By CATHY SALUSTRI
Live Local! contributing writer
The year is 1991. Two Clearwater teens, sophomores in college, work the ticket booth at a day cruise that leaves from the St. Pete Pier.
They arrive early every day and stroll through the shops at the Pier, then let the salt air work its way into their skin and hair while they check in passengers. The smells and sights of the city and the bay delight them — until they finish their shift, after dark, and walk to their cars.
Then, the edict is clear: Start your car, lock your doors, keep your windows up until you get on the interstate.
Much has changed for downtown St. Petersburg in the past two decades.
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These days, with the cornerstone to downtown — the Pier — facing a much-debated, much-celebrated overhaul, new homes, and a vibrant entertainment and dining community all make downtown St. Petersburg one of the city’s most loved neighborhoods.
“It definitely has evolved, for the positive,” says Matt Shapiro, president of the Downtown Business Association. His family owns Shapiro’s Gallery, which started out 17 years ago downtown on Central Avenue, and a few years ago moved to Beach Drive. “It’s more businesses, more housing, and a nice diversity of ages as well. There’s different areas you can go depending on what you’re looking to get into, whether you want a drink, get dinner, or just hang out.”
While the Tampa Bay area has no shortage of dynamic neighborhoods offering lifestyles varying from old Florida beach to new Florida urban, precious few allow visitors as much of a glance into the day-to-day lives of the residents as downtown St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg’s downtown runs from Fifth Avenue S to Fifth Avenue N and from the bay to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street. In those few blocks beats the pulse of a New South city, not quite like traditional Southern cities — say, Charleston or Atlanta — but also far from the northern feel of Manhattan or Boston.
From the rooftop Canopy at the Birchwood to boutique-style bars like Wine Madonna, upscale shopping at the Sundial to vintage shops along Central Avenue, downtown St. Petersburg has something for everyone. Galleries, theater, sports, dining. The neighborhood, of course, depends on an influx of visitors, from near and far, as well as local residents, for economic vitality.
Even the most casual visitor notices a marked lack of chain stores and a deep sense of history thrumming through downtown. The Snell Arcade, the open-air post office, luxury high-rises and mid-century garden apartments blend together in a harmonious mixture of life/work/culture.
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Sociologists talk about the notion of a “third place,” a place separate from home and work — a park, a cafe, a library. Third places help locals feel a sense of connection to their home cities, explains Ray Oldenburg in his book, “The Great Good Place.”
Third places help people establish a sense of place.
Look around downtown St. Petersburg and you’ll see it’s brimming with third places. The Pier, the Vinoy veranda, the beautiful waterfront. The Mirror Lake Library, the Shuffleboard Club, the breweries, the restaurants, the coffee houses and courtyards. Perhaps this is why everyone, not just people who live there, feel so strongly connected to downtown St. Petersburg.
“It’s emerged as one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods with more than 2,000 new downtown residential units coming online in the last five years,” says St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, adding that the city has picked up recent accolades by the New York Times, Conde Nast and U.S. News and Travel.
So how can downtown residents feel even more connected than visitors to their neighborhood? The St. Petersburg Downtown Neighborhood Association goes a long way toward creating a sense of community within the community. Because they have nontraditional homes, they also throw nontraditional porch parties.
Think about it: What do you do for a porch party when you live in a gorgeous new high-rise that overlooks the sparkling bay, but has no porch? You improvise. Every party has scrumptious food, a different speaker and a creative venue. If there’s a porch? Great! They’ll use it. If not? They find the social equivalent, a place where neighbors can gather and socialize.
Keeping that sense of community for those who choose to live downtown is important because a happy, well-knit community is vital for that community to welcome outsiders.
And welcome St. Petersburg certainly does.
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And a note from one of those two girls who worked at the Pier in 1991: One of us moved away and one of us moved even closer.
I love the pace and ease of downtown St. Petersburg. I love the boutiques, the culture, the parks and the people. But what I love most is that now, when I leave downtown at night, I can roll down my windows and feel that warm, salty air on my face as I head back to my other home.
Mayor Kriseman puts it more succinctly:
“Downtown St. Pete is on fire,” he says.
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Have twilight drinks at the Vinoy Veranda. Perhaps a Manhattan made with Palm Ridge whiskey? Palm Ridge, bottled in Ocala, has a clean, crisp taste that meshes well with
the night air on Tampa Bay. After drinks take a stroll along the Vinoy waterfront.
Take your morning run along the waterfront at sunrise. City planners across the country have heralded John Nolen’s plan for keeping the waterfront public. When the sun rises over Tampa Bay and it’s just you and the neighbors and the birds, you won’t regret making the trek at sunrise.
Wander the alleys. Sure, not every alley is a work of art, but you’ll be shocked at what you can learn about a neighborhood from its alleys, from unexpected architectural treasures and colorful murals to a glimpse of everyday life in the downtown.
Shop the market. The Saturday Morning Market started in 2002 and has since grown into the biggest market in the Southeast. In addition to an impressive selection of ready-t0-eat food, here you’ll find fresh seafood, baked goods, pastries, jams, chocolates, cheeses, salsas, pickles. And rounding out the market you’ll find dozens of local artists and crafters and fair-trade vendors.
Find a neighborhood bar/cafe/diner. Have you been to Kahwa North or Kahwa South, Wine Madonna or the Ale & the Witch? Tried the ham croquettes at Pipo’s Cuban Cafe, fish and chips at The Moon Under Water, pan-seared snapper at 400 Beach, gulf oysters at the Birchwood or biscuits and gravy at the Dome Grill? Where do the locals go? Make it your mission to find these places.
Take in the arts & culture. Along the waterfront, check out the Dali Museum, the Chihuly Collection (moving to Central Avenue fall 2016), the History Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Mahaffey; a few blocks west, along Central Avenue, you’ll find Florida CraftArt, Michele Tuegel Contemporary, The Gallery, Morean Arts Center and a great selection of little indie shops, including the Local COOP, d-Gallerie, Gopali Imports and more. And don’t forget all the public art, including dozens of murals by local favorites and world-renowed artists
Walk. We’re not just talking from your car to where you’re going: Park your car and wander aimlessly, exploring the 1920s Mediterranean architecture alongside the new construction. Downtown St. Petersburg has untold treasures — far too many for us to describe here — and the best way for you to discover them is to, well, get out there and discover them.