In 1994, a scrappy city tried to put on its best face for a gargantuan national event.
Charlotte, N.C., was in the hot seat then, hosting the NCAA men's basketball Final Four in a downtown described by the New York Times as a "somnolent streetscape of abandoned buildings and vacant lots."
How would the city entertain a crowd of 80,000?
Fake a nightlife. Open the old savings and loan and tell Fat Tuesday's to start mixing jungle juice. Call it the Street of Champions.
"I wouldn't even call this second-class," a tourist in town from Tampa told a reporter. Tough talk from a guy whose own city center was no better.
But our downtowns have woken up since then. Right?
In August, the Republican National Convention will draw 50,000 delegates, protesters and assorted hangers-on. They'll put up a pop-up megaclub and hold private parties. And the local spots will stay open late.
But on any weeknight, what is the baseline of nightlife in downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg?
The Times dispatched a team Wednesday to investigate. The rules were simple: no cabs, no cars. The streetcar to Ybor City would have been an option except it was closed by 10 p.m., about the time post-convention parties will start each night.
Here are some glimpses from a Night of Champions:
• • •
10:48 p.m. — the Riverwalk, overlooking the Garrison Channel, Tampa
Wind rustles the palm trees as water laps the sides of yachts docked on an empty boardwalk. The quiet sounds like crickets and the whoosh of taxi cabs.
Across the water at Jackson's Bistro, liquor spouts are covered with paper cups and the bar is being wiped clean. A herd in khakis and loafers wanders across the Harbour Island bridge toward downtown.
Patrons at the octagon-shaped Sail Pavilion trade jabs during a game of corn toss.
Others have found Champions Sports Bar at the Marriott Waterside Hotel, where men in bright polo shirts clutch cigars and orbit the few females sprinkled among them. They close in on a young brunette with side-swept bangs, sipping white wine.
But she leaves for the elevator, alone.
• • •
11:20 p.m. — Vue 19, St. Petersburg
Through a set of glass doors, behind a sushi bar, past bouncers wearing ear pieces, up 19 floors of a high-rise that once housed a Bank of America, ladies night has calmly commenced.
Vue 19 opened with mystery in February, when neighbors saw purple lights flash from the window. Owners drew a well-heeled clientele to the white snakeskin benches and beaded chandeliers. But on a Wednesday after a rainstorm, there is room to spare.
"We have off tomorrow," says Amanda Knight, whose Taco Bell co-worker wears platform heels.
"It's ladies night, but … "
Knight, 24, looks around and shrugs. She sips her tequila and pineapple as Rihanna sings:
Want you to make me feel like I'm the only girl in the world …
• • •
12:30 a.m. — Durty Nelly's, St. Pete
"I'm not letting her back in," says the bouncer. "Too drunk."
A blond with slitted eyes staggers away from the door as smoke pours into the street, promising a distraction from intelligent conversation and shirts with actual necklines.
Inside, couples grind, amateur breakers spin on a filthy floor and a sloppy dance battle brews between several portly men. Their friend watches, steadied for safety against a pool table. His shirt says, "I'm That Guy."
One television shows football; another, the Christian channel.
"Happy birthday to Amanda Palmer!" says the DJ. "Where ya at, girl? I need a hug!"
The birthday girl bounds from around the corner, opens her arms and unleashes the ubiquitous club girl "WOOOO!"
• • •
1 a.m — Fly, Tampa
Across downtown, workers roll boxes of Solo cups into an empty Channelside. But at this upscale N Franklin Street restaurant, you can still order a $9 cocktail of fennel-infused Bombay gin and local orange blossom honey.
There are not many takers.
The kitchen closed two hours ago. The rooftop bar? Desolate. The jazz drummer chats outside with bar staff. The management, they say, has planned a meeting Friday to discuss strategy for the big convention.
Taylor Caum, a 26-year-old bartender with 1950s greaser hair and a tattoo of the state of Florida, has great expectations for business — "like, if the Super Bowl would be downtown."
Tonight, however, only one bar still has a scene. He plans to go.
• • •
1:45 a.m. — Mandarin Hide, St. Pete
Samantha Schweihofer, decked in gold harem pants, is here from New York City. It's her 22nd birthday. Her entourage started the night in Clearwater, but couldn't find anything to do.
By the time they get to this self-proclaimed mixology lodge, with its mounted buffalo head and claw foot tub, jazz night is over. They squeal when the bartender produces a champagne bottle topped with a sparkler.
"Oh my God," Schweihofer says, cupping her hands around it. "This is so awesome! … Wait, is this going to burn my hair?"
They take a moment to filter their iPhone photos through Instagram, then pour four glasses.
"To friendship!" they toast.
• • •
1:45 a.m. — the Hub, Tampa
The Elvis-coiffed Fly bartender joins service staff from across the city who cap their night here.
There are dives, and then there is the Hub. The drinks are stiff. The nicotine air thick. Someone brought a pit bull.
A homeless couple put on a show. The man kneels before the woman on the checker board floor and shouts, "Baby girl!"
From a cracked leather stool, 35-year-old steak house worker Cody Mantell smiles.
"That's why I like this place," he tells a reporter. "This is the only bar in Tampa where I can meet a professional like you and someone like that."
Before the night is over, the dancing woman will approach the Times reporter, grab his nipple, and squeeze.
• • •
2:41 a.m. — the Emerald, St. Pete
Steven Adams hunches over the bar, Fruit of the Looms poking from his camouflage shorts. A tattoo across his naked back says "BEAST MODE," framing — a trend? — the state of Florida.
"I did two years," he hollers. "I used to be a crack-dealing, coke-dealing, weed-dealing dealer."
At this Central Avenue haunt feeding you one last drink since 1950, he blends into the wood-paneled, frowner culture scenery. It's home to punk rockers, lonely old men in Panama Jack hats and bartenders who just clocked out from Durty Nelly's.
They pay in cash, drink from plastic cups and don't complain.
This is reality. This is twinkling green Christmas lights and sticky floors and oil paintings of gas masks. This is where everyone knows everyone, Republican, Democrat, convicted felon.
Adams, 25, was born and raised in St. Petersburg. He says he's training to be a tattoo artist.
His friend knocks over a bar stool. "You have five minutes to be outside," the bartender announces over a megaphone.
Seven minutes later, three people swallow a line of brown shots. "It is time to go," the bartender says. "Love you long time."
They swill the last back-washed dregs of beer and shuffle out the front door. Adams heads for the back alley.
Times staff writers Kameel Stanley, Michael Van Sickler, Caitlin Johnston and Justin George contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected]