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Rick Baker (Photograph by Jay Carlson)

Midtown's mayor

Cities | Conservative Rick Baker pioneered a conservative approach to urban revitalization

Issue: "2012 Cities Issue," March 10, 2012

When Rick Baker walks into the Sweetbay Supermarket in St. Petersburg's Midtown, a woman in the produce section elbows her companion, smiles, and nods with raised eyebrows toward the tall white man who looks slightly out of place. A man picking out vegetables drops his bag to shake Baker's hand as two little girls run over and beam up at him with wide-eyed admiration.

"Hello, Mayor," their mother says, laughing a little at the girls' reaction.

Baker, who left office in January 2010, doesn't bother to correct her or any of the other half-dozen shoppers and staff who greet him with his former title. He hasn't gotten used to his new status any more than his former constituents have. And the residents of this predominantly African-American and almost exclusively Democratic community aren't ready to let go of the conservative leader they came to love. Baker probably will be known as "mayor" in Midtown for decades, no matter who holds the official title.

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During his almost nine years in office, from 2001 to 2010, Baker championed the revitalization of Midtown, a historically tight-knit community that has unraveled through drugs, violent crime, blight, and hopelessness. Turning around the area was one of Baker's four main election platform tenets. By the time he reached the end of his two-term limit, overall crime in Midtown had dropped 9.2 percent and the abandoned buildings and junk-filled lots had given way to busy shopping centers and crowded playgrounds.

Midtown's resurrection is just one chapter in St. Petersburg's success story. In the late 1990s St. Petersburg, a city of about 245,000 at the tip of the peninsula that forms Tampa Bay, captured national attention for long-simmering tension between white and African-American communities that exploded into two nights of race riots in 1996. In less than a decade, Baker led a revitalization of the entire city, cutting both crime and tax rates and championing the return of restaurants, retail, and residential projects to the city's depressed downtown waterfront.

Baker's success earned him recognition throughout Florida and invitations to explain his strategy to members of Congress.

Baker tells the story of his time leading St. Petersburg in a new book, The Seamless City: A Conservative Mayor's Approach to Urban Revitalization That Can Work Anywhere. Part a history of Baker's experiences and part instruction manual for other city leaders, the book shows how a Republican in a Democratic stronghold applied conservative ideology to crime fighting, economic development, and governmental management.

The year Baker took office, 17 out of every 1,000 St. Petersburg residents were victims of violent crime. Twenty-one people were murdered. Baker had a strategy for putting more police officers on the streets, but he knew the shootings and drug deals wouldn't stop unless the city changed the atmosphere that created crime.

Baker's plan to lower the crime rate started with making Midtown a place where people were proud to live. He gathered input at neighborhood meetings and then focused the city's economic development efforts on five community additions that residents most wanted: a grocery store, a bank, a post office, a medical clinic, and a library. The city began with buying land for new parks and partnering with the local housing authority to rebuild a run-down public housing development with federal funds.

Then, city crews swept litter off streets and scrubbed graffiti from abandoned buildings. Code enforcement teams cracked down on overgrown lots and junk-filled yards. Teams of city employees volunteered to help elderly residents paint and repair their houses. Public works crews installed new stoplights and used brick pavers to create crosswalks. Once residents felt like they had something to defend, they started to report illegal activity and turn in drug dealers.

From inside the historic Royal Theater, once the only place for St. Petersburg's African-American residents to watch movies, Herbert Murphy can look out at 22nd Street, the main thoroughfare running through Midtown. Before Baker took office, Murphy could watch prostitutes flagging down customers less than 100 yards from where the children enrolled in his Boys and Girls Club performing arts program practiced their dance routines and did their homework. The old theater, run down as it was at the time, used to have heavy metal gates covering the entrance. The few blocks around the theater were not a place you wanted to be after dark, Murphy said. Now, the street is clean and crime-free, the gates are gone, and Murphy never worries about the children walking home.

"He was the only mayor we ever had who cared about this community," Murphy said of Baker. "He kept all of his promises."

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