“Newtown is your town,” began Barbara Langston member of the advisory board of Newtown’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and life-time Newtown resident. “You have that great opportunity to be part of what the redevelopment is going to be in this whole district.”
Four Winds manager Hannah Brown (‘06) organized a Community Conversation Salon on Newtown in which local speakers came to converse with concerned New College students and staff about the district just north of Sarasota. The event began at 6:00 on April 21 as students and speakers gathered on couches, tables and chairs within the Four Winds Café while complementary coffee and croissants were served. The discussion’s main purpose was to bring to light issues of Newtown and promote student involvement in helping with the redevelopment of the area. Discussion leaders included Langston, Gene Weborg, Barbara Powell-Harris and Mayor Kelly Kirschner, a life-long Sarasotan.
Issues of racism were brought forth as Langston talked of wanting to integrate the town’s demographics, starting with New College students. Newtown has a history rooted in segregation and discussion leaders stated that even in the 21st century the Sarasota area holds on to past conventions.
“The city of Sarasota still today [is] one of the most segregated cities in America,” said Mayor Kirschner. “As of the last Census we were in the top ten in America.”
“Brown vs. Board of Education was the integration of our schools, or the desegregation that was legislated upon Sarasota by a federal program,” said Weborg, a member of the policy council of Sarasota’s Children First organization. “But the decision in Sarasota in desegregation was to close our black community schools and bus everybody out to other schools … so the vestiges of that still continue. We still bus our elementary [children] from this community to ten different schools.”
Another topic closely examined was America’s overarching gun-lust and modern society’s influence on violence. A large issue in Newtown of late has been young people in the possession and use of weapons.
“The problem that we’re facing — and this is the problem being faced all over this country — is one that we became aware of in ’06: that these young people have ready access to all kinds of guns,” said Langston. “They have an arsenal of guns. They carry them around in the trunk of their cars.” Langston claims that movies and the media influence children’s involvement and slant on crime.
“Crime is glamorized,” said New College Admissions Coordinator Alfred Miller.
“We have to get the gun out of the hands of these young people,” declared Langston.
One of the solutions and broad subject of discussion and debate was of Newtown’s police involvement in the community.
Powel-Harris explained the general dismay with police services to Newtown. “We have the problem … if you don’t wait to be with them, they may or may not show up. I’ve called them and have waited for as long as 45 minutes for an officer to show up.”
Langston agreed that she wanted to see more policemen out of their cars and working with the community to prevent crime.
“We gave them a grant of $40,000 for bicycle patrol,” said Langston. “We specifically told them we wanted bicycle patrol in Newtown …We have never seen a bicycle patrol officer, period.”
“The city of Sarasota is spending $31 million a year on our police force,” said Kirschner. “The city of Bradenton spends $15 [million]. The city of North Port spends about $14. Both of [them] have larger populations. North Port has about 4 times the geographic area, so we’re putting a lot of money in police.”
“Newtown is too small,” said Langston. “It has enough officers out there. We want those officers doing their job.”
The talk eventually made its rounds to the story exploding in national and international news, when two British tourists were found murdered in Newtown on April 16. Although the Newtown killings occurred just days before the discussion, the salon was originally organized in February. Though the shootings were not the focus of the salon, they did create a stir of interest and debate.
The U.K.’s Guardian described the town as an impoverished gangland: “Newtown, situated on the mainland north of Sarasota’s downtown area, is an economically depressed, social housing district with high unemployment, a history of gang violence and a crime rate higher than any other area of the city.”
“I am within sight of the place where they found the two [victims] on a daily basis,” said Powell-Harris, an active volunteer at Newtown’s Orange Blossom Community Garden. “Sometimes I’m there for hours. I was very upset with the assumptions people made about the whole thing. That probably bothered me worse than anything.”
“It [Newtown] has the highest density of churches in our city, so we have a tremendous faith community in our Newtown area,” said Weborg. “There’s something between 57 and 87 registered churches within a couple square miles area … Is that the impression that the stories of violence conveys? No! They say this is a faithless area … It’s an isolated event and does not reflect the community.”
“Newtown has never been a ghetto and Newtown is not a ghetto now,” asserted Langston.
“The reality is that crime happens,” said Miller. “It really gives us a black eye, but the reality is that there’s crime in society.
“One of the sad things about this is that this gets national and international coverage because two white men were killed,” claimed Weborg.
“And they were tourists,” Miller added.
“It’s disturbing to me when newspaper reports that I read are more about our image overseas and if we are going to retain this pristine image for tourism when there isn’t a greater self-reflection again on these really critical issues where I think … in a community of such wealth, we’re falling down,” said Kirschner.
Kirschner continued, calling upon New College students to get proactive and involved in Newtown: “You’re fighting a multiplicity of complex variables that lead to outcomes of what took place on Saturday night,” said Kirschner. “If you start looking at programs across the country and world — these aren’t problems that are solved with money. They are problems that are solved with people like Barbara and [Powel-Harris] and this student here who’s volunteering at Booker [Elementary].”
“We don’t need millions of dollars but we need small targeted, focused action of people that start to help us make the changes that we need to make.”