ST. PETERSBURG — There will be dancing in the parks Saturday, not to mention kite flying, fire eating, volleyball and a myriad of fun happenings, all of which will be topped with birthday cake.
St. Petersburg is celebrating the 100th birthday of its waterfront parks, an approximately 23-block expanse stretching from Albert Whitted Airport north to Coffee Pot Bayou.
Organizers of the free festivities laud the foresight of men like St. Petersburg Times editor William Straub, developer C. Perry Snell and other movers and shakers of the day who pushed to preserve the swath of waterfront property for public use.
Their legacy of water-lapping parks has made St. Petersburg the place it is today, said Will Michaels, former director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
"They add to the ambiance of the city, and they are important economically,'' said Peter Belmont, vice president of St. Petersburg Preservation and chairman of the waterfront parks centennial steering committee.
Michaels called the creation of the parkland "one of the best decisions that has ever been made by our city leaders.''
It was a hard-won victory. Some residents had other ideas. They wanted to expand the commercial port facility for fishing and processing and to build and expand the railroad, said Michaels, former president of St. Petersburg Preservation.
Straub, though, wanted to preserve the natural beauty of the waterfront, said historian Ray Arsenault, writing in his book, St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream.
"Like many progressive reformers, he considered public parks as a prerequisite for community order and well-being,'' Arsenault wrote.
The parks eventually were cobbled together from land purchased by private citizens and the Board of Trade on behalf of the city.
"There were no funds, and public-spirited citizens came to the rescue with their personal credit — as was often done in those early days when the city needed something it could not at that time pay for," Straub said in his 1929 book History of Pinellas County, Florida.
The first waterfront deeds were signed over to the city in January 1909, and the parks were officially dedicated in 1910. It had taken several years of effort, led by people whose names would become part of St. Petersburg's history: Straub, Snell, Roy. S. Hanna, A.F. Bartlett and A.T. Blocker.
"Although later generations would hail the public waterfront as a masterpiece of urban planning, many of Straub's contemporaries were not pleased by the triumph of his naturalist crusade,'' wrote Arsenault.
"Not everyone preferred pelicans and palms to stevedores and packing crates. Many taxpayers were angered by the city council's willingness to spend their money on greenery and scenic walks.''
Still, said Michaels, Straub believed in building consensus and worked with groups to make the project happen. He saw opportunity when C.A. Harvey wanted to create a new development in what is now the Old Southeast neighborhood by using fill from what is now Bayboro Harbor. It was a good way to keep the downtown area for parkland and public cultural facilities, while creating the commercial area that others wanted, Michaels said.
Other controversies would later arise. In the 1930s, black residents unsuccessfully fought their exclusion from most of the downtown waterfront. In 1955, six African-American leaders sued to end segregation at the city's downtown swimming spots. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor two years later.
The yearlong Waterfront Parks Centennial celebration, which began on New Year's Eve, has featured a round of festivals, lectures, movies, tours and entertainment.
Michaels is afraid that the parks might be taken for granted.
"We don't look beyond the nice green areas and the benches and the yacht basins to appreciate how the dedication of the downtown parks has impacted our city,'' he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.