A Sense of Place

It has been said that attachment to a place increases with the distinctiveness of that place. As big-box stores, fast-food chains, and sprawl overtake so many Florida cities, St. Pete has jealously guarded its charm and distinctiveness. And we love it for that. 

Join Preserve the 'Burg as we explore those aspects that make St. Petersburg so unique and lovable.

Video Series

In the new video series "A Sense of Place", Preserve the ‘Burg will explore the city’s unique personality in a series of one-minute videos. The series will offer a glimpse into those places and people that make St. Petersburg special.

Peyton's Sense of Place - An Essay Series by Historian Peyton Jones

  • 03 Jun 2020 2:12 PM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph.D. 

    This is the second article in a series on the Bay Plaza Development that was slated to remake downtown in the 1990's. To read the first article, click here: Bittersweet Memories of Bay Plaza

    The Developers

    The ambitious Bay Plaza project was a joint venture between the J.C. Nichols and Elcor Cos. (which together formed Bay Plaza Co.), and the city of St. Petersburg. 

    While the Phoenix-based Elcor was a relatively unknown entity, the J.C. Nichols Co. was a nationally established brand, having gained prominence for building the Country Club Plaza, an exclusive 55-acre shopping district in Kansas City, Mo.

    In the summer of 1989, after three years of negotiations, the Bay Plaza Co. officially became the city’s Master Developer. The Redevelopment Agreement created a public-private partnership, wherein the Bay Plaza Co. agreed to pay roughly seventy five percent of total project costs and to operate and manage three public attractions, the newly renovated pier, the Bayfront Center, and the soon-to-completed Suncoast Dome. For its part, the city agreed to contribute about $40 million dollars and to use its powers of condemnation and expropriation (eminent domain) to help the developers acquire the necessary parcels downtown. 

    Gordon Neil Elsey III was the founder of Elcor and, until 1991, the president of the Bay Plaza Co. A former property manager and investor, Elsey had no experience in commercial real estate development when he arrived in St. Petersburg. But with a taste for expensive suits, a new Jaguar, and celebrity friends like Hall-of-Fame Packers quarterback, Bart Starr, Elsey looked the part of a successful businessman. St. Petersburg Mayor Robert Ulrich, in 1988, referred to Elsey as “a visionary” and an “extraordinarily talented individual.” 

    Because the Redevelopment Agreement gave the Bay Plaza Co. an unprecedented level of autonomy, shielding the developer from the typical forms of public oversight, Elsey was able to keep up a charade for nearly five years. In 1991, facing mounting financial and legal troubles and a rash of bad press, Elsey stepped down and left town without having signed a single tenant. Nevertheless, the project moved forward.

  • 28 May 2020 9:37 AM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph. D.

    While the term “Bay Plaza” means little to most residents, here at Preserve the 'Burg, those words evoke bittersweet memories.

    In 1986, the city of St. Petersburg hired a national real estate conglomerate to serve as the city’s Master Builder and oversee the development of Bay Plaza, a $200 million downtown redevelopment project. With a sprawling shopping and commercial district linked to mid-city by a 3-block-wide pedestrian green along Central Ave., the ambitious Bay Plaza plan envisioned St. Petersburg as the retail and entertainment hub of South-Central Florida.

    But Bay Plaza never came to fruition. An economic downturn in the early 1990s ultimately doomed the project, but not before the demolition of several iconic historic structures, most notably the Soreno Hotel, built in 1924.

    Soreno Hotel - Postcard - ca. 1930-1945    Soreno Hotel - Tampa Bay Times 1/25/92

    When the Bay Plaza project folded for good, in 1996, the developers left behind acres of vacant lots and empty retail spaces, bitter business owners, millions of dollars in unpaid debts, and a galvanized historic preservation movement.

    Over the next few weeks, we are going to revisit the history of Bay Plaza in greater depth. The 1980s marked the dawn of a new era of metropolitan growth politics, when civic leaders who had lost faith in the ability of democratically elected governments to solve urban problems, entrusted the city’s economic future to private enterprise and unregulated markets.

    A more detailed look at the Bay Plaza story will help us better contextualize and understand the wave of controversial revitalization projects that radically transformed the city’s built environment in the Eighties and Nineties.
  • 14 May 2020 1:22 PM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph. D.

    Fifty years ago, retired mobile homeowners in St. Petersburg formed one of the most powerful political movements in Florida.

    It all started in 1961, when newly elected St. Petersburg city council member, Nortney Cox, picked a fight with mobile home owners over taxes. At the time, mobile homes were taxed in the same way as motor vehicles: owners paid an annual $10 license renewal fee. In St. Petersburg, the owners of the majority of the city’s 1,000 mobile homes rented lots in one of 33 parks, and thus paid little-to-nothing in property taxes. 

    For Cox, a small-time homebuilder, the tax system unfairly burdened owners of detached single-family homes (like the kind he built), and over the next three years he single-handedly waged a battle to reclassify mobile homes as real property and squeeze more revenue out of trailer parks.

    Mobile-home owners fought back. While not all were retirees living on fixed incomes, it was the pensioners and social security recipients who, at a meeting in Wilder’s Park (corner of 6th St. and 32nd Ave, formerly Bayou Lake Avenue) on April 2, 1962, organized the Federation of Mobile Home Owners. Within a decade, the FMO counted dozens of chapters and more than 50,000 members statewide.

    The organization first flexed its political muscle when it helped unseat Cox in the 1964 city council elections, and later when it successfully lobbied against a state law that would have forced owners to “tie down” their trailers. The work of the FMO culminated in the early 1970s with the passage of a “Mobile-Home Bill of Rights,” which enshrined into state law protections for mobile-home owners against unscrupulous business practices and crusading city officials.

    When we think about the urban social movements of the postwar era, retirees living in mobile homes don’t usually come to mind. But the FMO, and Florida mobile-home owners more generally, were in the vanguard of metropolitan tax revolts that swept across the nation in the Seventies and Eighties. 

    When Cox failed to get support for reclassifying mobile homes, he tried a variety of other approaches to make mobile-home owners pay, as shown in the Tampa Times article of December 5, 1961.

  • 08 May 2020 12:12 PM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph.D

    “Though April showers may come your way…they bring mowers that cut in May.” (St. Petersburg Times, 1957)

    William E. Beazley, shown center in the photo with his two sons, was born in London, England, in 1875. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Music as a classically trained organist, Beazley emigrated to the United States and eventually settled with his wife, Margaret, in St. Petersburg, in 1925, during the height of the land boom. 

    For nearly a decade, Beazley played the organ at the city’s most prominent entertainment venues, including the La Plaza and Florida Theaters. But when the advent of “talkies” and the onset of depression left him out of work and penniless, Beazley, by then in his mid-fifties, found a new line of work. 

    The musician threw his creative energy into a machine he dubbed the “Whirlwind,” an innovative lawn mower that he had designed and prototyped in his garage. Beazley’s mower was different than its predecessors in that instead of blades that rotated vertically, the Whirlwind featured adjustable, horizontally spinning blades powered by a small electric motor. Lightweight enough for a child to handle, the Whirlwind easily cut a 13-inch swath through tall weeds and thick Florida turf.

    After securing a patent for his rotary blade, the Beazley Power Mower Co. opened up shop at 1906 3rd Ave. S., and within a few years, Whirlwinds were cutting grass around the world, from the Panama Canal Zone to England, from Maine to Cuba. When William passed away in 1943, Margaret, along with her four children, operated the company until her death in 1964. 

    Beazley’s career straddled two historical eras. While post-WWII suburbanization created an ever-expanding market for lawn mowers, the related processes of urban renewal and redevelopment led to the demolition of the La Plaza and Florida Theaters and the destruction of a certain sense of place.

  • 28 Apr 2020 9:28 AM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph.D.

    More than one hundred years ago, anti-saloon sentiment animated local politics like no other issue, and on June 2, 1913, in a special referendum, Pinellas County residents voted 796 to 696 in favor of outlawing saloons and liquor sales for two years. In St. Petersburg, the “dry” votes outnumbered “wet” votes by a single ballot. 

    However, the “dry” victory was less an expression of widespread anti-saloonism and more a testament to the organizational prowess of unenfranchised middle and upper-class white women in St. Petersburg. Indeed, the prohibition of alcohol was part of a broader progressive agenda, and it was the local branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who, for years, led the charge against saloons.

    In the lead up to the 1913 referendum, the W.T.C.U. regularly published opinion-editorials excoriating the liquor interests and held rallies where national speakers decried the social evils of strong drink. On voting day, W.C.T.U. members handed out ice-cold lemonade at every precinct and held a prayer vigil at Grace Baptist Church, and after the “dry” vote carried the day, the organization sponsored “ratification and jollification” parties.

    To be sure, there was no shortage of spirits for the well-to-do and politically connected, especially with the opening of membership-only clubs and “wet” Tampa nearby.  

    Cartoon below from the St. Petersburg Times, July 3, 1913.

  • 27 Apr 2020 2:12 PM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph.D.

    Punk: A Florida Depression Definition

    A 1936 SPT Op-Ed criticized a new kind of Depression-era transient, the “Florida Punk,” a near-penniless tourist who had, lamented author Don Kent, introduced to the city a new beggar’s lingua franca. The punk was always “caught between checks.” The punk was the person at the lunch counter who, “a little short” on cash, hoped the meal was “on you.” More to the point, the punk was “one who has no money to spend NOW.”

    Kent’s Op-Ed appeared at a time when St. Petersburg’s economy had begun to rebound, albeit slowly, from the depression. However, the appellation—"one who has no money to spend NOW”—applied equally, if not more accurately, to the city itself, who for nearly three years, had been unable to meet its financial responsibilities and carried more than $20 million dollars in bonded debt. 

    Seems like the City had a little touch of "punk" itself!

    Creative: The St. Pete Depression Way to Save

    During the Great Depression, every Thursday from March through September with few exceptions, most shops, stores, and banks closed at noon. In addition to saving their employers a little money, these "half-holidays” gave workers a break, an opportunity to get outside and take advantage of the long sunny days, or perhaps catch a flick at one of the city’s “motion picture houses” (whose employees, apparently, didn’t get half-holidays).

    Oh, for the good ol' days of the Great Depression, where at least you could be broke on the beach!

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