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Frustration, Hope Surround Talks To Redevelop Tallahassee's Southside

D.A. Robin

City leaders are asking Tallahassee residents to weigh in on possible improvements to the city’s Southside. And while many remain hopeful, residents still feel largely pessimistic that change is coming.

About 150 people filled a back room at Bethel AME Tuesday night to talk about improving the city’s poverty-stricken Southside. City officials lead energetic conversations with residents about jobs, health care, public safety and neighborhood development. It is clear a lot of problems exist within the community.

“I don’t know how many of you all have come to community meetings and are probably tired of going to community meetings, and certainly tired of complaining about the same things,” Mayor Andrew Gillum says.

Gillum promises city officials will be listening to residents’ concerns and trying to fix that community.

“We want to make tonight an evening where you’re not constantly repeating yourself and repeating problems but we’re recording them and moving quickly toward solutions,” Gillum promises.

But frustration runs deep among residents here. Long-time residents say they are tired of lengthy conversations that go nowhere. Vernon Paul is among them.

“We’ve seen a lot of plans placed and drawings and then they’re tabled. And then you’ll see a new group of planners come over and over,” Paul says. “You really want to get a sense of what’s happening and how much longer it’s going to be tabled.” 

Residents worry about high unemployment, inadequate access to health care and few opportunities to bring major businesses to the Southside. Tallahassee’s Southside starts from Gaines Street and extends toward Woodville Highway. Long-time resident Gloria Smith says aesthetic improvements to roads look nice but don’t help the people who live there.

“I am not seeing any improvements in this city as far as a hub is concerned but no more than some sidewalks. And people need more than some sidewalks,” Smith says.

And Commissioner Gil Ziffer says he understands these concerns.

“We have focused on the most part on infrastructure improvements, which don’t always solve problems. It's helpful, but we have human needs,” Ziffer says. “Like I said, nutrition, health care and jobs and those are the things we’ll be focusing on and trying to bring here—instead of asking all of those people to find that somewhere else.”

Southside resident Sylvia Hubbard says she some of the problem comes down to race. She argues minority support agencies could do more for the community with more money to develop the potential work force in the Southside.

“I don’t think anybody realize what we really have in the community, and they need to get to know what it is,” Hubbard says. “They need to earmark funds for the minority agencies that can never get out of the corner because the larger agencies suck up all the funding.”

Rahni Spencer-Wright says decades of institutionalized racism have hurt relations between long-time residents and officials. She says believes the Southside can recover.

“The wounds of segregation still exist in the memory of a lot of the older generation,” Spencer-Wright says. “As a person who is younger and who knows about those experiences but did not directly experience them, I have a different sense of connection to just general Americans and a different sense of hope.” 

The Leon County Commission was scheduled to attend but withdrew at the last minute. Still, most city commissioners present. Mayor Andrew Gillum says the city will be considering the input of residents in its financial and developmental planning.

“We’re taking really constructive notes to take back to the government, so that we have a really good reflection of what people consider important,” Gillum says. “And we can include that thinking as we enter the budgeting process and as we enter the decision-making process going forward.”