ST. PETERSBURG — In the early 1980s, city planners drew a Magic Marker around an enormous swath of land they hoped would improve downtown, maybe even save it. They had cleared every hurdle and cleared out every piece of land on property earmarked for what they were calling the Florida Suncoast Dome.
Soon they could build it, and a baseball team would surely follow.
Only Abe Katz, an independent grocer, stood in their way.
The city's lawyers ratcheted up pressure on Katz Grocery for two years, but its owner refused to budge.
"I remember going there when it was the only building left," said his son-in-law, Marc Horowitz. "Everything else had been razed."
Though he didn't like the price, Mr. Katz had another reason for standing firm: his customers. Mr. Katz cashed their welfare and payroll checks, deciphered their legal documents and sometimes even taught their children to drive. He felt like an important part of a neighborhood that was rapidly being displaced.
They needed each other.
Mr. Katz, the last holdout before the domed stadium went up, died Wednesday. He was 87.
"We remember a man who was humble, innocent, sweet, happy and genuine," Rabbi Jacob Luski on Friday told a packed Congregation B'nai Israel, where Mr. Katz had been a member for more than 50 years.
He moved to St. Petersburg from Maine in the mid 1930s. His parents, Isaac and Viola Katz, had been urged by friends in St. Petersburg to relocate and set up a store. "In those days, the Jewish community was small," said Sandy Brasch, Mr. Katz's daughter. "Most of them owned grocery and sundry stores."
Those friends, the Rothblatts, had a 5-year-old daughter named Bunnie — who, shortly after meeting Abe Katz, six years her senior, declared she would one day marry him.
Abraham Katz dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help run the store at 1056 Third Ave. S. He took over the store after his father's death in 1945. He married Bunnie six years later.
He sold meat and dry goods, engaging customers with innate curiosity.
"He was incredible," said Horowitz, 52. "He'd shake your hand and say hello. He'd ask you a question and really want to know the answer. And he'd remember it the next time he saw you."
He trusted customers and asked for trust in return.
"Don't steal," the rabbi remembered him saying. "You need diapers? I'll give you diapers. You need a loaf of bread? I'll give you a loaf of bread. But don't steal."
Mr. Katz worked at the store from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., and broke up the day with an afternoon nap. He took multiple showers each day, always with a fresh towel.
"On the first of the month he would go to the bank and bring back gobs of cash," said Horowitz. "Everybody knew he had that cash, and he was never touched. He took care of the community."
The neighborhood repaid him with loyalty.
"In the 1970s we had disturbances going on," said his daughter, Sandy Brasch. "His customers literally stood in front of his store all night with guns, protecting it. There was such a respect."
Sunday mornings, he collected rents on property he owned. His daughter waited in the car.
"If they owed 50 bucks in rent, he'd come out and have loaned them 100 bucks," she recalled.
Mr. Katz took a harder line with the city. In 1985, the city seized property south of Central Avenue for the stadium under eminent domain laws. Officials offered Mr. Katz $70,000, the appraised value. No deal.
"They offered him a beggar's pittance and thought he would just go away," said son-in-law Horowitz. "He was an older man. I don't think they expected him to continue."
In 1986, city attorneys advised the City Council to fork over $220,000 —$200,000 to Mr. Katz, and $20,000 for attorney's fees. The council rejected the deal, calling the price too steep.
The pressure wore on Mr. Katz.
"He couldn't imagine his life without being in a position to help people," said Brasch, 54. "He wondered what they would do."
In 1987, fearing a negative outcome in court, the city agreed to pay Mr. Katz $200,000 plus attorney's fees —nearly three times their original offer. Four weeks later, Abe and Bunnie Katz watched as bulldozers knocked down their store.
Mr. Katz, then 65, devoted more time after that to his rental properties and to Congregation B'nai Israel, where he greeted incoming parishioners.
Ten years ago, the synagogue honored Mr. Katz as a Ha tam Torah, or "husband of the Torah."
Benjamin Towers, near the synagogue, named its cafe Katz' Korner after him.
As Alzheimer's disease sapped his memory, Bunnie Katz visited him daily at Menorah Manor, bringing cookies and coffee.
The grocery store's location is now part of Tropicana Field's parking lot.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.