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Overpass art may be coming to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

A newly proposed project looks to improve the area under and around the Interstate 275 bridge crossing over 22nd Street S, an area that decades ago was once a bustling mecca for the African-American business community.

The proposal, estimated to cost $509,000, aims to wipe away the blight where the overpass cuts through the neighborhood and includes plans for artwork, lighting and landscaping, according to city officials and proposal organizers.

Renderings have already been drafted, public meetings have been held, and the concept has been submitted to the Florida Department of Transportation. The idea was brought about by a group called Deuces Live, a Florida Main Street organization. It references the street's history, rooted in various musical genres.

"One of the main focuses we have had is, 'In what ways can we improve how the area looks,' " said Veatrice Farrell, a spokeswoman for Deuces Live. "It was one of the areas of St. Petersburg with a high concentration of black-owned businesses, but aside from that, there's also a long history of highways cutting black communities in half. Here in St. Petersburg, that resulted in the neighborhood's decline."

But a new crop of businesses have sprung up on both sides of the I-275 underpass, and there is a push to make the area a renaissance scene not just for the local community, but also for the metro area at large.

For decades St. Petersburg was a destination for musicians in various touring circles. Jazz, blues and funk greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Callaway, B.B. King, Sarah Bond and James Brown all made stops here. Local business owners hope the artistic element of the project will mirror that time period, before the bulldozers moved in to reshape the area in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Elihu Brayboy and his wife, Carolyn, own Chief's Creole Café at the corner of Ninth Avenue S and 22nd Street. He said they grew up in the neighborhood, back when the Sidney Harden Grocery Store — located where the Brayboys' restaurant is now — was the only grocery servicing the African-American community for 40 years. It went out of business around 1982, Brayboy said, along with a host of other commercial establishments in the area, after the interstate came along.

"It resulted in a destructive nature of the neighborhood that introduced high crime," Brayboy said. "For 35 years this area maintained a reputation of a 'bad area' of town. This community was our village as kids, so to hear it referred to negatively wasn't good. That's when we made the decision to move in here."

The area has become a new enclave for budding artists and galleries, with many lining both sides of the street on the north end of the I-275 underpass.

Larry Newsome, the managing member of the ownership group for the St. Petersburg franchise of Sylvia's, which started in Harlem, N.Y,, said he welcomes any improvements to the area, but wants them to fit into the theme of the new business community.

"There's a lot going on here now on this corridor, and I think the idea to make the underpass more colorful is a good one," Newsome said. "I'm excited to hear about it, especially since this area has a real potential now as a destination for art, dining and entertainment. Any artwork they do on the bridge should reflect the history here."

Gary Jones, a planner with the city, said the funding is coming from coffers specifically marked for projects like this. The final design is expected to be completed by May 1, he said, but it still needs final approval of the DOT, which has to look at how to improve the aesthetic of the fencing around the bottom of the underpass.

The artwork will include a large mural, or murals, on the embankments, artwork on the support columns, lighting underneath and around the bridge, and landscaping and hardscaping, with one idea including possible brick pavers, according to Jones.

"No other project like this exists in Pinellas County," Jones said. "I think this will drive traffic to the area. And it's also going to have the 'cool' factor."

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