlord himself. "They're not damning."
But they do work. Just this year, Swift has written six formal letters to property owners. All of the complaints have been resolved or are currently before the city's Nuisance Abatement Board.
"We were pleasantly surprised," he says. "Two out of six of the tenants were gone in 10 days."
Most of the empty lots were cleared. Arrests went up. Less people hung out on the corners.
"There's more calls, more arrests and this neighborhood is getting better," he boasts. "Even relationships on my own block and street are warming up all the time."
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