Residents say city’s Lincolnville plan gives neighborhood much-needed makeover

By Cal Colgan |
Photographs by Phillip C. Sunkel IV

The parking lot in front of M&M Market has been mostly bare for the past few months, save for the patrons of the Chill Grill restaurant next door. But before the St. Augustine Police Department and the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office helped to close down the corner store, many Lincolnville residents knew it as a hub for the community’s criminal activity.

According to a Nov. 4 article in the St. Augustine Record, the police and Sheriff’s Office worked with the State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Department of Revenue to shut down the corner store. The agencies issued arrest warrants for Bhanubai “Bombay” Patel, 61, his wife Daxaben Bhanubai, 55, and their son Raj, 20. The agencies charged the market’s owners with possessing and dealing illegal narcotics, racketeering, public assistance fraud and money laundering.

Since then, the store has been closed, and the St. Augustine City Commission has taken over the building, saying that it was “a source of illegal drug sales in the neighborhood,” according to “Lift Up Lincolnville,” the city’s revitalization program for the community.

Drafted on Jan. 24, the “Lift Up Lincolnville” document outlines several programs the city is implementing to improve the neighborhood’s infrastructure, from repairing major roads and sidewalks to demolishing unsafe, condemned houses. The closing of M&M Market is one step in the city’s efforts to “uplift” Lincolnville’s residents.

Some residents say the plan is long overdue, whether it’s for ending criminal activity or improving the faulty roads and buildings.

Before the Patels took over ownership of M&M in 1997, Lincolnville had a history of drug activity and violence that fluctuated over the years.

A Turbulent History

Theresa Segal, a community activist and a member of Lincolnville Crime Watch, said the frequency of crimes was at times higher even before M&M became the neighborhood’s unofficial drug center. Segal said there was a lot of crime going on when she and her husband first moved to the community in 1989.

“There were certain streets that you wouldn’t walk down,” she said. “It was right around the time that Crime Watch formed, and it formed in a reaction to a shooting that occurred where this very young boy got caught in the crossfire and was killed.”

She said the constant drug activity and shootings meant that the crime watch had a lot of work to do.

“We were pretty much hearing gun shots every weekend,” Segal said.

Like Segal, Sgt. Barry Fox said the drug trade had plagued Lincolnville in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The commander of the SAPD’s operations and investigations unit said when he first came to the force in 1993, the crack cocaine industry was ravaging the neighborhood.

“Every couple of blocks, there was a narcotics dealer on the corner, or a lookout for a narcotics dealer on the corner,” Fox said. “There was quite a bit of activity in the Lincolnville area.”

The “Drug Store”

Segal said as more concerned neighbors reported to the crime watch, the dealing started to die down, and she and her husband started to hear fewer and fewer gun shots. But when the Patels took over M&M, the signs of the drug trade had started to appear again.

“You would see there guys with obvious signals, the towel on their shoulder,” Segal said. “Once in a while, if I walked by carrying a newspaper a certain way, they’d [think] I was trying to signal them.”

Judith Seraphin said everyone in the neighborhood knew that M&M was an illegal drug store. When her husband would go to the market to buy cigarettes, she said, he would notice how some of the store’s patrons would quickly turn away from him, concealing what they were doing.

“He’d walk in, two people would be standing in the aisle, exchanging money for drugs,” Seraphin said. “He said you would see that every time you walk in there.”

The president of the Lincolnville Neighborhood Association, Seraphin said she hear complaints about the store’s darker dealings from her neighbors. “People would come and knock on my door [and say], ‘What can we do about it?,'” she said.

Sgt. Fox said that Lincolnville residents had also complained to the police department over the years. Between 2007 and 2008, Fox said, the cops were involved in 535 events at M&M Market. He said the events involved incidents including batteries, drug sales and thefts. Those events dropped to 328 between 2008 and 2009, and when the department was conducting the investigation this past year, there were 135 events.

Although the eight-month investigation ended M&M’s designation as a drug hot spot, Fox acknowledges that some residents wondered why it took so long for the city to shut it down. He said the police wanted to make sure that their case was solid enough to rid Lincolnville of the property.

Ron Rawls, the pastor at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, said that when he first became the pastor of the church on Martin Luther King Avenue three and a half years ago, the SAPD would call him often, informing him of people who the police arrested just a few feet from the church grounds. Over the past two years, Rawls said, the calls haven’t been as frequent, but he thinks the crimes for which the Patels were charged don’t belong in Lincolnville.

“I think the one positive thing [about the revitalization program] is that those type of things aren’t going on anymore,” he said.

Disbursement of the Dealers

Segal said she thinks that M&M’s closure is a sign that the city is listening to the community, but she doesn’t know whether the end of M&M means the end of Lincolnville’s drug trade.

“There’s always been this sort of drug houses and everything,” she said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say the activity has ended. It was just concentrated there.”

Fox admits that closing M&M probably caused the drug dealers who gathered in front of the store’s parking lot to find a new location in the community, but they don’t have the venue for their illegal wares like they did at the market.

“I can’t think of any place [elsewhere in Lincolnville] that’s going to give them a parking lot, a place to buy beer, let them stand outside, and continue to hang out,” Fox said.

Structural Improvements and Residents’ Demands

Whether or not the drug trade has decreased since the city seized the store, the city government’s “Lift Up Lincolnville” plan has been well-received by the neighborhood’s residents. Mark Knight, the director of the city’s Planning and Building Department, said he’s gotten nothing but positive feedback. He said over the city government’s philosophy over the last six months was to make a concerted effort to focus on the community with various projects.

Seraphin is also happy with the changes the city has made so far, but she said the main reason why the local officials are paying attention to the problems in Lincolnville is because of the new city manager, John Regan. She said the previous manager, Bill Harris was unconcerned about the community.

“The feeling [was] that if you wanted anything done and if Bill Harris didn’t approve of it, it doesn’t get done,” Seraphin said. “We’re the middle of the city, and it’s like we don’t exist.”

That attitude changed, Seraphin said, with Regan’s promotion to city manager.

“I can call up and know I’m not being lied to. It’s just unusual for me to deal with someone who treats everyone with respect,”she said.

While Lincolnville’s residents think the revitalization plan is a start, they would like to see the city do more than improve the sidewalks and the cracked and pothole-filled Riberia Street.

“One of my projects is the [Willie] Gallimore Center,” Segal said. “It opened up in 1987, and it’s been in decline.”

Knight said while the city and county governments share ownership of the recreation center, the county no longer wants to be involved in maintaining the center’s pool. He said the city would like to see the county continue to operate the pool, but if not, the city government could use the area for other recreational purposes.

According to the “Lift Up Lincolnville” document, the city has spent about $17,500 on improving the community center’s building, using the money towards painting, trim work, new flooring, landscaping, and lighting improvements.

For Rawls, the city’s plan to address abandoned properties might work for condemned and unsafe buildings, but he would like to see other dilapidated houses and facilities restored and functioning. He has already worked with St. Paul’s and Seraphin’s Global Wrap shrink wrap company to turn the Echo House across from the church into a private  school. With the help of a $2000 grant from the city and additional money from fundraisers, Rawls and his congregation will transform the former nursing home into the St. Paul School of Excellence, a co-educational religious school for Lincolnville’s children.

“We’ve got that building back, and we’re working hard to try to make it an asset to the community,” Rawls said.

Seraphin is mostly excited about the future of the former M&M. She wants the building to turn into a market again, but one that serves as meeting place for craft workers and grocers, and not drug dealers and racketeers. “This can have fresh bread, fresh produce, it can have serious local art,” she said.

“All of a sudden, someone has a business, and they got pride,” Seraphin said. “And that’s something that a lot of West Augustine and Lincolnville doesn’t have because it’s been trampled on over the years.”

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