Stretching along 11 miles of downtown waterfront, well-preserved green gathering places lure residents and tourists alike more than 100 years after a city founder presciently noted their impact. ¶ As the city celebrates the waterfront's centennial, longtime residents reflect on a character first noted on Christmas Eve 1909 by William L. Straub when he called the waterfront parkland the best Christmas present St. Petersburg had ever received. ¶ As a fourth-generation St. Petersburg native, architect Philip Graham Jr. recalls the parks of his youth.
"Growing up here, I remember those parks being filled with Australian pine trees and people playing chess under their canopy," Graham said. "I spent my younger years running downtown. It was my playground, really."
In October, the city began marking the waterfront's centennial with a yearlong celebration of festivals, lectures, movies, tours and outdoor events. Visit stpeteparks100.org for more information.
Graham, 64, now a board member of the Pioneer Park Foundation, remembers his 1950s youth as a safe, wonderful time. He often scaled the coconut palms street-side and relaxed near Spa Beach's concession stand.
The Spa Beach pool and the Pier were gathering places, with vendors selling kitsch, including shell art and painted turtles at the Pier. He recalled talent shows where visitors would exhibit their skills before returning to the adjacent green space.
"The parks were quite shaded and comfortable," he said. "It was one of the prime reasons people came here, for a wonderful climate, and the parks celebrated that."
When downtown waterfront commercialization was pushed by some in the early 1980s, Graham became involved and produced the St. Petersburg Downtown Waterfront Parks Plan. The parks were kept pristine as development, including BayWalk, was forced inland. Graham worked on the master plan that redefined the parks.
"We have this wonderful greenbelt that runs along our shoreline that's second to none," he said. "It creates an environment of physical comfort and a wonderful buffer."
Like Graham, Peter Belmont, 55, serves on the Waterfront Parks Centennial Celebration's steering committee. The 35-year city resident and committee co-chair said all one needs to do is think of Tampa's well-developed waterfront to be grateful.
"I think the easiest comparison for us is all we have to do is look at their waterfront across the bay and appreciate how wonderful ours is," Belmont said. "It's the landmark feature of the city and has provided a way to attract tourism over the decades."
"Even I'm amazed by the number of people who come from different places for activities in the parks," he said. "I think the lifeblood of St. Petersburg has always been tourism."
The waterfront parks' reputation has also been obvious to fourth-generation native Niel Allen. The local Realtor remembers playing in Straub Park's banyan trees. The 47-year-old recalls swimming at the North Shore Pool and seeing spring training games at Al Lang Field.
The parks play a role in not only tourism, but the city's development downtown, he said. He cited the Cloisters along Beach Drive as a property that developed because of the parks.
"It has encouraged the influx of residential folks along Beach Drive," he said. "It has encouraged folks to come back downtown and enabled other businesses to follow."