One of the biggest disappointments of having to give up something that you love is to learn it was all in vain. When the community and those displaced from the Gas Plant area see the current failure of baseball and the lack of affordable housing, they are dismayed their sacrifice meant nothing. With seven years left on their contract, the city is already pitching plans for what some refer to as 86 acres of urban gold.
Asked about the city’s plans Welch expresses it is disturbing. “By being a community and cultured church, our motto is Prayer Tower Church is a church on the move for God. The pastor is to shepherd the people to have a good life knowing they will have kids, and they will grow up and are going to need housing. They are going to need affordable housing because if the jobs aren’t in this area for them to have a good lifestyle they are not going to be able to afford the 4, 5, or 6 hundred thousand dollar houses developers are building.
The center they are proposing is not to help the community, not the existing community. It’s to bring new people in.”
He goes on to share that he is an advocate for affordable housing. “I mean real price gaged affordable housing. Don’t just get a company to come in to say we’re buying all this property to build affordable housing and then say, well you know what the area doesn’t seem to want this type of housing so we’re going to build luxury apartments and condos.”
Welch states the logic coincides with a plan to “draw a certain type of money to this area to build the city up.” They are doing this without regard to “the people that have lived in the city and made it what it is. Now they’re pushing them out, where are we going to go, out in the water?”
The Erasure of Culture
With so much already lost due to progress that has left the black community stagnant, it’s hard to resist the urge to reminisce on things of old. It’s virtually impossible to have a conversation about black culture in St. Petersburg without discussing The Deuces.
“That was the place on Friday night. We’d get in our cars clean them up and ride down 22nd Street. Go down to 18th Avenue South, spin around and come back.” He mentions popular places that are just a memory today…Bears Pool Hall, Geech's Bar B-Q, and the original Manhattan Casino.
“That was our culture and seems like our culture, urban culture is being moved out. They are bringing new restaurants downtown. Things most African Americans don’t associate with like skate parks and museums and art installations.”
It’s not that Welch doesn’t see the cultural relevance in the various museums in downtown. He is highlighting the fact that there is no black cultural or historical museum to show the culture of what St. Petersburg was as far as our culture. “Spend some money on it. Put in some real effort, not some corner place that before you get inside you’re already exiting. Invest some real money to show what the black community contributed to creating this city.”
Like many leaders and residents, Welch is disheartened that the city is ready to destroy what it created thirty years ago. Even more so, is the failure to consult with the community they displaced to see what they would like done with the land. “After all the work that’s gone into it, after the displacement, all the churches, all the families, all the culture, all the history, they come back and say, Oh we changed our mind.”
Welch acknowledges that the opinions of pastors are no longer sought after. The city doesn’t seek them out to discuss their plans or potential impact on the Black community. He reiterates that whatever going to happen to the Gas Plant area after baseball “it isn’t for us. It’s not for African Americans, it's not for the black culture it’s not average and low-income people of the city. We’re always overlooked. It’s like the stepchild you don’t want to see. But you want the city to be all bright to say look we got.”
Referring back to the Rays and promises of jobs, he says, “The rays didn’t bring real jobs. They brought inventory to the restaurants. The people in the condos can come down to eat, but we can’t afford to go down there to eat. Families can’t afford to go to the movies and buy popcorn. Sodas are $9.00.”
In the end, he believes “the land can be better used, something that can help the community vs. just another area.”
The City’s Most Neglected
Elder Welch believes like most pastors, there will always be a need for the church. He points to the work of Prayer Tower's FNG Community Center. The center is named for his paternal grandparents, Flagman and Gussie Welch. Speaking of the work done through the center he puts on the hat of a community activist.
“We work along with the St. Petersburg free clinic and some other organizations that donate things to us. We have a volunteer outreach where we go out every 2 weeks and we go down to one of the parks and give away food. We cook food and serve people.” He adds that they “have a food bank that feeds 500 families a month.” Noting they “aren’t trying to recruit people for the church,” they just want them to have a better life and know someone cares for them.”
People often view homelessness as part of a culture of poverty that is generational. In today’s society, a person is more likely to become homeless due to situational poverty. This is due to an unexpected occurrence in which the person cannot recover financially. Families are living in cars because a source of income is lost due to a layoff.
People can’t afford rent increases. Or a medical emergency depleted the emergency savings.
Helping displaced individuals is the goal of a planned development center. “We found out that most people have problems after 4:30 PM when most (social services) agencies shut down. So our goal is to have the FNG Center house a police satellite office and partner with social services agencies to provide assistance.
The Black Faith Community of the Future
It’s hard to imagine a vibrant black community in St. Petersburg twenty years from now. If there is no community to serve where does that leave the black faith community? “Sadly, I see it dwindling almost to point extinction,” Welch replies with hesitation.
“Millennials don’t buy into the traditional church. They are online, they do bedside ministry. They click on the TV and get their spiritual fix and then go play golf. Hallelujah, thank you, Jesus, God loves me but I got to go, I have a 2 PM tee time.”
He adds, “We need to find a way as pastors, as members of the religious community to tap into them and show it’s more than just the church thing because the church is not just a building. The time is now for pastors, ministers, and elders, and saints to look at where our dynamics are. We can no longer just come in and preach and go home.
We got to be more of a teaching and instructing ministry. The whooping and hollering don’t excite the youth today. They are rewired by the internet and social media. Before we didn’t have the distractions, we had a captive audience. All we knew was to go to church. Today they can go anywhere they can see other ministries they can see how other groups in ministries are doing things. They go to college and get around other people and see what they do and they like it. They say it’s so invigorating.
Our Caucasian brothers are remodeling their churches to where they have coffee shops and diners. One church in Tarpon Springs, downstairs they have a regular sanctuary but upstairs they have a glass-enclosed balcony and restaurants. They are doing different things to attract an audience.
On 2nd Sunday’s we have relaxed Sunday but ask that people still be respectable.”
Photo Credit 1: the City of St. Petersburg
Photo Credit 2: Creative Loafing Tampa
Photo Credit 3: Prayer Tower COGIC Facebook
Photo Credit 4: Wix Stock Image