There were few cries of "Happy New Year" on Austin Road the night of Dec. 31, 2006. No popped champagne corks, no black-eyed peas and no acquaintances to be forgotten.
On this small, inconspicuous road between Lake Lancaster and Lake Davis — a quiet area of single-family homes and expensive lakefront property — a holiday block party was on the agenda. But it didn't go as planned.
At about 11:30 p.m., two men in a white 1993 Buick tried to drive past the cones blocking off the street for the party. It's unclear why they wanted to get through. What is clear is that a fight broke out, and partygoer Sean Robert Deavila, 36, was shot in the mouth by the driver of the Buick. (Deavila recovered from his wounds.)
At 11:38 p.m., someone called the police. By 12:17 a.m., a concerned neighbor whose brother-in-law witnessed the shooting had already e-mailed Orlando District 4 commissioner Patty Sheehan about the incident, even though the street falls in District 1, commissioner Phil Diamond's district.
"We are regular people who want your help to reclaim our neighborhood. Tell us what to do," wrote Peggy Bassett from nearby Greenwood Street. "Call `police chief` Michael McCoy now, in the middle of the night (Daisy `Lynum` does)."
Bassett continued: "This is ridiculous. These people went through the proper channels. They obtained permits. They stayed out late on their own street to celebrate the New Year. Now one of them is in the hospital with a gunshot wound. Something is terribly wrong with this picture. What should we do? What will you do?"
What Sheehan did was have police liaison Jim Young check for the permit to close the street and have a block party. There wasn't one. The residents did not have the city's permission to block off the street. Had they gone through proper channels and obtained a permit, they would have had the use of city barricades to seal the street, and they would have had cops watching the party.
What's happened since has raised questions about the perception and reality of crime in Orlando, and about racism. The two men in the Buick were black; the man who was shot in the mouth was white. There's an underlying assumption that this is an example of a rising tide of black crime in Orlando, Sheehan says.
"It's offensive to me; especially in this situation, because that's not how it happened," she says, noting that one of the partygoers had a gun. "I kind of want to wait for this investigation and everything, because I want to hammer in some of these holes."
After the shooting, Young replied to Bassett's e-mail, pointing out that the party was not permitted and that police were not called immediately when the fight broke out. An investigation was underway, he noted.
Residents of the area don't think the cops are doing enough. "I don't believe that `Young` was trying to come across in a callous nature," says Chris Hart, who lives on Delaney Park Drive. "But I really took exception with the fact that he married what I considered to be a non-relevant point — whether or not this event was permitted — with what I thought was a truly relevant point, and that was that a person was shot. If you just take kind of this old adage that I heard from a friend of mine back in Tampa, ‘No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care,' it just didn't seem like `police` cared that much."
Hart says he's noticed a growing threat in the neighborhood — a robbery at gunpoint, an elderly woman killed by a transient last year — and has invested in a home security system. Although he can think of no real incidents since the New Year's Eve shooting, he's scared for his family's safety. (He's noticed what he suspects is an increased police presence in the neighborhood.) The two men in the Buick had no reason to be on the street in the first place, he says.
"You don't need to go down that street," he says. "It's not one of those streets that you have to go down at all, unless you're going down to visit someone on that street or you have some real business there: It's a really short street, it comes off at Briercliff, and it in essence dead-ends into another house, kind of another little roundabout street. It's not arterial at all."
(Actually, Austin Road intersects with Hardman Drive near a large house; Hardman Drive connects it with the parallel, and busy, South Summerlin Avenue.)
Nonetheless, Austin Road is a public road. And to Sheehan, the idea of certain people not belonging on certain streets suggests a quiet form of racism.
"Just because you're black doesn't mean you don't have a right to drive in a white neighborhood. That's garbage," she says. "This is not Selma, Alabama."
But it is the South. Sheehan says she's sensed racism at neighborhood meetings, including an incident at a Lake Cherokee Neighborhood Association meeting where somebody declared, "There is no reason for black people to be in my neighborhood."
According to Nick Massoni, vice president of the Lake Davis Neighborhood Association, which represents an area adjacent to where the shooting occurred, that kind of talk is not uncommon.
"That is definitely heard a lot," he says. "It really surprised me. They talk like that constantly."
Massoni, however, says crime in his area is relatively low. His business, the 903 Mills Market, has seen no crime at all, he says.
According to police records, the number of crimes in the area increased from 58 incidents in 2005 to 79 in 2006, although there was no increase in violent crime.
Sheehan believes the problem is one of perception versus reality.
"It wasn't that there was this rash of crimes that we could tell; it was that there was this perception in the neighborhood," she says. "Some of the people that had complained, we went back and checked, and they had not reported it. So it makes it impossible for the police to do their job. They seem to holler a lot and fuss, but they're not reporting the crimes."
The Austin Road shooting is still under investigation; no arrests have been made. And Sheehan remains indignant.
"If they press charges and get these kids, I'm going to be pissed. I don't care how much political pressure I'm getting from people, that's crap. You don't get to block off your street because you don't want black people going by. That's crap."firstname.lastname@example.org