Life is brighter in Gainesville's Porters neighborhood

People gather during the Porters BBQ, Potluck and Farm Tour at the Porters Community Farm in Gainesville on Feb. 9.

Ashley Crane/Correspondent
Published: Monday, February 18, 2013 at 4:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 18, 2013 at 8:54 p.m.

Gigi Simmons has lived in the Porters community, the neighborhood nestled between downtown and Depot Avenue, most of her life. People around here remember when she was in diapers.


UF's first football game was in Porters

On Feb. 23, a ceremony will be held in the Porters neighborhood unveiling a historical marker noting that the University of Florida played its first home football game on a field in Porters. UF defeated the Gainesville Athletic Association 16-6 on Oct. 5, 1906.

They also remember a different Porters from a few years ago, one where the prostitutes hung out on the corner in broad daylight and the dealers sold their drugs.

The 39-year-old Simmons, who has been president of the Porters Community Organization for about a year now, said the community is in transition — from what it once was to what it could be.

"We want to build on the history of this place," Simmons said.

The neighborhood — named for Canadian physician Watson Porter, who sold the land exclusively to black families more than a century ago — has experienced a number of milestones during the past year.

With the help of Santa Fe College, it held its first voter registration drive. The University of Florida sponsored the first health fair. There was a haunted house in October, a back-to-school backpack give-away in August and a toy drive in December that allowed every Porters child 17 and younger to receive a Christmas gift.

So after reading in The Sun about a crime in the neighborhood recently, Simmons wanted people to know about the positive things in her community. She sent a letter inviting the newspaper to cover "a story to be told called Porters."

"I've lived in this community," she said. "I know what our potential is."

Crime cut in half

For more than 20 years, at the corner of Southwest Third Street and Fifth Avenue, Steve Smith, 62, has looked out the windows of his store — S&S Cleaners, located just steps from the Porters Community Center.

It's through these windows that he once saw a man cut another man's throat. It's through this glass that he and his employees watched women sell their bodies to the men who had enough money.

Then, not long ago, the city began transforming Southwest Third Street. The tall grass in the lot across the street, where the dealers and women would hide, was mowed to make room for a community garden. Like the weeds, the drug dealers and women did not return.

Some residents of Porters have plots in the garden. A century ago, Watson Porter encouraged the neighborhood families to plant and cultivate gardens to become self-sufficient.

Simmons said she is working with the Florida Certified Organic Growers and Consumers Inc., which organizes the garden, to get a section carved out just for the community center.

The beautification of the area, including brick sidewalks, seems to positively affect people's behavior, Smith said. They don't throw trash in the streets as much. Keep Alachua County Beautiful last month did a litter pickup project in Porters.

Smith isn't the only one who has watched the neighborhood change through the shop's windows.

"Honey, I could tell you some stories," employee Sandra Kimble said with a twang in her voice. She has worked at S&S for 17 years.

Kimble and employee Elaine Grigsby, who has worked at the cleaners for 10 years, say they are grateful for the cleanup of the area's crime. They always took precautions after closing up shop — neither woman would leave without making sure the other one was safely in her car at night.

They have reason to feel safer now. From 2011 to 2012, the number of reported crime incidents in the neighborhood dropped by more than half — from 127 incidents in 2011 to 57 in 2012, according to Gainesville Police Department records.

In 2011, police intervened in 52 drug-related incidents, including possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia and selling drugs, according to GPD records.

GPD Officer Charlene Collins says the Gainesville Police Department has given extra attention to the area. Officers have arrested some of the prostitutes and drug dealers, and they conduct more routine traffic stops in the area.

Taking back the neighborhood

At a Tuesday meeting of the neighborhood organization in January, about 25 residents gathered to hear Collins describe the Citizens on Patrol program.

While the neighborhood has had a crime watch program, Simmons wanted to start a patrol program as well, where residents walk the streets in groups of two or four with cellphones. If they see anything suspicious, they are instructed to call GPD.

"This neighborhood is one of the more involved neighborhoods in the area," Collins said. "Their meetings have a higher attendance compared to 90 percent of the other (crime watch) groups."

There are about 30 other active neighborhood crime watch groups in Gainesville, Collins said.

Collins has known Simmons since November 2011. She has been working with Simmons throughout the past year.

GPD named Simmons a neighborhood hero in its April-to-June 2012 newsletter.

"She's not getting paid to do it," Collins said. "She has put her heart into it."

A visit from the judge

The neighborhood children are one reason Simmons said she became more involved in her community.

A single mother of two teenage boys, she received a bachelor of arts from the University of South Florida and later returned to the family home in Porters to raise her children.

She said she wants the children in the community to know they have opportunities. To inspire the children, she has brought in speakers such as activist and author Cornel West and County Judge Walter Green.

Green, 50, said he spoke to the children for about an hour about pursuing their dreams.

"They don't have a lot of black role models to look up to pursue their dreams," he said.

Green said Porters is like a lot of neighborhoods that need more people to show the younger generation they can achieve their dreams.

Domestic violence was another topic Green touched on because some of the children have witnessed it. He said he explained to the children why they shouldn't hit people to resolve problems and warned them to not end up in his courtroom.

"I told them that I would come see them," he said. "So they don't have to come see me in court."

Being a part of the change

Down the street from the courthouse, UF's Innovation Square continues to develop. It is about a 10-minute walk from the Porters Community Center.

Simmons said that downtown and at Innovation Square, things are changing and opportunities are developing.

"We want to be a part of that change," she said.

"We don't want to be left behind," echoed Charles "Sonny" McKnight, a longtime Porters resident.

McKnight, 70, who said he was born in the front room of the house that he lives in today, said Simmons was the spark that started the change in Porters.

"I saw the fire, I saw the fire in you," he said to Simmons. "I saw how people fell in behind her and supported her. I'll tell you, this is what the grandmamas and the granddaddies have been praying for years, for this community to change and come together."

Simmons smiled and responded that she was very humbled.

"We want doctors and lawyers and scientists and researchers to come from our communities," she said. "We want presidents to come from our communities. We want professors to come from our communities. That's what we're building."

There was a time when McKnight said he was afraid to let his grandchildren play in the front yard. "But our neighborhood is alive now," he said. "Even the elderly can get out and walk around."

Simmons and others say they want the rest of Gainesville to appreciate the efforts that are taking place to revitalize Porters.

It's a little-known fact that the University of Florida played its first home football game on a field in Porters. UF defeated the Gainesville Athletic Association 16-6 on Oct. 5, 1906.

On Saturday, there will be an unveiling ceremony for the historical marker noting this event. Simmons said she hopes that day to see Porters residents standing alongside their neighbors from UF and the entire Gainesville community.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top