Photo via City of St. Petersburg. Design by Jack Spatafora
The cover of the Feb. 4, 2022 issue of Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.
Julie and I park on 22nd Street, the Deuces, by the old train depot just off the Pinellas Trail. We look for evidence of Sixth Avenue South. The street has disappeared, but not the history. We trace the former roadway under the present-day Job Corps. In 1935, St. Petersburg’s City Council proposed a boundary here, ruling where Black and white people could live.
A scholar of Civil Rights literature, Julie joins me for this walk into a segregation map. We head east, down Fifth Avenue (one block north of the original line), and work our way through the gentrifying warehouse district. It is one of those obscenely crisp, temperate afternoons. A perfect January day in Florida. The smell of fresh bread fills the industrial, increasingly artsy neighborhood. Old warehouses now supply artisan alcohol. Where I-175 merges with I-275, just south of the old Oaklawn Cemetery, the sidewalk ends.
Photo via City of St. Petersburg.
‘Proposed Negro Segregation Project’ (1935), reprinted in Building Bridges & Supporting Racial Equality in St. Petersburg Florida
We all know the story. (If you do not, you should.) African Americans came to St. Petersburg in the late-19th century to work the Orange Belt Railroad. As the city grew, its White leaders passed laws to keep a Black workforce close at hand but out of sight. A 1935 map, printed in the St. Petersburg Times and following national trends, proposed a Black ghetto. Insurance companies later shaded such areas in red, marking them as financial risks and making it harder to get mortgages; this led to the term redlining. The 1935 map set the railroad tracks as the northern border; ran south down 17th Street.; along 15th Avenue S; then north up 34th, and back to the railroad tracks (today the Pinellas Trail).
At the Oaklawn site, now Lot 1 for Tropicana Field, Julie and I contemplate our next turn. The boundary on our map, down 17th, follows a street that was razed for the interstate. So we thread along the east side of John Hopkins Elementary School. The stub of a street corner helps us see where the line would have met the present-day embankment on 175, then crossed a baseball field in the J-Hop playground, most likely running across a bicycle rack.
These walks into our past are necessary, as the dialog continues over how the city’s history informs present-day inequity. I stumbled onto the 1935 map when reviewing a recent report from a team of USF professors and community historian-activists, “Building Bridges & Supporting Racial Equality in St. Petersburg Florida.” This 200-page study traces a trajectory of structural racism from 1886 to the present day. The report is not an easy read, the team worked under a tight six-month deadline, but they synthesized an overwhelming body of data to support several, long-overdue resolutions. (See sidebar.)
A “sweeping range of policies and actions, known as structural racism,” the executive summary explains, has led to “continued marginalization of Black citizens in St. Petersburg.” While white residents have enjoyed advantage after advantage, the study shows, African Americans have witnessed segregation and Klan rallies, economic exclusion and disastrous “urban renewal,” inequity at every level.
The report (which could have used a good copyedit) bristles with statistics, anecdotes, and unsettling facts. Black men, arrested for dubious charges of “vagrancy” and “loafing,” provided free labor to build seawalls and other “public” works. The median annual income today for African Americans in Pinellas County is $27,000; for white people, just above $37K. Life expectancy in Campbell Park (a mostly Black part of town) is 66.5 years, while the average for (white) Vinoy Park and Snell Island is 82.
The study establishes beyond the pale of any doubt how racial inequality shapes every aspect of city life: education, physical health, emotional well-being, economic security, the list goes on. The authors close with concrete recommendations to “heal the wound.”
Walking east along 15th Avenue S, Julie and I follow the 1935 map’s southern edge. We pause at a corner market to chat with a sidewalk politician. I show him the map. “That’s some shit,” he says with a laugh; “that’s fucked up.”
The six-month structural racism study was presented last December to St. Petersburg City Council, which voted 5-3 to adopt its recommendations. Council members Robert Blackman, Ed Montanari, and Gina Driscoll (whose district overlaps with much of the 1935 map) did not accept the findings.
We can judge a city by how it handles its past.
Photo by Thomas Hallock
Rather than hiding their hate crimes, the German people have done something remarkable—they place monuments.
This past Fall, I spent some time in Germany. Rather than hiding their hate crimes, the German people have done something remarkable—they place monuments. To acknowledge the Holocaust, brass stolpersteine (or “stubble stones”) identifies the names, dates and (often) places of death of persecuted Jews. The polished brass bricks stud the sidewalks.
In Berlin, a twin row of cobblestones marks the former wall. The city was divided after World War II, and when East Germany could not keep residents in, the communist government built a thirteen-foot concrete barrier, with towers and a “death strip,” where guards shot to kill. The wall came down in 1989, and today, the cobblestone monument threads through the streetscape like a visible scar.
Berliners now go about their daily lives around the former wall. People rake leaves over the cobblestones. They double park, walk their dogs, and check their cell phones upon a properly memorialized past.
It helps to see how other cultures own up to hard history.
What if St. Petersburg constructed a similar, in-street memorial? Why not a line of red bricks to mark the boundaries of a once-segregated city? Such a marker would not be for the city’s African-American residents. Black people did not write that city code. But white residents, and city council members, can all too easily choose to forget.
And this disavowal (let’s be honest) keeps one from accounting for the present.
At 15th Avenue S, the interstate again blocks our path.
Julie and I head north up 31st to complete our circuit. We follow the denuded underpass and cross behind the baseball field of Gibbs High School—another monument from segregation days, now an arts magnet school. As we edge towards the Pinellas Trail, the industrial landscape gives way to gentrification. More artisan alcohol, native plant gardens, Shine murals, and hipster beards.
Tracing a boundary of segregation, we follow the old tracks (now a rails-to-trails path) towards downtown. A quick jog north takes us to the old station and we close our loop at the Deuces.
The walk has earned us a round of beers, so we drop into 3 Daughters, where the change in demographic jars. Though set in the historic heart of St. Petersburg’s Black downtown, the clientele is, of course, white; I crack a bad joke that the only black face is on a Labrador retriever. Day drinking does not lend itself to historical memory.
How much healthier would our city be, I wonder, if we visibly marked invisible lines?
What if tires along the Interstate rumbled, for just a second, when crossing a red-brick boundary of former segregation? Why not a line down the Pinellas Trail?
For a city of transplants, a city that continues to celebrate its coolness and growth, some recognition would help us all. Our collective memory must be marked. Otherwise, as the recent study shows, we find no escape. Our future remains but a loop to the same tired, inequitable past.
Photo by Julie Armstrong
‘No Trespassing,’ along the Pinellas Trail, one of many blocked off spaces and signs.
“Building Bridges & Supporting Structural Equity in St. Petersburg, Florida” was commissioned by the city of St. Petersburg and authored by Ruthmae Sears, Gypsy Gallarrdo, Gwendolyn D. Reese, Tim Dutton, Han Reichgelt, James McHale, Fenda Akiwumi, Jabaar Edmond, Michelle Bradham-Cousa, Jalessa Blackshear, and Dana Thompson-Dorsey. City Council approved the six-month study in December 2021 and voted in support of the study’s “immediate action steps.”
From the Executive Summary
• A “history of pre-meditated and targeted policies and coordinated administrative actions” has “impaired Black individuals and families throughout the past 125 years,” leading to “major wealth and health disparities that continue to the current day.”
• A “sweeping range of policies and actions,” defined as “structural racism,” perpetuates “the continued marginalization of Black citizens in St. Petersburg.”
• Race-based economic hierarchies trace back to the 1890s; violence continued with an active Ku Klux Klan presence, lynching, exploitation of convict labor, and segregation written into the city charter.
• Non-Hispanic Black residents of St. Petersburg today earn 73% of White residents.
• Only 22% of St. Petersburg residents are Black, but a disproportionate 74% of all “resisting arrest with violence” charges are made against Black citizens.
• Infant mortality rates among African-Americans range 2 to 5 times that of White infants.
• “Informed understanding of how structural racism has created, and systematically ensures continuation of, disparities in wealth, housing, education, financial security, physical and psychological safety, health, and mortality in St. Petersburg is the most consequential first step toward the comprehensive, measured, and deliberate policy decisions that can accelerate progress toward the promotion of equity.”
“Action Steps,” approved by St. Petersburg’s City Council
• “Create an equity department within the Office of the Mayor,” with the Director to “serve as a liaison between the community and the budget committee.”
• “Create and implement an effective accountability strategy that includes a commitment to a race equity review” of all existing and future “City policies and practices.”
• “Create a permanent resident race equity commission [to] ensure progress towards equity is made” and becomes “a permanent way of conducting business in the city.”
• “Examine and initiate action steps to reparations to address disparities that have been made visible by this report,” including restitution for “affordable housing, reforms in the criminal-legal system, free health services or tertiary education.”
• “Continue support for the work started in the study.”