Memories of the old 22nd Street South

03/18/09 Andrea Lypka
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The economic and cultural renaissance of the historic 22nd Street South in St. Petersburg takes community and city effort. And changes can already be seen.

New mom-and-pop businesses, schools, a bank, and new neighborhoods rise in Midtown. Will this place thrive again?

Many activists fought and fight for the revitalization of this district: Peggy Peterman, Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson, council member Wengay Newton, and the list goes on.

Back in 1965, Peggy Peterman often wrote about “black people's hopes, dreams, triumphs, tragedies, successes” for the St. Petersburg Times.

The Deuces, a special report published in the Times in 2002 sparked the revitalization effort of this area and inspired Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson’s book St. Petersburg’s Historic 22nd Street South in 2006.

Today, the 22nd Street Redevelopment Corp. carries out that vision. A part of the Midtown development is the Oral History Promotion Project initiated in February 2009.

Manager of the 22nd Street Redevelopment Corporation Steve Graves says this area is “the heart of the African-American community in St. Petersburg that has a rich history from the 1920s. Perhaps the busiest time was in the 1930s and 1940s until the 1960s desegregation,” he says. When people could move freely, many locals left Midtown.

He says that the economic boost and cultural revitalization project would require a community effort because of the city’s tight budget. Since the start of the project, many people with different ethnic background moved in and started businesses here.

“The diversity has come to the 22nd Street as opposed to other areas of the city,” but the project may take years Graves says.

The Oral History Project presents locals who make history. The stories of local people are posted on their website.

Lorene Whitehead-Office has lived in Midtown since 1954 and opened the Fish and Crab House, a carry-out and dine-in restaurant on 22nd Street South in Midtown 16 years ago. “I will be 59 in May. That’s a long time…,” she says. Before that she was selling barbecued ribs, chicken, and crabs in neighborhoods from her mobile truck.

Although she has always been famous for her garlic crabs, she can’t afford to buy crabmeat at $2.50 a pound because her business is slow. Recently, she closed down the dining area of her restaurant; she does not serve anymore breakfast, and she had to let go her two workers. “It is just slow for everyone but it can’t get worse,” she laughs.

In her store an article about President Barack Obama hangs on the wall with the word “hope.” Whitehead-Office hopes too -- for a better future. “More businesses on the street will bring more people in and they would try a little bit of everything. I am hoping for that.”

She doesn’t know why the streets are empty on that area. “It could be the economy, the buying of the properties, I really don’t know,” she says. A longtime resident in the area, Whitehead has also witnessed many changes in the neighborhood from segregation to desegregation, from a flourishing African-American business center to a place with empty buildings and lots.

“This area was very popular. When I became a young married woman, my husband, my cousin, and her husband would come here and look at the people. We would sit at Sno Peak and look at the people and listen to the music. That was an enjoyable evening. At that time, Sno Peak was selling chicken gizzards, hamburgers, and shakes,” she says. But the days when they would sit on cars at the Sno Peak and listen to music are gone. Sno Peak got demolished and the city bought the property but they haven’t started a business yet.

To make ends meet in her take out, Whitehead pays her bills late. “It’s gonna get better, I feel that,” she says. To reduce her expenses, she simplified the menu and she does not sell garlic crabs. “I have to change the menu because the people change. Right now I have younger customers. I was selling garlic crabs but crabs got expensive. The crab seller from Tampa just catches enough for his business in Tampa. So, I just wait because it will change and then I can go back to selling crabs. Then I will open this [restaurant] side of the business.” The restaurant part of the business has been closed since last year. She is still paying the rent because she opens it when business picks up.

Keith Harris president of the board at 22nd Street Redevelopment Corp., grew up in this area. He remembers the street full of artists and businesses. His mother used to sneak out through the window to listen to the music of Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson at the Manhattan Casino. When Harris was in his 20s, the place had a nightclub atmosphere; there were events held “but it wasn’t the same.”

This will change with the new revival projects. “We can bring it back to the city, to the county,” he says that he got involved in this organization because he recognized it as a liaison between community and city. “Our organization gives the local people a voice and it is also a voice when it comes to preserving their culture,” he says.

The Oral History is important for him because “we need their voices here for the future generations to grasp on it.”

Graves says 22nd Street South has a lot to offer and can inspire community support. It will become more than just a commercial and entertainment district; it will be a meeting point for the whole community, he says. “There is value here today, sometimes we are busy and we just drive by it. When I think about what was here, I always think I can do it.”

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