Girl's death still inspiring change in St. Pete three years later

05/21/12 Janelle Irwin
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Volunteers and St. Petersburg city officials worked together this weekend to bring progress out of tragedy. Three years ago, an eight year old girl was struck by a stray bullet and killed during a drive by gun assault in midtown’s Bartlett Park neighborhood. After the shooting, members of the community came together to start fixing up the neighborhood. Now, the city has renamed the street Paris Avenue, after the victim, and St. Pete’s director of housing and community development’s Joshua Johnson said the city is continuing the beautification project throughout the neighborhood.

“The work that will be done is substantial rehabilitation to homes, emergency repair to homes, painting the exterior of homes and some landscaping, pressure washing improvements to sidewalks and rights of ways and just general property improvements to the corridor so that hopefully when it’s completed it looks like any other area within the city.”

Paris lived in a small home in Bartlett Park with her Aunt, Shenita Williams, who had been raising her after her mother died of a blood clot. In the middle of the night in April of 2009, their home was riddled with more than 50 bullet rounds – the continuation of an earlier altercation between two gangs.

“The community came together in the name of this beautiful, beautiful young lady who was murdered in her own house, in her own bed, who was guilty of nothing. So, the community came together and literally rehabbed and did an extreme makeover of entire blocks at a time.”

St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster was inspired by the community effort to restore Paris Avenue, which used to be called Preston Avenue. So he’s building on their efforts and bringing in reinforcement. Volunteers from Habitat for Humanity are undertaking painting and repair projects on homes in the Bartlett Park neighborhood. And Foster said he’s committing city resources like parks and recreation to trimming trees and improving sidewalks.

“And it’s going to ripple through the community as people regain pride in where they live.”

Foster hopes that by making the neighborhood look nicer it may encourage residents to better communicate with law enforcement.

“And it’s tangible projects like this – a Paris corridor improvement project – that will help us never forget what is important and help us do everything we can to prevent that from ever happening again.”

Foster spoke from the front yard of a newly constructed home on 15th Avenue South. The home was rebuilt by the city through the neighborhood stabilization program. What was once a dilapidated property now has fresh paint and plush green grass. Foster said it stood as an icon of what the homes on that block could be.

“That while each neighborhood is distinct in its identity and its charm and its culture, but that each neighborhood has access to these quality of life services and really nice affordable living throughout the entire city of St. Petersburg. That nobody would look at one side of Central Avenue or the other any different side any differently when it came to wanting to participate in activities or events or in finding a place to live.”

Paris’s Aunt, Shenita Williams, sat and watched as people lined up to help out. Some grabbed rakes to clear leaves. Others were handed garbage bags to pick up trash. Williams said she went through a dark time after losing Paris.

“She was a part of us, that was my niece. Plus, she was my little girl, the little girl I never had because I had two sons so when she came along everyone catered to her because she was the only girl in the house and she was the youngest. So, that was something sad. And you would think that your home is your safe zone. To die in your home, in your bed – the last thing I did was put her to bed. Who would think she would die the next day?”

But that tragedy has changed the neighborhood’s climate. Williams said even simple things like painting a fire hydrant – a job which has been assigned to a group of elementary children in the area – has made a marked difference in how neighbors interact with one and other – and in how they look out for each other.

“People are, now, are watching. They are watching your house. They’re watching their house. And now, people are coming outside and spending time outside. Before we never did that. Now we are really a community. We are talking to neighbors. We are really keeping out for each other’s children. We are really committed. The parents and the community is committed to the children and their home.”

The cleanup on Saturday was isolated to just about a block and a half along 15th Avenue South. But homeowners in surrounding areas came out with their mowers and other yard tools to clean up their own homes. Mayor Foster and Shenita Williams said they were glad their work, and Paris’s memory, was doing so much good. The restoration of that corridor is expected to take several months.

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