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Stories from the street

When Jon Wilson was writing "The Deuces," an article for the St. Petersburg Times about the history of 22nd Street South in St. Petersburg's Midtown, Rosalie Peck, a longtime resident of the historic black neighborhood, was a valuable resource. Later, Wilson and Peck decided to join forces to write an extended history of the once-vibrant hub of a community forced to cope with the realities of the Jim Crow South. The result is St. Petersburg's Historic 22nd Street South (History Press, $16.99, 128 pp), in which stories of the day-to-day life of the street - from barbershop chatter to the sounds of jazz coming from the famed Manhattan Casino - are told in the context of the larger picture of the hardships of forced segregation. With desegregation, the area became, as Peck says, "a desert," but thanks to efforts to rebuild the Casino and attract residents and businesses, the neighborhood is on the verge of a renaissance.

At a cafe in St. Petersburg, I talked to Wilson, who is white, and Peck, who is black, about their unusual collaboration. Here is an edited version of our conversation:

What one word sums up for you 22nd Street South?

Peck: Life.

Wilson: History.

What is your fondest memory of the street?

Peck: Post Office Box 306. There was a substation beneath the Manhattan Casino, and we had Post Office Box 306. Mail was very important to my mother. We had relatives out of town. There was something about going there with your own key and your own mailbox and you could look in there and see if you had any mail before you looked in the box. It was special.

Wilson: Ira Harding Wilson's house. It was one of the last remaining shotgun houses on 22nd Street at about Fairfield. Ira Harding Wilson moved in there in 1957. He was a gentleman in his 80s by the time I met him. He would sit on the front porch and talk to people who passed by about the old days on 22nd. He used to do odd jobs for George Rogan at the Manhattan Casino. He had planted an oak tree in a paper cup about the size of this coffee cup when he arrived in 1957 or '58; by 2000, it was huge.

How did segregation affect the area?

Peck: My mother would take me to Sam's Department Store, which also was under the Manhattan Casino. And we could try on clothes there. It made Sam's Department Store special, because downtown we couldn't try on clothes. But it was also a reminder: I can do it at Sam's, but I can't do it downtown. It was a reminder of what you couldn't do.

Wilson: What most surprised me was that despite segregation, despite the klan, despite the Jim Crow laws, that black people could still shop in some of the big downtown stores - although, as Rosalie said, they couldn't try on clothes. It surprised me that it wasn't a completely closed system.

Blacks and whites lived through the period of 22nd Street South's heyday in very different ways. Were you conscious of different readers as you wrote this book?

Wilson: As we brainstormed this book and researched it, I don't think either one of us saw the material in terms of black or white. There is a lot of detail included. It is very microcosmic. And very, very human. I think people, regardless of whether they are black or white, will relate to that.

Peck: I was conscious of a reader. Period. Not black or white. I had a sense that black people could relate to this story on a personal level and a sense that white people could be informed by it. But I believe the secret of the success of this book is honesty. Just plain truth. We were careful to check research and facts.

How did you two first meet?

Wilson: We met at a meeting of the 22nd Street Redevelopment Corp., and Rosalie read her poem about the street, which is included in the book. And I thought, this is really good. The more I sat and listened, the more I got entranced with the history of the place.

An African proverb you include in the book says if we don't get the story from the lion, we only will get the hunter's point of view. Do you feel confident that you included all points of view in this book?

Peck: We included everything from a stabbing to stories of the creme de la creme of black society.

Wilson: We covered a lot. There are some personalities I would like to know more about, though: George Grogan, Eldridge Jordan Sr., but most of all, Charlie Wilson, one of the most intriguing figures in St. Petersburg history. There are a lot more stories to tell.

What is the one word you hope will sum up 22nd Street South 10 years from now?

Peck: People. It was such a desert after it died. In the future, I hope people will be there again - laughing and talking, young people and old people, with food and marching bands like before. And, of course, with people that means businesses. But affordable housing is needed. Black people used to live next to businesses. Part of the plan now is to include housing and businesses. As Jon says, the whole urban village concept.

MEET THE AUTHORS

Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson will be signing St. Petersburg's Historic 22nd Street South from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Haslam's Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg and at 1 p.m. on March 11 at Pinellas County Heritage Village, 11909 125th St. N, Largo.

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