“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”– John F. Kennedy, 1962
I owe St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman an apology.
Some of you may recall that shortly after St. Petersburg voters chose Kriseman as the ‘burg’s new mayor, I threw down the gauntlet and publicly suggested the mayor needed to get in touch with Midtown, the 49th Street Corridor, and Child’s Park, collectively known (by me) as “the South Side.” I cockily suggested he and I take a bike ride through some of the town’s poor black areas so he could see whom he represented.
Thursday night, the mayor took me up on my offer and rode his bike over to the Gabber offices on 49th. We set off on a journey to the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, and then the two of us zigzagged through Child’s Park, taking side streets up to 31st and back again. We ended our hour-long bike ride by covering the length of the 49th Street Corridor between Gulfport Boulevard and the Trail.
Here’s what I expected: a speech about how far St. Petersburg’s poorer black residents have come and how much opportunity the city has laid at the doorstep of their communities. I expected to hear next about crime not being as much of an issue as I believed in these neighborhoods and how the residents felt valued, respected, and equal with every other neighborhood. I expected the mayor to finish off with a rousing chorus of how much better things would get and a sly suggestion of my blowing things out of proportion. I expected him to have no awareness of what these streets, homes and people looked like or how they live. I expected the bike ride to open his eyes to what City Hall has, in the past, elevated to an art form: not seeing the struggles faced by the city’s poor black families.
Here’s what I heard: unvarnished realism from a man painfully aware of the larger issues facing these communities. He called the 49th Street Corridor – and I’m paraphrasing, because the man rides like the wind and it was all I could do to keep up, much less take notes – one of the city’s biggest problems. He admitted he understood the reticence of any South Side residents to call, much less trust, his police officers – not because of the officers, but because of past administrative choices. He admitted that addressing the issues of crime, poverty, and hopelessness in the South Side, more than the Pier or Al Lang, were the biggest challenges facing his administration.
In that hour, the mayor spoke ingenuously and wholly without hubris. He acknowledged heartbreaking poverty, crime and institutionalized mistrust of government.
While former administrations spent more time whitewashing South Side issues than they did addressing them, Kriseman did not pretend “it’s another great day in St. Petersburg” for these families. He admitted the police department and programs both need to be stronger. He acknowledged that his biggest challenge remained reaching the unreachable kids and adults in these areas and that he had, at best, seven-and-a-half more years to get the train turned around.
Most surprisingly, he confessed he might not be able to fix things in that time.
He’s mounting a battle against problems bred by generations of passive cruelty, targeted neglect, and supreme indifference. It takes courage to admit you may fail, especially when the buck stops with you. To tell someone – a reporter, no less – that the biggest problems facing your administration may not be ones you can fix in the time allotted you? I’m almost certain it makes the mayor’s head of communication reach for either a bottle of aspirin or whiskey – or perhaps both. It left me speechless, and that alone is no easy task.
The mayor did not give me the impression that the possibility of failure would tempt him into fighting only the battles he considered winnable. I believe, win or lose, he’s in the South Side to win the war. He made no promises – I wouldn’t have trusted them if he had –but he has a better grasp of the problem than any of his predecessors. I pedaled home filled with a cautious optimism and a hollow despondency: hope for the future and fear that no one will step up to have this long overdue conversation with the mayor.
And so I owe Rick Kriseman an apology, because in my arrogance I assumed he was as clueless as those who came before him. I figured I knew more than he did. And, at the end of the ride, I came away feeling as though I had perhaps wasted the mayor’s time, although he most certainly did not waste mine.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.