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Take a look back at our memorable journey

Ah, my friends, we have come a long way together. It has been my joy to write about the city I grew up in, about my family, about my friends and acquaintances, for 28 years.

Can we talk a bit before I retire on Wednesday?

Actually, it's been more than 28 years. Unable to stay away from newspapering, even with my small children, I would fill in for vacationing staffers for a few months, then return to Girl Scouts, volunteer work and car pooling.

I had a one-year stint at the Times in 1956 B.C., Before Children. Then, many a Tampa matron came here to seek out the small specialty shops. On the north side, Central Avenue boasted Rutland's, Ruth's Fashion Corner, Lerner, Butler's Shoes, Willson-Chase, Walgreen, Liggett's, Child's Drug Store and Kress, McCrory's and Woolworth. Bruce Watters Jewelers, Saltz Shoes, the Poinsettia Restaurant, and that mecca for reporters, the Jockey Club Bar and Grill, were on the south side.

On First Avenue N, Maas Brothers made its debut in 1948, joining Clementine's, Peck and Peck, Carol Beecher, McIntyre's, Ermatinger's Men's Wear and Sherman's. Other popular shops included the Mari-Rae Shop, John Baldwin's, Mabel Racquet's and Louise Ainsworth's fine china.

Downtown boasted four theaters, countless hotels and restaurants. The Chatterbox, on the site of the Bayfront Tower, was a popular favorite, so was Maas' Sunshine Restaurant.

We at the St. Petersburg Times and the Evening Independent gave readers what they wanted in the way of a "women's section": pictures of hatted women at social events and flowery descriptions of weddings with receptions at the Soreno, Suwannee, Princess Martha and the Yacht Club.

"Gossip columns" reported North Carolina sojourns and college-age treks home from Gainesville. The annual St. Petersburg Debutante Ball alternated between the Vinoy and the Soreno Hotels. The Junior League and other groups had huge benefits. The Dragons and Squires men's social clubs held annual New Year's Eve dances at the Vinoy and Soreno, respectively.

Charlotte Herbert was the area's leading caterer, known for her petit fours and her exquisite wedding cakes trimmed with iced lace. News of the black community, which had its own debutante ball, was reported in a special section.

Social events, shopping, tourism, sailing and baseball _ those activities were the essence of St. Petersburg. It was a nice town to grow up in, and to raise children in.

The million-dollar Pier was a center of activity, although it was a little worn around the edges, with a rabbit warren of partitions and studios upstairs, where radio station WSUN emanated.

The 1960s saw St. Petersburg trying to shed its elderly image, banishing its famous green benches, even doing away with ramps at curbings, an accommodation this city had installed long before it was required by law.

A 1967 Times story found high schoolers' parents fretting over the cost of prom night. A rented tux cost $10.50, a corsage $5, a pre-prom dinner $15 to $20, and a breakfast $5. And then there was the cost of a hairdo for a girl, which ran $5.

Enthusiasm for the event was beginning to wane. The two oldest high schools still held to their traditions, with St. Petersburg High School having a 75 percent attendance and Gibbs, then an all-black high school, having 95 percent attendance.

I began working on a permanent basis for the Evening Independent in September 1968. For the next 18 years, until that spirited little newspaper merged with the Times in 1986, I wrote columns for many years, at the rate of five a week. I also did interviews and features. It was fun and fast, because we had an 11 a.m. deadline for the same day's paper.

After the newspapers merged, I continued with a twice-weekly column and various features with the Times.

The 1960s and '70s were years of change. Central Plaza, a product of the early 1950s, waned with the advent of Tyrone Square mall in 1972, and gradually, empty store fronts appeared downtown. Our theaters saw the wrecking ball in the late 1960s. Our stores moved to the mall. Our banks seemed to change names yearly. Even the old Mediterranean-style Pier was blitzed, giving way in 1973 to an inverted pyramid, now St. Petersburg's symbol.

A bright spot was our "pink lady" of St. Pete Beach, the Don CeSar, restored and and reopened in 1973. In town, our Museum of Fine Arts was born. Both were social hubs.

Our newspapers, then both owned by the St. Petersburg Times, saw monumental changes, too. In 1975, the Independent family section became a guinea pig for both papers: We became computerized.

We had a newsroom that spawned at least one fire a week from cigarettes in wastebaskets full of copy paper. Although smokers remained, at least there would be fewer fires with practically no paper used.

If fires didn't flare, tempers did when computers crashed five or six times a day. A howl would emanate from the newsroom as the next day's paper almost went down the drain.

Came the 1980s, and the further fading of the downtown. We still had Maas Brothers, and a 29-story Bayfront Tower, soon joined by Barnett Tower at 26 stories. We were blessed with the Salvador Dali Museum in 1982, and the Bayboro campus of the University of South Florida expanded.

In 1987, the city gave itself a yearlong birthday party for its centennial. Although St. Petersburg was incorporated in 1892, the Orange Belt Railroad came to St. Petersburg in 1888, putting it on the map.

The celebration ended Dec. 10 with a monumental formal ball, transforming the Bayfront Center arena into a glittering city with St. Petersburg's skyline.

And along came Bay Plaza.

And away went the skyline. The Soreno and other downtown buildings fell to the developer's grandiose plans.

In 1992, Maas Brothers closed, Bay Plaza was spinning wheels and promises of multiplex theaters either threatened or dazzled us. Various Bay Plaza directors turned sour, the city spent grillions on a dome and we couldn't get a baseball team for sour apples.

Ah, but now our bright spot was the Stouffer Vinoy Resort, which reopened July 31, 1992, after many years of financial haggling and struggling.

And now? Bay Plaza is gone. We have a wonderful new museum drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors and dollars to our downtown area, a new vista of shops on Beach Drive, the revitalization of neighborhoods has taken on a life of its own. Wonder of wonders, a baseball team is slated to play at our dome in about a year and a half.

Exciting things are beginning to happen. But we are a city of 240,000 people. Don't we deserve a downtown Nordstorm's, a Talbot's, a Tanner's, a Laura Ashley, a Stein Mart, a Brooks Brothers, a Crate and Barrell, a Joseph Banks?

I hated the thought of Bay Plaza making us Anytown, U.S.A., with the prescribed fountains and plazas of such developments. I'm much happier with the prospect of local talent, but should we have gone with the Festival Marketplace, "Pier Park," which we voters rejected soundly in 1984? Something is wrong when you work downtown and have to drive to buy a pair of shoes, a hammer, a garden hose or stockings.

We have seen the "Looper" appear downtown, but we need constant transportation to the beaches. We need to build or rehabilitate downtown residences. It's beginning to happen. Keep pushing for it.

On a reflective note, some of you accompanied me as I rode a circus elephant through town, was hugged by a boa constrictor, rode a giant turtle in the turtle kraals of Key West. We went on a simulated helicopter rescue with the Coast Guard, through scuba diving and belly dancing, through our daughters' weddings, and babies, trips and travails.

A few interview highlights were Glorida Vanderbilt, Diane Von Furstenberg and Liz Claiborne on the week her stock went public.

And, of course, James Michener, a subject who responded in prose to questions.

There were the centenary interviews, when we discovered that south Pinellas County had the country's largest concentration of 100-year-olds. The early St. Petersburg residents told the city's history, and there was a series on local businesses and their independent entrepreneurs.

We have been there, you and I, our toes in the sand and our heads in the clouds, and we're not parting company now. After a wind-up column Wednesday, I'll officially retire. In September, I'll come to you once a week, this time from home.

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