Around the dome, echoes of the past
By JAMES HARPER,
ST PETERSBURG -- In just two more days, thousands of people will come from all over for a revitalized city's Opening Day.
As they buy their cold drinks, peanuts and Cracker Jack, many will not know or perhaps even care what the real dirt under Tropicana Field supported before the dream of Major League Baseball was there.
It was a neighborhood of large houses, small businesses, apartments, tenement shacks, nightclubs and churches.
Its name was the Gas Plant, for the two giant fuel tanks that towered over the center of the neighborhood. When the bulldozers came in the early 1980s, clearing the way for what was then just a big gamble, the city erased one of its oldest African-American neighborhoods.
What it couldn't erase were the memories. Even today, the name Gas Plant brings a sigh of nostalgia to those who remember it. Middle-aged adults remember their childhoods. Old folks recall the families they raised. Preachers, the ones they baptized, married and buried.
Fifteen years later, many of those still alive say they are better off now. Homeowners moved to greener neighborhoods. Even some renters got enough relocation help from the city (up to $4,000) to make a down payment on a modest house. Three displaced churches have prospered.
Not everyone wanted to leave, though. Some had to be talked into it. Others left because they had no choice.
And the Gas Plant's disappearance, with so many other landmarks of St. Petersburg's early black life, diminished a community's sense of itself, several neighborhood veterans say. If a neighborhood could be so easily lost, why not conclude that the people who lived there must not have mattered much either?
Many also wonder about long-ago promises. Will the city's new tourist attraction mostly enrich the white business establishment? Or will more be done this time to ensure that opportunities are shared?
The Rev. Wayne Thompson, pastor of First Baptist Institutional Church, grew up in the Gas Plant in a series of rental houses.
Even today, at 48, Thompson can recall dozens of Gas Plant residents and businesses:
Another longtime business owner was Willie Mae Grayson, whom almost everyone knew by the nickname Bill.
Bill's Ronrico Tavern, at 938 Second Ave. S, had a 10-room hotel upstairs, where Pullman porters from the nearby train station and visiting baseball players often stayed.
Downstairs there was a piano and a hand-carved wooden bar. Sliding glass doors led to a full brick patio. Round tables with umbrellas and a barbecue pit provided a setting for fashion shows, club meetings and musical entertainment. A stairway led to a second-floor balcony and the hotel upstairs.
Grayson's husband was a cook who often traveled north with the tourist season. But Grayson knew how to run the business herself. Her parents had owned and operated a hotel in Panama City, where she lived before moving to St. Petersburg in 1924.
She was "a joyous woman" who enjoyed travel and visiting friends, said her daughter-in-law, Lois Grayson. But she could put her foot down, too, whether to a customer who drank too much or to the corporate managers of Webb's City, the white-owned superstore just north of her. They kept pestering her to sell them her building.
"She said she would never sell it," Lois Grayson remembers, "because that was a landmark place."
When the City Council first voted in 1979 to redevelop the Gas Plant, it planned to create a new neighborhood of up-to-date, affordable housing, with an industrial park for light manufacturing on the west end. Buildings worth saving on the east end, where Bill's was situated, would be refurbished.
"She thought they were going to bring back the whole neighborhood, so she continued to keep up her property," Lois Grayson said.
Three years later, however, those plans had changed. The whole neighborhood had to be leveled to make way for a baseball stadium. When the city finally got around to taking Grayson's building in 1985, all her neighbors were already gone.
After operating her business for 44 years, Grayson sold it to the city for less than she thought it was worth.
"I tell you," said Lois Grayson. "The moment they bought that place, she started to die."
She passed away three years later at age 79. Doctors said it was natural causes, "but I always knew it happened because of a broken heart," her daughter-in-law said.
Mildred Wheeler tells a happier story, although she acknowledges her emotional attachment to the Gas Plant is not as strong as others.
She was born there in 1917, but like many African-Americans of her generation, she moved north when she was old enough. She spent 30 years in Chicago, where she ran a beauty shop and owned rental property. When she was in her early 50s, her stepmother died.
She had planned to take her father back to Chicago. But while here for the funeral, her building there was destroyed in a fire.
"I say it was the works of the Lord," Ms. Wheeler says now. "I didn't have anything any more to hold me there."
So in 1971 she came home.
Her father had turned the huge home into a rooming house, and Ms. Wheeler wanted to remodel. But she knew the city might have other plans for the property. The southern spur of Interstate 275 into downtown already was coming a block south of her. Officials assured her that any other plans were at least a decade away. Fix whatever was necessary, they told her; just don't overdo it.
"I paneled the whole house inside, upstairs and downstairs, put in a kitchen and bath and made it comfortable," she said. She and her father lived downstairs and rented out four rooms upstairs.
Sure enough, the city kept its word. A decade later, officials gave her enough money to buy a spacious one-story, three-bedroom house on a curving street northeast of Lake Maggiore. She had one bedroom for herself, one for guests and one in which to keep her sewing. She planted grapefruit and calamondin trees in the backyard.
And when she moved in, the white woman across the street, who had refused to follow most of her neighbors when black folks started moving in, walked over and welcomed her to the neighborhood.
"It was a blessing to me that they took it," she says of her old house in the Gas Plant. "It was a blessing to all of us, because the neighborhood had gone on."
By 1986, this much was accomplished:
And in July of that year, the St. Petersburg City Council voted 6-3 to build a new baseball stadium. Construction began in November.
You might recall there was nothing about baseball in the original plan. That plan had promised to rebuild the neighborhood with new, affordable housing and a modern-day industrial p93777ark. The plan also promised in writing 600 new jobs, with combined salaries of $5.6-million, by the end of the 1980s.
Even that had been a tough sell.
For many Gas Plant residents, especially the elderly, the neighborhood was home despite what it lacked. At packed public hearings, residents and community activists complained that city officials had avoided their input.
Even the biracial Community Alliance, an arm of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, said the plan contained too many hazy assumptions, such as the willingness of new employers to relocate to the area.
When City Council members toured the area a few days before voting to approve the plan in September 1979, they saw dozens of people sitting on porches. But the council members refused to step out of their air-conditioned bus.
To be sure, the Gas Plant had seen better days. Its well-kept, owner-occupied houses often stood next to crowded tenements, which absentee landlords let deteriorate. Unemployed men loitered on vacant lots and drank in the streets. Even people like Lois Grayson had to admit the neighborhood had become a breeding ground for crime and illegal drugs.
But as often happens when officials see an area confronted by poverty and social dysfunction, the easiest response was simply to clear it away.
Meanwhile, a group of powerful Pinellas County business people had been trying since 1976 to figure out how to lure a Major League Baseball team to the area. Their strategy: build a stadium in hopes that baseball would come.
Most attention focused on several sites on the north end of St. Petersburg, convenient to Clearwater and the main bridge to Tampa.
But many of the baseball boosters had strong ties to downtown, including the publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, John B. Lake. They and then-City Manager Alan Harvey began lobbying City Council members to bring the stadium downtown.
When the idea of using the Gas Plant property came up at a May 1982 public meeting, one council member was bitter.
David Welch was the council's only African-American member, having become the first to unseat a white incumbent just one year before. Welch also worshiped at the Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ in the heart of the Gas Plant, where his brother Clarence was pastor.
A news account of the day described Welch's voice "rising and barely under control."
"When you went into this area and moved out all the people, you said you were going to rehabilitate and create light industry and create jobs," he said. "You have a moral obligation to those individuals who were moved out for what you have told them."
He promised court fights and serious repercussions from the black community if the baseball plan proceeded.
Six months later, the council voted unanimously to lease the 66-acre Gas Plant to the sports authority for $1 a year. Welch was among those who supported the offer.
Welch, in a recent interview, explained his change of heart. Despite the grand vision of the original plan, private developers weren't exactly knocking down City Hall's doors with money to spend. In fact, the city had gotten no responses to several requests for proposals.
Baseball, on the other hand, would bring people and big-league attention to the city's then-dormant downtown.
Other influential African-Americans followed suit. The Community Alliance endorsed the plan, as long as any proceeds from the sale of the Gas Plant were used to support poor people's needs in another location. (There were no such proceeds.) The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, led by the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, announced its support, as long as a percentage of the new stadium's concessions went to minority-owned businesses. (The idea never took.)
Lyons was pastor, then as now, of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, one of three churches that would have to be relocated to make room for baseball. Elder Clarence Welch led another one. A few months after the council's decision, Wayne Thompson came to pastor the third: First Baptist Institutional, one of the city's oldest, founded in 1896.
Thompson said his members had mixed feelings about leaving the familiar red-brick building at Third Avenue S and 16th Street. But all the ministers saw an opportunity to build for the future. City officials, mindful of the ministers' political influence, made sure their relocation offers were generous, Thompson said.
"The pastors gave their support (to the new plan), and the people backed our stands," he said.
First Baptist's stained glass windows and chandeliers which had been moved once before from the church's birthplace at Eighth Street and Second Avenue S, in Peppertown, another African-American neighborhood that no longer exists were carefully dismantled, reinforced, restored and reinstalled in the church's new sanctuary on 31st Street, 25 blocks due west.
Thompson said his church, like the others, has prospered in the 14 years since then. Active membership has doubled. The church's new location is actually closer to where many members now live.
But something also was lost, he said, and not just the landmarks of an old African-American neighborhood.
The corner markets, dry cleaners, hotels, barbershops and beauty salons that once supported the Gas Plant for the most part did not survive the transition. Small businesses form the backbone of any community, but they are especially important to black people, Thompson said, because they give youngsters a vision that they can make something of themselves.
Thompson is one of many African-Americans who complain that white politicians, white bankers and other white business leaders don't do enough to bring black entrepreneurs into the mainstream of the city's economy. They fear the same will happen with baseball, with most of the economic spinoffs going to enrich businesses that blacks aren't part of, except perhaps as employees.
And Jamerson, Florida's secretary of labor, said St. Petersburg needs to make good on a long-standing debt.
"Obviously I do not think the promises made (when the Gas Plant was leveled) have been kept," Jamerson said. "And I think the failure to keep faith with the commitments made to the people has been part of the underpinnings of the tension that has taken place in St. Petersburg."
An "unfortunate shooting" may have sparked the violent disturbances that rocked the city in 1996, he said, but it was white St. Petersburg's long history of double-dealing that "was really at the root cause of conflict in that community.
"My grandmother and others gave up their property on the expectation that people would have affordable housing. Light industry and jobs were promised We still haven't seen (that) come to fruition."
This story, which originally appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on March 29, 1998, is posted by permission of the St. Petersburg Times. Copyright 1998.
©1998-99 Olive B. McLin Neighborhood Family Center and University of South Florida.