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How did we get here? St. Pete’s path from ruin to redemption

Roy Peter Clark

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The "new" St. Pete Pier: "A splendid seaside district of activity." Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5.  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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

 

 

 

 

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19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Dylan Hindport

    August 4, 2023at2:20 pm

    Great article. I think the city has a profound opportunity to create and manage its own schools and foster and support small businesses, especially in the Black community, with so much state funding available in education now. It should seize the opportunity to innovate

  2. Avatar

    Charles Payne

    August 3, 2023at11:37 pm

    Great article. I left for the USAF in 1976 at 20 years of age and didn’t return to St. Pete to live after my 4 year enlistment. I grew up in the waters of the old Pier and the shops in Central Plaza, particularly the one where the best ice cream in the city was served, and Tyrone Square Mall. I remember Webb City and other parts of the city. It was a great time! My dad, Charles Payne Sr. was very involved with the community, St. Pete Police Department and other organizations in St.Pete. He recently passed away on the 4th of July. He would tell me how City Officials were looking to ‘model’ St. Pete after the city I’ve lived in now since leaving the Air Force. Austin Texas. They’ve done a good job in ‘copying’ Austin’s culture which is both a good thing and not so much a good thing. You’ll see for yourself as the growth continues to move into South St. Pete.

    Regardless, after spending almost a month tying up loose ends with his estate and other matters, I’m in love with this city again. It’s absolutely gorgeous and if I could afford to move back (one of the drawbacks, but that’s pretty much everywhere right) I’d be packing my stuff as we speak. Love ❤️ the changes personally but it’s coming folks. Enjoy 😉

  3. Avatar

    Scott F Dixon

    August 3, 2023at8:08 am

    The thing that always stands out for me is when I relocated down here in 1984 for work with a compamy out of Pensacola, FL. I have been here since then as I called this my home now as me and my wife now have a Condo at the foot of the Sunshine Skyway bridge. We Love it here as she came over from the Dallas area as we met years after that.

    Yje thing that always amuses me are those green benches that were on every corner back then in 1984. I heard the nickname, that St Pete was Gods waiting room as Seniors were waiting for him as now I am a Senior just turned 65. I have been here since 1984 and will take my last breath here!

  4. Avatar

    Henry Sharon

    July 31, 2023at5:26 pm

    When I moved here from NJ in 1989 I used to tell my northern friends that you could roll a bowling ball down Central Ave after 8:00 pm and not hit anything. Fortunately I got over the “This is how we do it up North” mentality and began to enjoy my new home. I moved to Tampa in 2009 and no longer feel as comfortable visiting St. Pete. I feel its towers and crowds are causing it to lose its soul.

  5. Avatar

    Annie Lesso

    July 31, 2023at3:18 pm

    I remember when there were 3 restaurants downtown and 300 empty parking spots. Now there are 300 restaurants and you can’t find a parking spot. I do love the renaissance of our coastal city

  6. Avatar

    Richard Wood

    July 31, 2023at10:42 am

    When did old and infirm become a bad thing? I first visited in 1971, before that “unwieldy inverted pyramid” was even built. (Always seemed to attract a crowd after it was built.) I thought Webb’s City was kitschy, and the oldheads doddering along in Williams Park were sweet. I guess when you become overdeveloped and gentrified you’ll wonder where the sun went, behind all those nifty new highhrises.

    Sigh.

    Richard Russell Wood

  7. Avatar

    David S

    July 31, 2023at8:56 am

    Great article! I think another major factor in revitalizing downtown was the opening of BayWalk and the movie theaters. Even with the Rays, Fergs and the Dali Museum the crowds didn’t start to come regularly until Baywalk opened. The Movies,Fat Tuesdays, Dan Marino’s always had crowds and it spread from there. Baywalk may have ultimately been a victim of its own success as competing bars, restaurants and shops opened downtown.

  8. Avatar

    Davd

    July 31, 2023at7:44 am

    The real reason for the revival is the same as all urban revivals around the country. People wanting to move back to the urban environment and St. Pete was a blank canvas to work with.

  9. Avatar

    David Evans

    July 31, 2023at4:41 am

    Bravo on this piece! While I was a 2005 transplant, there is so much of the “recent” history of St Pete that interests me. It has always been a beautiful place for me, and I love hearing about what it was like before that and how it became the paradise it has become.

  10. Will Michaels

    Will Michaels

    July 28, 2023at3:57 pm

    Let’s also remember the good work of Preserve the Burg and the African American Heritage Association and others in documenting our history and helping us learn from it as well as celebrating and preserving what makes our city special.

  11. Avatar

    Anne Shamas

    July 28, 2023at7:27 am

    You forgot the impact the Florida International Museum had on downtown. The Titanic exhibit brought over 800k visitors to town. Cafes and restaurants grew up to feed them.

    I agree Bob Devin Jones had much to do with the resurgence.

    Thanks for a very insightful article.

  12. Avatar

    Frank Baptie

    July 27, 2023at9:43 pm

    Two names missing.

    James Martin, the Attorney who read the WSJ article and brought it to the attention of James Healy and other Leaders.

    And David Ellis, who co-founded the Studio @ 620 with my good friend Bob Devin Jones.

  13. Avatar

    Georgia Earp

    July 27, 2023at6:40 pm

    Thank you, Roy Peter Clark, for putting the City’s more recent history in perspective. I agree that all the construction creates new challenges.

  14. Avatar

    Roy Peter Clark

    July 27, 2023at6:03 pm

    A terrible oversight is the Jannus Landing block, all those musicians who attracted young people to the center of town. I saw the Ramones there. Thanks for those who corrected me. Roy Peter Clark.

  15. Avatar

    Danny E White

    July 27, 2023at5:25 pm

    Dave Goodwin: 100% agree on the business impact of the giants you mention.

  16. Avatar

    Dave Goodwin

    July 27, 2023at4:31 pm

    Nice piece. Some major business catalysts were also critical to the revival, Raymond James, Jabil, Home Shopping, Franklin Templeton among them. These foundational businesses are key to the success of the smaller businesses that we all love. And the contributions of Tom and Mary James to the art community can’t be overstated.

  17. Avatar

    Jane

    July 27, 2023at3:51 pm

    There is also the Albert Whitted Airport which is a jewel for this city. This airport elevates our tourism recognition as well as its contribution to our local economy, support to our healthcare infrastructure and its training programs introducing general aviation to local enthusiasts to support national pilot shortage. Hats off to Albert Whitted.

  18. Avatar

    Merk

    July 27, 2023at11:33 am

    Love this article. Rev. Irby is amazing and doing great work.

  19. Avatar

    Peggy West

    July 26, 2023at3:15 pm

    Nailed it! Great article.

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