Our Neighborhoods | Palmetto subdivision embodies, 'It takes a village to raise a child'

vmannix@bradenton.comMarch 2, 2014 

PALMETTO

The phone call came from a neighbor, Lillie Covington, who has lived in Apollo-Lake Park with her husband, Roy, since the mid-1960s.

Elston Brown's son was spotted getting into some mischief with friends, so she called his father.

"He was 10-11 years old at the time, doing something that wasn't so bright, and he could have really gotten hurt," Brown said, recalling that decade-old conversation.

That neighborly vigilance resonated on a deeper level with the Lincoln Middle School science department chairman and took him back. Way back.

He was once one of those boys, growing up in this same predominantly African-American subdivision on 29th Street East 44 years ago.

"There were six or seven of us, throwing rocks at one of the streetlights, doing what we weren't supposed to be doing," said Brown, 53.

"Then Mr. Hiawatha Hill came out, called each one of us by name -- and each one of our parents' names -- and said he was going to call every one of them."

Now deceased, Hill did just that.

Brown cherishes those days, as a parent and as neighborhood association president. He has been devoted to reaffirming that tradition, among others that were created, cultivated and carried on by residents who have invested their lives in the 85-home subdivision's wellbeing and perpetuated it for generations.

"It takes a village," said Covington, 80, a retired educator. "That's the atmosphere that evolved here."

Johnny Jackson vouches for it.

"It was everybody's children," said the 83-year-old and self-described country boy from Tallahassee, who moved here in 1962. "We were one big family, and we looked out for each other."

Caring neighborhood spirit

It's that spirit the neighborhood association is trying to imbue in new homeowners who don't know the history of Apollo-Lake Park -- or care about it -- like its longtime residents do.

"Our challenge has been to get everybody to buy into what we established," said Azell Johnson, 77, who made his career in the U.S. Army. "New residents move in, we have welcoming committees and try to make sure they are part of what we do. We work at that. We think of homeowners here as our family. We care about each other, and we want them to know we're in this together."

That commitment binds Covington, Jackson and Johnson with other neighborhood association members such as Carl Craddock, Bertha Green-Ford, B.C. Pratt, Ulysses Sheppard, Laura Wallace and Elihu Wallace.

Some of them are more than Elston Brown's officers, who frequently hold their meetings in the fresh air, gathered on their own chairs under a weeping willow next to the subdivision's man-made lake.

Sometimes they'll do a little grilling while they do business.

"These people knew me, cared about me," Brown said. "They weren't afraid to call our parents if we were getting into something. That kept us close and a lot of us in line. That's a blessing, one of the things that helped me decide to move home and raise my kids.

"Today people are afraid to call on other people's children in the neighborhood. Here we're trying to promote that. We do have a younger crowd coming in, and we're trying to bring them in and establish them in the association, in being proud of the neighborhood and trying to keep the neighborhood up like these people have for many years."

Begun in 1961, Apollo-Lake Park is a collection of mostly single-story homes in various shades and well kept lawns.

"Everything is voluntary with some by-laws," Elston Brown said. "We work with code enforcement because we've got some abandoned homes. We're also helping a couple who's behind on their taxes."

According to the Manatee County Property Appraiser's website, most of the homes range from just under $100,000 to above.

There is one foreclosed home the neighborhood association is contemplating buying for a clubhouse. Its price is $43,000.

Apollo-Lake Park's southern boundary is 29th Street East, 33rd Street East to its north, wetlands to its west, then a church and homes between it and Canal Road to the east. Tillman Elementary School is nearby.

Ninth Avenue Drive East is the subdivision's lone entrance and exit.

"One way in and one way out," said Jeanette Kelly, a retired educator and resident for more than 30 years.

Middle class homes

Apollo-Lake Park was built on land originally owned by Berry James, an African-American, who subsequently sold to Joe Lively, president of Manatee Builders Inc. That a white developer wanted to build middle-class subdivision for blacks was extremely rare during segregation in Manatee County.

Lots sold for $500-600 and homes were built for less than $20,000, according to Covington, who raised three daughters.

"The people who sold the property here seemed to care," she said. "Not anybody could just come in and buy a house. He (Lively) was a white man who wasn't just interested in making money. He was very much concerned about selling property to people who would take care it. He didn't want a slum by any means."

Yet Covington and her husband couldn't get a bank loan in Manatee County, so they did in Sarasota.

They dealt with other stereotypes, too.

"One of my sorority sisters didn't want to build a house here because she said there were all farmers in Palmetto," said Covington, laughing. "They were 'citified,' I guess you could call it, in Bradenton."

Fifty years later, she beams showing off her immaculate home.

"The guy who built those cabinets? You can't get work like that now," she said.

Across the street, Ted and Mary Tillis, also retired educators, have lived in their brick single-story ranch style home since 1965 and raised two children.

They could've settled in nearby Memphis, another neighborhood favored by black educators back then, but they liked this open property.

"It was undeveloped and showed more promise," said Ted Tillis, 78. "It was probably the most decent area for blacks to live in -- a middle-class neighborhood -- during segregation.

"Blacks aspired to live as decent as possible under the circumstances. Own your land, own your house. There weren't a lot of opportunities then, so you did the best you could with what was available. It's evolved into what we anticipated -- a decent place to live."

The Tillises are among those folks who see to it personally.

They're part of the neighborhood watch phone chain.

"If strangers are going around the neighborhood, neighbors will automatically pick up the phone and start calling," Mary Tillis said. They're careful. Caring, too.

There are some lonely widows and ailing seniors nearby, and she drops in on them as much as she can.

"We look out for our neighbors. I visited one whose husband had just passed. She saw me, said, 'Oh, this made my day,'" said Tillis, who still runs a tutoring center in Palmetto. "It makes me feel good to do that, to give something back."

Sharing their bounty

One thing she brings often are vegetables and produce her husband grows in his bountiful garden alongside the house.

Black-eyed peas. Broccoli. Cabbage. Cauliflower. Collard greens. Corn. Lettuce. Peppers. Pineapples. Pole beans. Squash. String beans. Tomatoes. Mangos and bananas, too.

"A little bit of everything," Tillis said. "It keeps me going."

He's out there every morning at 6 a.m., tending to his garden for a couple hours daily. It's a pleasant, productive diversion for Tillis, who gradually cut back on various community boards but remains a House of God Church elder.

"My wife blanches them (to scald briefly and then drain) and puts them in the freezer," he said. "We have vegetables year round, but most we give to neighbors."

Giving to neighbors takes other personal forms in Apollo-Lake Park.

If there's a birth or a birthday or big event, Dorothy Simmons is there, representing the well-wishers with a big greeting card bearing many signatures.

Or a card with condolences and a monetary gift to help out the family if they've lost a loved one.

Such was the case after the recent death of Oscar Sanders, one of the neighborhood pillars and patriarchs.

"We asked the family if there was anything we could do and to just call us," said Simmons, a resident since 1967. "It's a caring effort, a sharing type thing, let people know we care."

That unity has manifested itself in other ways vitally important to Apollo-Lake Park and its neighborhood association.

Like working with Commissioner Gwen Brown and then Commissioner Michael Gallen to get Manatee County to install water and sewer lines, put up streetlights around the neighborhood and resurface its roads.

"These men walked door to door to get signatures needed to make it happen," Elston Brown said of his board members.

Their collaboration with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office also made a difference.

"We worked with Sheriff (Brad) Steube because we had a bit of a crime element coming around -- drugs, burglaries and what not," Brown said. "We requested and got frequent patrols every day. Other neighborhoods have really serious issues and it's sad, but MSO came in here and took care of it."

"It's pretty much crime-free, a nice neighborhood," said Ulysses Sheppard, 64, who used to work security at Tropicana.

A couple years ago, Apollo-Lake Park held a neighborhood reunion. Children who grew up there returned from around the country.

The party was a huge success, attended by hundreds.

"They asked all the parents to stand up and everybody started taking pictures, the flashes going off, it was beautiful," Elston Brown said. "That camaraderie helped raise us. That reunion showed it. It's a special neighborhood because of the people, and we're working to maintain that."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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