The city has tried to improve its historic Northwest neighborhood, but the people point out the drug dealers, gamblers and drinkers and feel they’ve been let down by the police and the city.

WEST PALM BEACH — Teawanna Teal is the kind of resident you’d think West Palm Beach would love to have in its Historic Northwest.


For years the city has poured money and effort into the poverty-stricken African-American neighborhood just north of downtown. There have been housing improvements, park and community center programs, security camera systems and license plate-readers, murals and streetscaping, not to mention more than $12 million to restore the Jazz Age-era Sunset Lounge, as a future focal point for African-American culture and economic growth.


Until last September, Teal, a working, single mom of three children, lived in the Hampton Court on 45th Street. She’d heard good things about the Northwest and was dying to move to the neighborhood.


Then she did.


Within four months, she was ready to move out of her new Habitat for Humanity-built home.


She’d come ready to be a force for change, to contribute to the neighborhood’s revival but the city didn’t live up to its end of the bargain, said Teal, a case manager for the Florida Department of Children and Families.


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It’s there every day, when she gets home from work, she said. She drives up the little hill to her house and it’s all in plain view:


Open-air drug deals. Trash. Abandoned houses. Gunfire, all too close. Her children — Markis, 8, Layah, 6, Jordyn, 2 — shouldn’t have to experience that, she said. It shouldn’t be their normal.


But the cops take their time responding to her calls. When they do show up, they say there’s nothing they can do. Or, they drive by the bad guys and keep on going, she said.


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"How long is it going to take? How long do I have to continue going to community meetings to get what we need?"


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Teal is among those who have unburdened themselves at City Commission meetings, and last month unloaded on the new police chief, Frank Adderley, when he joined a handful of residents at a gathering in the Police Athletic League building, a few blocks from Teal’s house.


"I’ve seen this neighborhood go from the best down to the worst," one woman told Adderley, adding that she’d been shot once.


She suspected the city wasn’t doing anything to fix the neighborhood because, with the Northwest’s excellent location, close to downtown and less than a mile from the waterfront, the city was just waiting for gentrifiers to snap up the real estate, a common feeling in these parts.


"It comes across that city officials don’t care about this neighborhood, don’t care about the voices expressing concern," said another resident. "We get brushed over and we get overlooked."


Keith James, an African-American elected mayor in March after eight years as a city commissioner, said during his campaign and after, that public safety would be his No. 1 priority for West Palm Beach, which racked up 52 homicides in 2017 and 2018 combined, many in the Northwest.


James hired Adderley, a former Fort Lauderdale police chief who also is black, shortly after taking office. In the months since, Adderley has made a point of introducing himself by attending neighborhood meetings throughout West Palm Beach.


The chief takes notes, tells folks there’s a new sheriff in town, so to speak, passes out his cellphone number and urges them to call day or night.


He tells how, when he was police chief in Fort Lauderdale, he lived in that city’s most dangerous neighborhood but that neighbors knew each other and reported anyone out of place. He urges West Palm Beach residents to do the same.


City letting us down, some say


Eight residents attended the meeting at the P.A.L. center, at the corner of notorious Tamarind Avenue and Seventh Street. Most sounded willing to give Adderley a chance. They hadn’t given up.


But they made no secret they felt let down by the police and the city.


"There are good officers who do care about the community, but there’s a breakdown in communications between residents and city officials," said Crystal Phillips-Chandler. "Nobody talks and nothing gets resolved."


"There’s blatant crime on my street. My kids don’t even go outside, because it’s dangerous. My house has been attempted to be broken into, my car has been vandalized. My 7-year-old can pick out a drug transaction and say, ’Look!’"


Drug houses, drinking, gambling


Resident after resident told Adderley about the guys hanging out in front of convenience stores or in vacant lots, doing drug deals. A lot of them aren’t even from the neighborhood, they told him.


There’s a boarded-up yellow house on 14th Street. "That’s their stash house," one told him.


There’s another abandoned house, at Sixth and Sapodilla Avenue, said another. Same story.


Sixth and Rosemary Avenue is gambling; Sixth and Sapodilla is guys hanging out in front of a shop, dealing drugs; Sixth and another block is people on chairs, drinking, Teal told Adderley.


It’s beyond blatant, she said, near tears.


"There are several abandoned homes on Sixth. They hang out at the abandoned homes, sitting, smoking. The scenery when you come home is ridiculous," she said.


If a group gets hassled by cops in one spot, they move a block down the street, residents said.


"Every time you guys come, they get slicker," Phillips told him. "I have one on video, where they hid it inside a trash can, taped it inside a trash can, then when the police go they take it out. My son says, ’They have a new hiding spot. I just watched the man hide it on the windowsill of the house.’"


They have a pretty good system, as far as watch-outs, she added. "They have an old man that sits out there and they have a walkie-talkie and if they see someone coming, he clicks it. And they ask customers to park down the road on Douglas and wave."


Suddenly that summer


Latoya Davis, a resident of the neighborhood for 23 years, recalled a shooting a couple of summers ago that set her on edge. "It was like something out of a movie," she said. "It was like cowboys vs. Indians or the Hatfields vs. McCoys. It was a barrage. I remember 50-plus bullets going off, on Tamarind. It was miraculous that only one person died," she said.


"The next day then, there was a pageantry of police officers. I thought, are we having a police parade?"





Adderley said he took to heart what the residents said about open drug sales and poor communications with the police department. He told the group he’d been familiarizing himself with the neighborhood and its hotspots by walking Tamarind Avenue and its environs near sun-up every day.


He sees the guys strung out, hanging out, he said. Even before he took office, he pulled up to one of the convenience stores and by the time he got out of his car, he said, "I had people saying, ’I got whatever you want.’"


He’s been watching how his officers respond and he’s been speaking with store owners. So the effort has begun, he said.


Not long ago, he said, he responded to a scene at a store where there was "a parking lot full of people who shouldn’t be hanging out." The shopkeeper said he called police but they didn’t do anything or drove away.


Addlerley said he called over one of his officers and told him, "Do something about them. Deal with them."


When the officer tried, one of the men told the cop, "’We’re not going anywhere.’" Adderley related. "You don’t talk to Fort Lauderdale police like that.”


Adderley urged the residents to call him when they see something, to share their videos and name names.


’This is my watch now’


At the first West Palm homicide scene he went to, at 45th Street and North Haverhill Road, the problem was evident, he said. The murder took place in broad daylight. A guy was riding a bike in a courtyard and another guy got out of a car and shot him.


"Thirty people stood around and watched it," Adderley said. "All we hear is, ’it’s the police’s fault and what they gonna do about it.’ Really? Heh."


That’s the difference between a homicide in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, he said. There, before he leaves the scene, the text messages are buzzing on his phone. "’This is the guy y’all need to look at. This is the one who took the gun. This is the car. This is the tag number.’


"This is what we need," he told the West Palm gathering.


"We’ve done that," Teal countered, frustration welling in her in voice.


"I can’t really speak for what’s happened, but this is my watch now," Adderley replied.


He spoke of limitations the department faces. It needs more manpower, for one, but has many unfilled positions. The pay scale is well below average for the county, making it hard to hire top recruits, he said.


In the field, it’s tricky for police to act when the people hanging out are on private property and there’s no owner or landlord present to lodge a complaint, he added.



Improved crime statistics


West Palm police statistics show crime is down this year in most categories.


As of July, crime was down 5 percent overall, compared to the same period last year. Aggravated assaults were down 25 percent.


By July last year there’d been 20 homicides. This year: nine.


But to hear the residents, it’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy about improved crime stats when your kids look out the window and see drug deals.


Teal spent two years applying for a Habitat for Humanity house, getting rejected, cleaning up her credit and applying again and finally closing the deal.


"I’m a firm believer in God and I prayed about moving to this area," she said. "We came to see it, and the location of it. It has great potential. Major."


As thankful as she was, day-to-day realities soon brought her to the verge of taking her kids and leaving.


"The stench when you get out of the car is weed, drugs. I don’t want my son to see that every day," she said.


"We’re told things will be done. Nothing has been done. The same things are happening on my street constantly."


As frustrated as she remains, she didn’t move out.


"I prayed about this home before I moved in," she explained. "I prayed about the location in general. After you pray about something you can’t worry.


"So I decided to stay and make a change, make it better."


tdoris@pbpost.com


Twitter.com/TonyDorisPBP