Sunday, November 18, 2018
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Neighborhood Profile: Driftwood, St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

It was 1993 when cosmopolitan Frenchman Emmanuel Roux decided he wanted to move to St. Petersburg.

Born in Tunisia and also raised in France, Roux, a restaurateur who once owned the Garden on Central Avenue, had many places to measure St. Petersburg against.

In addition to living on the Tunisian farm owned by his French expatriate parents and living and studying in France, Roux previously lived in England, Switzerland (where he studied hotel management) and desolate parts of Algeria, Niger and Mali (where he did oil research). Roux also sailed the globe to serve in the French navy. In 1975, he moved to the United States to live in New York City and then moved to Savannah, Ga.

By the 1990s, this man of the world wanted to find the best spot in St. Petersburg. To get the lay of the land, he said, he started in the city's northeast and drove south along the edge of Tampa Bay until he happened upon Driftwood, a neighborhood of narrow, barely paved streets lined — and sometimes, detoured around — with towering oaks and indigenous plants allowed to grow as they will.

Fait accompli. Roux had found it. The spot he wanted to live. Except, then, like now, there was nothing for sale in the neighborhood of fewer than 50 homes that hugs the northern edge of Big Bayou. Houses are sold by word of mouth. They seldom reach the market. As luck would have it, the affable foodie ran into a woman at an art show who lived in Driftwood and had a neighbor who was going to rent her house. He moved in, renting for two years until an artist dining at his restaurant told Roux he was selling his house and building another in Driftwood. Roux snapped it up.

And then, two years after becoming a Driftwood homeowner, he married Jennifer Hardin, who frequented his restaurant as curator at the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.

She had been living in Pass-a-Grille but was happy to move to Driftwood, a neighborhood that draws like-minded creative types: artists and teachers, writers and poets, actors and theater people.

Roux and Hardin, as well as the former owners, maintained the integrity of the house built in 1939. It is one of the 19 original homes built in the 1930s in the enclave surrounding the Mullet Farm, which was built in 1910 by shipbuilder Barney Williams, who was the son of John Williams, a co-founder of St. Petersburg and namesake of Williams Park.

Driftwood's colorful past makes it all that much more appealing to its bohemian residents. It was once a landing site for bootleggers smuggling in alcohol during Prohibition. It also claims the distinction, detailed in a historic marker, of being the only site in Pinellas County that was fired upon during the Civil War.

All sorts of artifacts have been unearthed in Driftwood. A shell fort believed to have been used by American Indians. A Civil War cannonball. An old rosary box. Prehistoric stone tools and arrowheads. Items continue to be found in periodic archaeological digs in the neighborhood.

All that is fascinating to Roux, who owns Gateau O Chocolat, a mostly email-order company that makes and sells gluten-free, flourless chocolate cakes. Wearing a jacket and tie on a recent sweltering day, Roux proudly pointed out spots of interest on a stroll through the neighborhood.

From his home within yards of the arching Driftwood sign that sits at the main entrance of the neighborhood off First Street SE, Roux walked about a block to a wooden gate that displays a "No Trespassing" sign. He opened it and walked through.

A short, canopied path led to a wooden landing at the Big Bayou water's edge. From the lawn chairs scattered about on it, one could see across the bayou to Coquina Key and beyond the inlet, the expanse of Tampa Bay.

The path and the view at the end of it are communal property, giving all residents a bit of "waterfront property" on this little tropical slice of heaven.

Patti Ewald is a freelance journalist living in Gulfport. Contact her at [email protected]

     
         
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