Midtown, Childs Park, and the South Side: Urban Affairs Talks to the Gabber

Five days after Rick Kriseman took the helm as mayor of St. Petersburg, we sat down with his new Director of Urban Affairs, Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, and asked her to talk about Midtown, Childs Park, and the area formerly known as the “south side” of St. Petersburg. In her own words, here’s what she told the Gabber about her hopes and Mayor Kriseman’s plan for the south side.

What does “urban affairs” mean?

“An opportunity for the mayor to have someone who will cover all of the urban initiatives for the city, particularly Midtown, Childs Park, and south St. Pete. However, also if there are urban-related issues in other parts of the city as well, so [as] not to limit it to one particular area but to be able to cover all of the city.

“Urban can include several things. When you think in terms of minority businesses, issues in helping minority businesses, whether it be expanding in the west area of St Pete. It could be urban issues in other areas of the city [or] any advocacy-type issues that are necessary. We can’t say right now what could come up down the line… but we want to be able to say through this office we can address and help without limiting ourselves geographically.”

What’s the difference between minority affairs and urban affairs? 

“Urban affairs…covers much more than just minority affairs. Urban affairs would cover all aspects of dealing with things in the city in terms of lower income areas – low to moderate income areas, specifically. Some of the issues related to public safety, small business I’ve already mentioned… not just necessarily minority-only, but issues that are specific to urban areas, in terms of some of the education… So all of those things, wrapped up in one.”

What are you going to do?
“I’m going to do what the community thinks the priorities are for the mayor to tackle first. We have several things we’ve heard from the community. As recently as yesterday I spoke with the South Side Rotary. There are a lot of concerns for small business in terms of financing so that people will have opportunity. There used to be micro-loan programs, there used to be an incubator. We’re hearing clearly from people that issues for financing a small business, and housing and education, helping with the education gap that you see in education areas, because there’s a large gap in terms of workforce skills in addition to education, so you’ll see where there are several manufacturing positions that are available but not necessarily filled because a lot of the residents don’t have the skills they need to fill them so we’ll see people from outside areas coming in to fill those positions. So some of those things are the priorities that I’m hearing when I’m out in the community. Housing is another big one.”

Officers express frustration because they arrest the same people, often from week to week. When Gabber staff pulls criminal records for alleged perpetrators of significant crimes, it is not uncommon to find younger black men from the south side who have been incarcerated for short periods of time and then released, then arrested again, incarcerated for a short period of time, and released again. This appears to be a cycle. What can a city agency do when there’s something that’s happening on a circuit and county and state level? Is there going to be any type of redirection for repeat offenders? How can you work with other agencies to alleviate that revolving door?

“We want to be more proactive rather than reactive. We want to be sure we’re touching the lives of these young men before they even start to commit crimes, so that’s one way we can start to address it, to keep them busy and engaged with youth employment opportunities, because the mayor is definitely committed to expanding what the city is already doing in terms of youth employment, not just in the summer but year-round. So being more proactive and catching them before they even start to commit crimes.

“However, once someone has a record, we know that it’s challenging for them to get employment… We know the importance of alternative employment opportunities, which many times can be starting your own business or being trained in workforce skills, arenas where they might allow more flexibility in terms of having had a prior record. So working more with P-Tech or organizations like that who will help to retrain someone with a record. The Culinary Skills program recently reopened at P-tech South, so that’s something that I think has been an awesome opportunity for several people who have records to go and receive that training… Working with those agencies and redirecting and trying to keep them from having a revolving door, to me it really focuses more on offering them other opportunities.”

What cross communication will there be between these programs and your police officers? What about the inherent mistrust between these police officers and young black men? St. Pete has a not-great history, which is maybe not their fault, but they’re the first people these kids see. Is there going to be some way for there to be communication between your department and the police and these kids so that it’s not an “us against them” mentality on the streets?

“Absolutely. I see us as being somewhat of a bridge there… I definitely see the need to have a little more cultural sensitivity on both sides and keep those relationships and those communication lines open and to build on what we’ve already seen. There used to be a large Explorers program. We want to explore more of that type of program and make sure we have more diversity in that… We want to look at doing different things to build a better relationship with the community and with law enforcement. It doesn’t happen overnight. However, we know that there’s opportunities for improvement and I would say Urban Affairs is a great department to start that conversation.”

How are you going to engage the people who are too busy trying to put food on the table and maybe raise their grandbaby and maybe are a little bit scared and don’t quite trust anybody? How are you going to try and engage people like that?

“Sometimes it doesn’t come through engaging them only. Sometimes it takes… another influence in that child’s life who doesn’t necessarily have to be the mother or the father or the grandparent. I’ve mentored since the day I was in high school and could work with elementary school students who were younger than me; I know it’s incumbent on me to help a child … Sometimes that parent who is too busy putting food on the table might not have the opportunity to engage and connect, however someone else in that child’s life can step in in that role and make sure that they’re the conduit.

“We talked about that yesterday in Rotary, that if you’re not already rolling up tour sleeves and mentoring, then we need to see more of that in the community because it works. When you have mentor who’s saying to you, ‘this is how you interact with law enforcement, don’t be adversarial, handle it this way’ … your parent might not have ever thought to say that to you, but at least you’re hearing it from someone.”

Are you working with the churches? Are they in the plan?

“Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, OK, day five, right? The churches are in the plan, especially in Midtown. The churches can’t be out of the plan. The church is a large part of where we get information from. So when you have the church engaged ,that’s another of those people who might not be the actual parent, but who plays a rule in that student or that child’s life. Now, we don’t always have as many people attending church as we would like anymore, but when you have one grandmother or grandfather who is in church who is hearing that information and they bring it back, then it’s still has the same impact in the family. So engaging the churches from every aspect and every level so they’re involved in the housing piece, small business, mentoring, the skills gap – in every way we can we want to involve the churches and the pastors, because they are centers of influence and leaders in the community, and we need that.”

What support will you offer for people who feel as though they’re watching their community fall apart but feel like it’s not morally right to take the action that maybe they know in their head they should take?

“I can see where it’s not easy to call the police in certain situations, and maybe every situation doesn’t require that you call the police. However, it does require that there’s a certain level of personal responsibility. It might not be comfortable to have that conversation with a family member who you know is doing something illegal, however you sometimes have to do it and if you have such a stake in the community and you know that long-term this is going to affect your family, your legacy, your children, then you have to make those hard decisions. Everybody that I know has had to make some at some point. It doesn’t mean they did it every time, however they knew the importance down the line, that if I’m going to have the right relationship with my children, my grandchildren, my nieces, my nephew, whoever, if I want to leave a legacy in place, then I’m going to have to sometimes say, ‘You, daughter, you can’t date the young man who’s selling pot, or he’s not welcome in my home’. At times, you have to make these hard decisions, and I think people do it more than we give them credit for. I know several who do, and they don’t necessarily go to church all the time.”

What assurances can you give residents that help will not come in the form of gentrification, or can you say that?

“Help comes in many different forms. If people feel they can access the resources and information, they reach out and they ask questions, well, Urban Affairs wants to be reaching out to them before they even have a question. I’ve always felt like I was one of the people who would bridge and help and provide resources and information to people who didn’t even know that was available. That is what we see ourselves doing: being a broker of information and resources. There’s lots of way that people can access resources and there’s lots of opportunities there to address the issue. It doesn’t have to be all in one area. It doesn’t have to be police force. It can be proactive and be resource-driven. The mayor wants to provide more resources and increase the ones that are working. The youth employment is huge; we know that works.”

Do you think that residents in Childs Park and Midtown are happy with their quality of life?

“I can tell you specifically as a Childs Park resident just three years ago, on Kingston, there were several people who were happy with their quality of life along that street in the Childs Park area. However there were several people who, including myself and others, saw things that could be changed. I don’t know that you could say at one point, ‘I’m fine with everything that goes on in my neighborhood’, because you can always see an opportunity for improvement and I think that’s going to be the case throughout the city. Childs Park, Midtown, Lakewood Estates… there are times where – and especially in Jordan Park – there are people, there are seniors, who have been there for years and they’ve seen the change, but some of them still want to live there, so obviously they’ve had a good quality of life at times. A lot of times you don’t want to walk away, because that’s what you’ve built, you have a sense of community around your home.”

How would you describe life for a – and I apologize if I sound ignorant – how would you describe life for a young, poor black person in the south side of St. Pete right now? If you had to sum it up in one sentence, how would you do it? As the Director of Urban Affairs, how do you see the prognosis of the city as they see it?

“I can only go back to when I was young, and what I’ll say to you is, having lived in what is now Citrus Grove, I was, at times, disheartened by what my environment was, but still optimistic, because I knew that my environment did not limit my potential. In essence, having lived that, and now living a different life, but knowing all so well that there other options and your environment does not dictate who you are, I think there is still some optimism there, however, it can be disheartening at times when you look at the environment outside of your door.”

if you only had the length of the mayor’s term to accomplish something, at the end of four years, what would you want people to say about what’s been done in these neighborhoods?

“I would like to hear people say, ‘I can see a change for the better’.”

What can people anywhere, in St. Pete, the beaches, or Gulfport, do?

“Get involved immediately, with mentoring in the schools. Because you can live anywhere and come into Midtown and mentor a child. That’s something you can start tomorrow. If you can do that, that alone has an immediate impact. And then some of the other things you can start to chip away at. If there’s a parent so busy getting food on the table, keeping the roof over the head, then some of the other things community people can address and help by mentoring and they can do it right now.”

To learn how to mentor a child, please visit StPete.org/mentors/mentoring

An abridged version of this interview will appear in print in February. To read more about Ms. Gaskin-Capehart’s resume, click here.

Don't be shy. Tell us what you think.