We arrived in St. Petersburg in 1977 when the city felt like a ruin. I had a new job with a good newspaper, we were attracted to the warm weather, the gorgeous sunsets, the soaring pelicans and the blackened grouper sandwiches.
Before long, Doc Webb’s famous drugstore was gone. The Vinoy Hotel decayed to a house for vermin and vagrants. A mostly empty downtown would be populated by the old and infirmed. We were a national joke, the world’s largest open-air mausoleum, a place for the newly wed and nearly dead.
But look at us now, baby!
I found a marker of our progress recently, a souvenir booklet published by the then St. Petersburg Times to celebrate the 1976 Bicentennial. It was called Sunrise 200: A Lively Look at St. Petersburg’s Past. The author was the newspaper’s most popular columnist, Dick Bothwell. Illustrations came from Jack Barrett, the best deadline portrait artist in the business.
The 96 pages glowed with sunshine and optimism, until the final section, looking to the city’s future. “Gloomy, leaden clouds still seem to hang over the local economy,” wrote Bothwell. “The threat of $1 per gallon gas haunts the travel industry. Householders worry about the price of oil and their electric bills.” He expressed concerns about the construction industry, tourism, transportation and taxation.
“Clouds, clouds, clouds,” he concluded, describing the Sunshine City in the aftermath of a serious recession.
As I thought of where we were then and where we have arrived, especially with concerns about inflation, I decided to engage in some simple economics research. With the help of a trusty inflation calculator, I plugged in the amount $1 for a hypothetical gallon of gas, and the date 1977. Something that cost a dollar back then, would cost $5.21 now. I filled up my car recently at $3.50 per gallon. A little math to put things into perspective.
Twelve pillars of greatness
Reading that old text almost a half century later, I began to brainstorm the institutions and leaders who moved St. Pete from senescence to fluorescence to renaissance. My list is personal and, I’ll admit, shallow in its evidence. But each element, in my experience, contributed to our progress as a community.
- The Dali Museum: The Morse family owned a collection of Dali paintings in Cleveland and put an ad in the Wall Street Journal expressing his desire to move it somewhere where it will get more attention. It begins its life here in a converted boat house on 8th Street South, and then moves and expands near the waterfront. Before you know it, St. Pete was on the path to become a city of great museums. The museums would influence all the visual arts, until the city itself became a canvas for the creation of magnificent murals.
- The Tampa Bay Rays: No one knows if the Rays will stay in St. Pete or even in the Tampa Bay region. Even if they move, we can be grateful that the team did its job. The Rays gave St. Pete a profile that built on its history as a site for spring training baseball. Joe Madden gets credit for turning the Rays into a winning team, taking us to the World Series. Special praise goes to Mark Ferguson, owner of Ferg’s Bar and Grill. He had a vision.
- The Vinoy/Pier revivals: A grand hotel in walking distance from a glorious pier marked the boom times of the Roaring Twenties in St. Pete. City government created significant barriers to ugly development along our waterfront. It took a while, but a deteriorated Vinoy was restored and an unwieldy inverted pyramid was replaced by a splendid seaside district of activity.
- The mayors: I am no political prognosticator, but I have voted for every single mayor of St. Pete since the days of Corinne Freeman. Our progress as a city has been predicated on the practical skills of a series of good mayors, my favorites being Ulrich, Fischer, Baker, Kriseman and Welch. The evolution of a weak mayor system to a strong mayor system, in a generally non-partisan setting, made all the difference.
- The MLK Parade: Our city has had its share of traumas and controversies when it comes to matters of race, going back to those famous green benches, upon which our Black residents were not welcomed to rest. But from its earliest days, St. Pete knew how to host a parade. When it came time to celebrate in a fun and soulful way the life and times of Dr. King, our city found a way to express its diversity.
- USFSP and SPC: Those eight capital letters represent two important education institutions, St. Petersburg College (which graduated my wife and three daughters) and the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida. Special praise goes to my high school friend, Dr. Bill Law, who extended SPC’s reach on 22th Street South. As long as the main campus of USF respects the integrity and practical independence of the St. Pete campus, USF can serveas cornerstone in an innovation district that extends from the Bayboro Harbor to centers of medical excellence up the hill.
- Gay pride: Raise up the rainbow flags, folks. Cheer on your drag queens. Visit Tombolo Books, which rescued the city after the closing of Haslam’s, and savor the feelings of freedom, tolerance, social justice and hope. We say gay, we sing and dance gay, we read gay, we marry gay, we spend gay, we create gay, we love gay, and no one can stop us.
- Coffee shops and breweries: We can thank the millennials for providing the antidote to the poison that St. Pete was some gigantic old folks’ home. We celebrate our younger brothers and sisters for turning this town into St. Petersbrew. You can wake up with a coffee brew in the morning, and relax with a beer brew at night.
- The writers and journalists: This publication, The Catalyst, has contributed significantly to the news coverage of St. Petersburg. In spite of the general decline of metropolitan newspapers, the Tampa Bay Times remains the best news organization in the State of Florida. The Times helped turn St. Pete into a City of Writers. St. Petersburg Press is publishing excellent books. Maureen McDole created Keep St. Pete Lit. Our first three poet laureates, Peter Meinke, Helen Wallace, and Gloria Munoz continue to inspire us all. A cool city needs cool writers.
- Bob Devin Jones: I doubt there is any single person who has done more for the cultural life of this city than the man who created thestudio@620. An actor, director, writer, and entrepreneur, he built a space for creative artists in every discipline. His answer to new ideas, he says, is always “yes.” His space on First Avenue South is a microcosm for all of the exhilarating performance spaces in St. Pete, including the Palladium, under the direction of the multi-talented Paul Wilborn.
- Shops on Central: I worked at 556 Central Avenue for six years, in a converted bank building, now vacant, next to the Emerald Bar. Credit goes to all the small businesses and artists who opened their doors from the waterfront to Route 19. As leases became more expensive, those funky folks moved west on Central, or north up on MLK, or south in what used to be the industrial areas from the Trop to what is now the Factory zone off 28th Street South. Good stuff finally happening on my end of 34th Street towards Eckerd College.
- Kenny Irby: I leave for last on this good list my dear friend the Rev. Kenny Irby, pastor of the historic Bethel AME church in St. Petersburg. When I met him at the Poynter Institute, he was a leader among photojournalists across the country and the world. There and elsewhere, he created educational programs for young men and women of color, such at The Right Field and Men in the Making. He built bridges between the city and police department and local communities. In 2016 the mayor appointed him to serve St. Pete as its first director of community intervention, someone who can aid families and neighborhoods at moments of crisis.
If I were to mark a decline in certain St. Pete institutions since 1977, I would begin with the city’s public schools. In spite of great efforts by many stakeholders, including the Pinellas County School System, the re-segregation of neighborhood schools has hurt all of us. When we arrived, neither Black families nor white families wanted their children bussed to distant schools to fulfill a court order. That said, no better system has been created to bridge a learning gap that was made worse during the pandemic. If I had one wish for all of us it would be to work together to improve our schools, especially from pre-school through high school.
Other lesser complaints: All those tall buildings are blocking out the sun in the Sunshine City, too many lanes are blocked for construction, and I’ll be darned if I can find a parking place.
Roy Peter Clark is a writing coach at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.