The standing-room-only crowd at the Aug. 23 SPHA meeting was disappointed to hear that the Historic Village in Jordan Park will be demolished by the end of the year.
BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – The St. Petersburg Housing Authority (SPHA) voted last Thursday to raze the last vestiges of historic Jordan Park by the end of the year. The last of the original buildings constructed from 1939-42, will be replaced by a 60-unit complex for seniors.
Despite the protestations and pleas of many passionate members of the community, the board voted to move ahead with the original plan.
Tempers ran hot in the standing-room-only meeting held at the Gandy Boulevard location. Although there was no police present, there was a lot of gavel pounding and talking over one another.
Deborah Figgs-Sanders, a member of the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area citizens’ advisory committee, calmly asked the commissioners if they had been acquainted with CEO Tony Love before he accepted the job.
She reasoned that Love has no ties to the St. Pete community, but the commissioners do.
“We know each other; we grew up together,” said Figgs-Sanders. “This issue, among the many, that have already separated our community is not going to make it any better.”
She warned that there might be a day when they are elderly and need someone to advocate on their behalf.
“Let’s not forget from whence we come,” she said. “What you decide today is history. Don’t let it cost you your peace.”
Jhanavi Pathak’s people come from India. She told a story that took place during British colonial rule that was the catalyst for Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent protest, which then inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A British officer gave the orders for Indian soldiers to fire on their own people during a festival. Hundreds of families were massacred that day. Pathak said it is no surprise that the British soldier gave the command, but the surprise came when the Indian troops pulled the trigger on their own people.
“The decision isn’t just about those who live in Jordan Park right now. It’s about your own personal legacy. Will you be those who protected a black community or will you have sold it off to the highest bidder? Please, please make the right decision and don’t do the oppressor’s job for him.”
Paul Hendriks, chairman of the board of directors of Pinellas Realtor, said they would be willing to work with the SPHA just as they work with the city.
“People do business with people they know, people they like and people they trust,” he said speaking to Love. “Your behavior and what I know of it does not lead me to like you or trust you, and I cannot in good conscious recommend to my board that we do business.”
“We have to change the mentality of how this board thinks,” said President and CEO of Advantage Village Academy Toriano Parker, who was once evicted from a SPHA property and had a family member evicted from the Graham-Rogall public housing complex that was deemed uninhabitable but now is expensive apartments geared toward millennials.
Parker once used the Jordan Park Gym as a base for AVA, which provides supervision and guidance to many local disadvantaged and deprived youths, but was forced to find other accommodations after the SPHA took the property back. The gym has sat empty for the last six years and has fallen victim to vandalism.
“This board has made a lot of decisions that really has had adverse effects on the community…I am not bitter about what happened to me; I moved on. Some people can’t come back from these decisions.”
City Council Chair Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, whose district Jordan Park sits in, said she was disappointed that the commissioners would not accept her invitation to discuss the future of Jordan Park and work toward a unified solution in the best interest of the residents.
She along with most of the city council was present, canceling committee meetings to attend the Aug. 23 SPHA meeting.
Directing her ire toward the CEO, she said, “Mr. Love, for you to call the St. Pete PD on me when I held a press conference, and also to threaten to sue me if you lose your job is very cowardly. Do the right thing for Jordan Park. Hold off on this vote today.”
Susan Bradley of Robert Reid Wedding Architects said the forensic study of one of the buildings in the Historic Village showed termites, asbestos and structural problems. They would also have to bring the buildings up to 2017 building codes.
The estimated cost, Bradley revealed, would be approximately $4.1 million to rehab the 31 units while the cost of 60 new mid-rise apartments is estimated at $9 million.
Love said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is expecting that they demolish and replace because the SPHA accepted the 31 vouchers to relocate their residents.
“So we would then have to go back to HUD and ask to undo the paperwork, pay back the money that we spent at an average of 1,300 to $1,500 a family, plus their rents over the time on the vouchers,” he said. “We would have to give all that back and come up with money, and then, undo it and put them back into public housing at those rents.”
Senior housing in south St. Pete lacks some 2,500 to 3,000 units, so the 60 new apartments would address around 10 percent of the city’s needs for affordable housing in the senior community, Love revealed.
So why is a housing project so historically significant to the black community? Well, Jordan Park is not just any old housing project. Travel back, if you will, to St. Pete in the early 20th century. Jim Crow was at its heights, the possibility of being lynch was always on black people’s minds, and housing was barely up to third-world standards.
One shack could be occupied by two or three families. The roof leaked; no running water, no electricity and the outhouse was around the back. With segregation in the forefront, African Americans were packed in designated areas with nowhere to go.
Land donated to the city by a former slave turned businessman by the name of Elder Jordan Sr. was used to build the area’s first housing development with money provided to the city by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative.
These new apartments were state-of-the-art, equipped with indoor plumbing, a full kitchen and were made from concrete, not wood. There was a long waiting list to live in the newly built structures.
Unlike the stigma that follows housing developments today, back in the 1940s this form of housing was coveted by both blacks and whites, of course, they were segregated dwellings.
Under the Hope VI Grant, most of Jordan Park was demolished in 2000 and rebuilt. The Historic Village was saved, which received a facelift that did not include infrastructure improvements. Now the remaining original 31 units will be lost to history.
Some of St. Pete’s most prominent and successful African-Americas started life out in Jordan Park such as acclaimed actress Angela Basset, two-time Super Bowl champion Glenn Edwards, former Bayfront Medical Center’s Chief of Staff Paul McRae, longtime educator Willie Felton and School Board Chair Rene Flowers.
The SPHA is now considering a way to preserve the history of Jordan Park by constructing a building on Ninth Avenue to allow for the archival of memorabilia, statuaries, plaques, etc.
Commissioner Dr. Basha Jordan, Jr.—the grandson of Elder Jordan Sr.–was a staunch proponent of preservation, but in an about-face, he voted to demolish one of the last pieces of black history in St. Pete.
“My heart is with Jordan Park. My heart is with the residents. My heart is with the sustainability of what we are doing,” said Basha Jordan, adding that if he were a resident, he would rather live in a new building instead of a renovated one. “I’m saying that is because I believe this is what my grandfather would want.”
All of the commissioners voted to demo and make room for the new mid-rise complex except Ann Sherman-White.