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St. Petersburg bulldozed a Black community on Trop site. What’s next?

The Gas Plant community was home to residents, businesses and churches.
 
William Graveley, 64, stands near Gate 7 at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, where a dry cleaning business he once owned was razed in the 1980s to make way for the stadium’s 1.1 million square foot structure in the Gas Plant district in St. Petersburg.
William Graveley, 64, stands near Gate 7 at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, where a dry cleaning business he once owned was razed in the 1980s to make way for the stadium’s 1.1 million square foot structure in the Gas Plant district in St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 15, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — The Tropicana Field site may appear as little more than a downtown ballpark, with big stretches of blacktop parking and a slanted dome.

But for many residents, including St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, the land still holds the ghostly pulse of a former African American community, where homes and churches, bars and theaters, and the first library that Black residents were allowed to visit, used to stand. A majority of the land was owned by African American families.

That past is the reason Welch scrapped plans for the redevelopment of the 86 acres of prime real estate last year. His goal was to start over with an eye for making good on broken promises and a commitment to equity.

Related: A reset in St. Petersburg: A look at Mayor Ken Welch’s first year in office
Aerial drone view of Tropicana Field and surrounding area on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. The sports facility and parking lots now rest on land that used to make up a historic Black neighborhood in St. Petersburg.
Aerial drone view of Tropicana Field and surrounding area on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. The sports facility and parking lots now rest on land that used to make up a historic Black neighborhood in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Wrapped into the story of baseball in St. Petersburg is another that has played out across the country: It’s the story of structural and historical barriers that have crippled opportunity for Black communities and impeded the ability for many to build intergenerational wealth.

It is St. Petersburg’s story, too.

Related: 4 developers make their pitch to redevelop St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field

A safe and loving home

The neighborhood was called The Gas Plant, known for the two gas silos that towered in the northwest of the district. The neighborhood spanned south from First Avenue South to Fifth Avenue South, between Martin Luther King Jr. and 16th streets.

It was a safe and loving community to several hundred Black residents who were confined to redlined neighborhoods as Jim Crow-era segregation plagued the Sunshine City.

Black families began living in the area in the early 20th century, drawn by railroad jobs. By the 1950s, the community was bustling. Black dentists and doctors lived alongside blue collar workers. Kids played hopscotch and kickball. People looked out for one another, former residents recalled.

The gas plant (shown here are the storage tanks) and surrounding neighborhood as seen from Graham Park Towers at Ninth St. and Third Ave. S. in April 1979. The area was razed to make way for what is now Tropicana Field.
The gas plant (shown here are the storage tanks) and surrounding neighborhood as seen from Graham Park Towers at Ninth St. and Third Ave. S. in April 1979. The area was razed to make way for what is now Tropicana Field. [ GREENE, JACKIE | St. Petersburg Times ]

The area provided “a place where we knew we would be respected when we went into the corner market, or the barbershop, or the restaurant,” said 73-year-old Gwendolyn Reese, whose family lived in a building on Fifth Avenue South. “We didn’t lock our front doors. We knew in our neighborhood we were protected.”

By the 1970s, the Gas Plant neighborhood was home to more than 500 homes, dozens of predominantly Black-owned businesses and a handful of churches, according to accounts in the St. Petersburg Times. Some Jewish families, who often were barred from opening shops downtown, lived and worked in the area, too.

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Reese, a historian and president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, a community group focused on preserving the city’s past, said that residents were proud of their community.

“It was a loving and nurturing place to grow up,” Reese said.

That sentiment has been echoed for decades by former residents. Welch, the city’s first Black mayor, grew up eating burgers at the barbecue shack just up the street from his grandfather’s wood yard.

“It was home,” said Welch, 58.

Related: Tropicana Field proposals’ pros and cons, as ranked by St. Petersburg officials
Map of St. Petersburg's Gas Plant area as it looked in the 1970s.
Map of St. Petersburg's Gas Plant area as it looked in the 1970s. [ CREATOR | Ron Borresen ]

‘Ripped apart’

Whispers of neighborhood buyouts began in the early 1970s, with descriptions in the St. Petersburg Times and city documents that labeled the Gas Plant neighborhood “blighted” and a “slum.”

One article quoted city officials referring to the neighborhood as “one of the worst areas in St. Petersburg.”

William Graveley, who worked his first job at his grandfather’s dry cleaning business — which he later took over — said those depictions weren’t true.

“There was poverty, yes. But it wasn’t a blighted neighborhood,” Graveley said. “We felt loved. We had grocery stores, we had an active nightlife. It was everything we needed.”

Still, the narrative of a poor, Black district holding back the city’s downtown was the story on which redevelopment plans were pegged.

In fall 1978, the City Council passed a resolution that deemed the neighborhood a redevelopment area. The following year a plan was drafted that would displace more than 800 Black residents so the land could be revitalized, according to accounts in the Times.

The city promised that the redevelopment would ultimately benefit the Gas Plant community.

A 283-page document detailing the redevelopment included promises that the land would be used to create jobs and better housing.

The Coalition for Social Justice held a protest outside Tropicana Field on March 31, 1998, before the first Tampa Bay Devil Rays game in history, to demand social justice and economic development for African Americans.
The Coalition for Social Justice held a protest outside Tropicana Field on March 31, 1998, before the first Tampa Bay Devil Rays game in history, to demand social justice and economic development for African Americans.

The plan acknowledged the need to help residents relocate and preserve their connections. It made note of five historic sites that should be preserved, including the first Black elementary school, Davis Elementary, and the Harlem Theatre.

Most notably: “There was no mention of a baseball stadium,” Graveley said.

Through eminent domain, the city began acquiring residents’ properties. People were paid for their homes, but news articles from 1979 detail that what they were offered often was below market value and not enough to cover relocating.

For business owners, the buyouts proved even more catastrophic, eliminating the customer base that people like Graveley and his grandfather had worked for generations to build.

“I really watched the whole Black business community fall,” Graveley said. “I saw my neighborhood get ripped apart.”

A dismantled community

The promise of blue-collar jobs and opportunity to grow minority businesses, the promise of better housing and prosperity for the displaced, never came.

Instead, three years after the redevelopment document was drafted, officials turned toward luring Major League Baseball to Tampa Bay.

In 1986, without a referendum, the City Council voted to greenlight the construction of a stadium to house a professional team, a project the Times editorial board supported.

It wasn’t until 1998, more than 20 years after redevelopment promises were made to Gas Plant residents, that the first MLB game was played at Tropicana Field.

Since then, Reese and Graveley have worked to keep in touch with former neighbors.

Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association and a lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, poses on February 23, 2021. Tropicana Field can be seen in the background.
Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association and a lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, poses on February 23, 2021. Tropicana Field can be seen in the background. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

But the stories of many from the neighborhood took turns for the worse after they were displaced, Reese said.

In 2021, she organized a reunion with former residents. More recently, she’s been working to interview those who still are alive for a documentary on the area.

There are stories upon stories of people who lost their businesses — others who gave up houses that they owned, and then were never able to afford property again. One family Reese knows became homeless, she said.

“That’s the story throughout this country. St. Pete is no different,” Reese said. “(The displacement) just perpetuated and continued the cycle of denial of intergenerational wealth to African Americans.”

The Florida Suncoast Dome (now Tropicana Field) is shown in the early stages of construction in the late 1980s.
The Florida Suncoast Dome (now Tropicana Field) is shown in the early stages of construction in the late 1980s.

And beyond the loss of valuable property, Welch said, was the loss of social support. People were separated from friends and family. They lost the people they drank coffee with in the morning and walked to church with at night.

Children lost mentors and an environment of opportunity.

“It’s not just buildings,” Welch said. “What youth received in the Gas Plant was really the village helping to nurture all children.”

Striving for equity

Outside of Tropicana Field on Tuesday, Graveley, 64, squints and tries to orient himself.

Using the few remaining landmarks like an out-of-service railroad bridge, he constructs a mental map of where Third Avenue South and 14th Street would have intersected.

It takes him to Gate 7.

“It would have been inside the stadium,” he says of the spot where his family’s dry-cleaning business used to be.

Somewhere between the Dippin’ Dots stand and the Budweiser Porch in Tropicana Field, Graveley used to spend long hours sipping ice water from recycled mayonnaise jars to keep cool while pressing shirts and dresses for customers in the Florida heat.

But that was a long time ago.

“We see ourselves in an economically depressed Black neighborhood that’s crime ridden, and people want to wonder why,” Graveley said as stadium workers drove past on golf carts. “It was orchestrated years ago.”

Spending too much time looking to the past is painful, Graveley said. Instead, he looks toward the future.

At the end of this month, Welch is expected to announce the chosen developer for Tropicana Field.

When he made the decision to start the bidding process over last year, Welch said he wanted to make good on the promises to residents of the Gas Plant neighborhood years ago — while also keeping baseball in St. Pete.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

A focus will be on creating equity for future generations, he said, by building more affordable housing, ensuring residents are involved in the community planning process, and employing minority-owned businesses when possible throughout the next decade of construction.

Additionally, he said, this redevelopment must work to recreate the social support that was lost when the Gas Plant neighborhood was dismantled.

This neighborhood is part of his family’s story — it’s personal — but he’s not concerned with his legacy.

The focus, he said, is “creating a really inclusive city.”

April 19, 1979 article in the St. Petersburg Times about the Gas Plant neighborhood.
April 19, 1979 article in the St. Petersburg Times about the Gas Plant neighborhood. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Related: Tropicana Field redeveloper may be named by St. Petersburg mayor Jan. 30
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