NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — Voncile Whitaker flips through a three-ring binder, tracing her hand along photos and newspaper clippings from the early days of the city's black population.

Whitaker, 66, grew up in River Park, a Naples neighborhood developed in the '60s as a segregated community for black residents, and is a keeper of its rich history, passed down by longtime inhabitants who have seen the area change drastically.

And those changes are accelerating with Southwest Florida's rapid growth. Many of the older residents are dying off, and their descendants are moving on in search of cheaper living.

"A lot of the younger people are moved out because they can't afford over here," Whitaker said. "What they want to do is move everybody out and make this area another Port Royal."

In River Park, current home listings range from $349,000 to $650,000. In Port Royal, a home was bought for $48.8 million in 2018 only to be torn down to make room for an even pricier home.

Fears are mounting among residents that they will be priced out of their own community and lose a sense of identity with the thrust of rapid Florida development and gentrification. Longtime dwellers have even clashed with city officials in the past over changes that have swept into their small section of Naples. And, despite many of those officials taking notice in the area and directing funding to River Park, more changes seem all but inevitable.

- River Park sees shift in identity

"River Park just has a distinct identity," said Antonio Dumornay, a resident of the neighborhood's Gordon River Apartments, with a smile. "River Park is love."

But the area's "distinct identity" is shifting.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2013-2017 American Community Survey data, almost 40% of residents live below the poverty line in the 0.4 square mile census tract that includes the River Park area. The population breaks down to 53.83% black, 26.16% Hispanic and 19.41% white. The city of Naples, by contrast, is about 90% white, 5% black and 4.1% Hispanic or Latino.

The demographics have shifted from previous years, with more residences changing hands and families moving on in River Park. Longtime residents such as Ida Lawson, 81, say that the neighborhood started out as entirely black.

Lawson, a certified nursing assistant, moved to Naples in 1959.

She said that when the River Park land along the Gordon River was being developed in the late '50s, homes were constructed and sold to black residents. Lawson purchased a home in River Park in 1963 and has lived there ever since.

"There are not too many of the original owners left," she said. "A lot of them have passed on. People have come in and bought houses, so we have a very mixed community now. It used to be just black."

"I've seen (River Park) grow," she added. "A lot of the families have sold (their homes) after their parents died."

"This is historically the black community, but it's not really that anymore," said Lynn Clarke, a recreational supervisor who has worked at the River Park Community Center for over a decade. "There's still a pocket of original families here, but it's lessening."

The neighborhood is now considered to be two parts: River Park East and River Park West, split by Goodlette-Frank Road at Fifth Avenue North.

East is home to streets of houses and the public Anthony Park. The west side houses the River Park Community Center and multiple apartment complexes.

The area is historically low-income compared to other parts of the city, which is home to some of the world's richest billionaires.

The census tract that includes River Park has a median household income of $32,847, according to the community survey data.

This is about half the amount the census has recorded for Collier County overall, which is a median household income of $62,407. If this is narrowed down to just the city of Naples, the figures become even more disproportionate, with the most recent data for Naples' median household income at $90,507.

Despite the apparent need for affordable housing, the impact of development has been felt in recent years with options for low-income residents slowly disappearing. Currently, Naples has two apartment complexes with designated Section 8 housing due to contracts with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development: George Washington Carver, which sits in the heart of River Park West, and Goodlette Arms, which is outside the River Park community on Goodlette-Frank Road and is designated for senior citizens.

Section 8 is a subsidized housing program offered through HUD.

Two other complexes, River Park Apartments and Gordon River Apartments, used to carry a Section 8 designation, but new owners eventually opted out of renewing their Section 8 contracts, according to Angela Edison, the director of housing at the Collier County Housing Authority. Both apartments are now market-rate and still exist within the River Park community.

"There's a waiting list for both (Carver and Goodlette Arms)," Whitaker said.

The complex that used to be known as River Park Apartments was eventually renamed "Jade at Olde Naples" after investors purchased the property for almost $3 million in 2012. More money has been invested into the apartments since, with the Jade changing hands again in 2016 after being purchased for more than $12 million by real estate investment firm Corridor Ventures, property records show.

According to the Jade's website, 452-square-foot one-bedroom units currently start at $1,030 a month. A previous Naples Daily News article stated that one-bedroom units in the complex started at $850 in 2015.

Gordon River Apartments were purchased by a private New York investment group in 2014 for over $5 million. Gordon River Apartments now also start at over $1,000 per unit.

Dumornay, 30, has lived in Gordon River for more than six years and in the River Park area for 20.

"The apartment complex five years ago was $650 for a two-bedroom," he said. "Now, we're looking at $1,200. A lot of people in the area have moved to Fort Myers because Fort Myers is cheaper."

Jasmine Cay is a rent-controlled tax-credit apartment option for River Park residents. This means the landlord receives tax credits in return for renting some or all of the property to low-income residents with a restricted rate.

Edison said the rent structures for these types of apartments are decided by examining census data and the area's median income.

"In Collier County, since the average median income is so high, even with the tax credit, they're almost just as high as market-rate apartments," she said.

- Residents leave River Park to secure cheaper living

Due to the competitive rents throughout the entire county, Edison said, many can't keep up.

"The notable shift has been that a lot of people are going to Lee County," she said.

And that can hurt businesses in Naples.

Wilner Cenecharles, who has owned Excelsior Barber Shop in River Park for years, said that he has seen many "new faces" in the neighborhood recently.

He attributes the change to rising prices and some longtime residents' inability to match the cost of living in Collier County.

"We have a client who moved all the way to Lehigh (Acres)," Cenecharles said. "We lost that client for good."

With many residents taking part in the move from Collier to Lee for more affordable options, Cenecharles said his shop, among others in the area, is suffering.

"We're losing a lot of friends who are moving away because they can't afford it anymore," he said. "It's killing our business."

A large portion of River Park homes have remained the same for years, but that could all change with interest from developers and new residents. The demolition or remodeling of many of these homes is "likely" in upcoming years, according to Cindy Carroll, a Naples real estate appraiser.

She said there are "fundamental, economical real estate factors at play" in River Park, with the two most notable being "location" and "boating access."

"It makes the neighborhood attractive for anyone that wants to live close to the beach, close to downtown and wants to be able to boat from their property," she said.

There are some provisions in place to assist families with keeping their homes and staying on top of ownership expenses, such as property tax. Florida homeowners can claim up to a $50,000 homestead exemption on their primary residence, reducing the assessed value of the residence and, as a result, the property tax they pay. Additionally, Florida's Save Our Homes program limits annual increases in assessed values of properties that have homestead exemptions.

However, under many circumstances, if children or family inherit a home with an exemption from their parents or relatives, they do not inherit the exemption, meaning the descendants of the property owners can experience a significant increase in property taxes. The new owners are required to file a new exemption in their own name and a new Save Our Homes value is created based on the current value of the property.

"A lot of those younger people can't afford the taxes, even if the home is paid for," Whitaker said.

- Pattern of displacement for black residents slowly creeping into River Park

River Park is no longer under the vise of segregation, but early days of black settlement in Naples displays a pattern of displacement that forced many residents to leave their homes. Some current dwellers say this pattern, now brought on by ongoing development, is rearing its head in River Park again.

Descendants of some of the first black residents in Naples say that families still living in River Park started out in the area known as the "Ditch Bank," one of the first black sections in Naples.

According to Joy Murphy, Collier County Museums' curator of education, this settlement came about at a time when many owners wouldn't sell homes to black residents, putting those individuals at the mercy of rental conditions in less desirable areas. Some of the other early black residents lived in the Sawmill Quarters, which were shacks built by a local sawmill for black employees, she said.

Kevin McCarthy, a retired University of Florida professor and author of multiple books about African Americans in Florida, writes about Naples' early black communities in "African American Sites in Florida."

According to the 2007 book, black residents made the Ditch Bank their home in the 1920s, years before integration swept into Southwest Florida. Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in Naples, was founded in 1929 within the Ditch Bank community.

For a while, Macedonia Baptist services were held in various locations within the Ditch Bank community but eventually moved in 1953 to a permanent structure that still exists today in River Park. The church moved with the community that created it, as black residents of Naples eventually moved out of the Ditch Bank to make way for development.

"As whites moved into South Florida and wanted the best land, which was usually close to big bodies of water, anybody who lived there was evicted," McCarthy told the Naples Daily News. "Little by little, the blacks were relocated to inferior places of the state."

Fort Myers contractor J.C. McDonald sought to develop the Ditch Bank land, around where the Crayton Cove area is today, and built a new housing community, McDonald's Quarters, as replacement rentals for black residents in 1949, according to Murphy.

The quarters are described as a "99-unit black housing development" in a 1970 Naples Daily News article, and a 1977 article referred to the dwelling units as "shacks."

Many of the residents who were living in the Ditch Bank relocated to McDonald's Quarters in the early 1950s. The housing, however, was built without proper plans, Murphy said, and the units did not provide adequate living conditions.

Just two years after the quarters were built, they were rated as "deplorable" in a City of Naples master plan in 1951, according to a 1975 Naples Daily News article. Additionally, Collier County's health director in 1979 said that the quarters' housing conditions were the worst he had seen in 30 years in public health, according to an article from that year.

"People continued to live there, and Mr. McDonald refused to fix them up," Murphy said. "They just got worse."

Housing in the quarters was eventually demolished by the city after the construction of George Washington Carver Apartments. Many of the former residents of the quarters moved into the new housing complex.

Some, however, had to "leave town" due to larger families being unable to live in three-bedroom apartment units, Murphy said.

- Longtime residents value historic roots in River Park

Jackie Dean, 63, a retired Collier County Public Schools bus driver and Macedonia church member for over 50 years, moved to River Park after living in McDonald's Quarters with her mother. Before that, however, her mother resided in the Ditch Bank community.

"My mother moved from McDonald's Quarters to River Park, and she worked three jobs to get us a home over there in the River Park East area," Dean said.

Dean's mother died in 2011 and left her home on 13th Street North to her daughter, who has lived there ever since.

"A lot of my friends have moved because the cost of living is so high in Naples, but I'm not going anywhere," Dean said. "My roots are here. This is all I know ... and I just love the community. This is where it started for me, and this is where I plan to be when it ends."

She said that she can continue to live in the area she loves because she inherited a house without a mortgage and collects disability benefits.

"Other than that, I probably couldn't make it here myself," she said.

Whitaker grew up in the neighborhood with her mother and is known as an "unofficial historian" for the area. She now lives in Golden Gate Estates but is the church clerk for Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. She also volunteers with the Collier Resource Center.

Whitaker said that the lengthy history of black displacement in Collier County is repeating itself, with more and more families moving out of Naples to secure cheaper living arrangements.

"This is our history, and I just wish we could keep it," Whitaker said with a sigh. "Whenever anybody sells, it's usually a developer or investor that gets it."

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Information from: Naples (Fla.) Daily News, http://www.naplesnews.com