In the face of encroaching gentrification, one historically black Florida neighborhood — and its longtime residents —is fighting back.
By Desiree Stennett
The legacy of Southside St. Petersburg lives and dies by segregation.
Jim Crow discrimination forced black residents into the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But, by the 1920s, the neighborhood that hate and separation had spawned near Central Florida’s Gulf Coast had flourished into a thriving oasis of art, music, food, and culture.
In its prime, the Manhattan Casino, perched in the heart of the 22nd Street South business district and better known simply as “The Deuces” to locals, was a hotspot for celebrity sightings.
“Until 1968, when it closed, you had the Manhattan Casino,” says Raymond Arsenault, a local historian and John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida–St. Petersburg.
“Count Basie, Duke Ellington, everybody. Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, every single musician you ever heard of would play there,” he says.
While white residents and visitors were known to sneak across Central Avenue to catch a show at the Manhattan Casino, Jim Crow laws kept black residents from spending time in white neighborhoods in the same way for decades. So Geech’s Barbeque, Mr. Silva’s Shoe Repair, the Royal Theater, Clark’s Funeral Home, and more than 100 other black-owned businesses joined the Manhattan Casino.
They fulfilled the needs of a community that would have been refused service elsewhere in a city that earned much of its revenue from tourism and was desperate to maintain a pristine image — one that they believed would be tarnished if black residents lived among the whites.
“St. Pete lived and died with its reputation,” Arsenault says. “St. Pete wanted to sanitize its image…. They only wanted black people there during the day. They didn’t want them there at night, generally. Classic Jim Crow. They are here during the day to do the work, then they magically disappear.”
But today, many of those once successful black businesses are gone.
Just as segregation helped to form the community, desegregation also aided in its downfall, as a 2001 City Council ordinance, which designated the Royal Theater as a historic landmark, states.
“Ironically, the [1964 Civil Rights] Act may have led to the demise of the Royal and Harlem Theaters since neither were in business by 1967,” although 17 other theaters remained in business, according to the ordinance.
The Royal and Harlem Theaters served black residents who were barred from other theaters. But after the Civil Rights Act was passed, it was difficult for black theaters to compete with the newer multiplex theaters elsewhere in the city, and The Harlem Theater was demolished.
“There were 18 churches there and three black graveyards that were underneath that parking lot.”
These were not the only casualties of desegregation, according to Southside small business owner Elihu Brayboy.
“The desire to equal the playing field in terms of access to places had unintended consequences,” Brayboy says. He grew up on the Southside and got to see The Deuces at its best and worst. “The monopoly that the African-American business owners had on the African-American market was then shared. Now people were spending their money in all places, not just one place. The idea of people outside of this community spending their money in this community was never thought of.”
That meant the black dollars that were once enough to sustain The Deuces began to leave the community and with no balancing force bringing white dollars into the neighborhood, businesses were suddenly unable to keep their doors open.
Now, empty lots are memorial sites left behind after the demolition of abandoned and dilapidated buildings that held the remnants of long-closed restaurants, retail stores, and pharmacies. Interstate 275 cuts through the heart of The Deuces with no exit onto 22nd Street to help increase traffic in the area. And Tropicana Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays play, takes the place of the once bustling Gas Plant District.
“There were 18 churches there and three black graveyards that were underneath that parking lot,” Arsenault says, adding that there were also many homes and businesses in the area.
Much of what was left after that fell victim to the crack-cocaine epidemic and subsequent crime and violence.
Now, less than five miles away, on the other side of Central Avenue in the heart of downtown, developers are rapidly buying up increasingly valuable land to build high-rise apartments and retail stores, and, according to Brayboy, his once-thriving neighborhood is expected to become a prime target for gentrification within the next decade.
This means that, if the black community is interested in holding on to the history that remains, they have to act now. They must buy property. They must start businesses in the area. They must support the businesses already there. If not, what existed a century ago may disappear forever.
“What we’re doing now is trying to change that,” Brayboy says. “We’re changing a mindset. It’s a paradigm shift. But if we don’t do this shift and others like me don’t do this shift of trying to acquire and establish businesses, they will not be included in 2020, 2024. They won’t be included. Their kids won’t be included. Their grandkids won’t be included. It will be business as usual.”
It would be no surprise if the Southside saw gentrification in the future, Rebecca Amato, a professor in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University, says.
Amato, who has extensively researched gentrification and population displacement, thinks areas ideal for gentrification often share certain characteristics, which include shifts in what residents believe to be a desirable lifestyle and potential economic opportunity for individuals and companies who buy long-undervalued land for cheap in hopes of flipping it once the value increases.
“Buy low, sell high,” Amato says. “That becomes the ‘formula’ for gentrification, which has nothing to do with culture (and) has nothing to do with who specifically is moving into a neighborhood.”
And with its proximity to the heart of downtown and its long-neglected history, Southside fits the bill. But that doesn’t mean that the fate of the Southside must become what is expected of gentrification: outside developers coming in, leveling neighborhoods, displacing residents, and abandoning unique history and culture.
“If you’re interested in preserving a building but you’re not interested in preserving the people who live in the same neighborhood, then you’re really just serving yourself,” Amato says, looking to the example of low-income housing in Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City.
There, old homes had been converted to create affordable housing in the neighborhood but when the buildings were later deemed historic landmarks, property value ticked up and the residents, many poor and living on fixed incomes, were kicked out.
“There has to be some agreement to preserve the people,” Amato added. “You can’t really wait for government to do it. You have to do it cooperatively, particularly in neighborhoods that government sometimes abandon.”
Brayboy and his wife Carolyn aren’t waiting around. They are among those leading the charge to make sure the community never forgets its roots. And, if progress is inevitable, Brayboy says he and his wife felt led to be active participants rather than spectators.
“We are on our own, and it’s not a good feeling.”
In 2012, the Brayboys started to buy land and abandoned buildings along 22nd Street South near 9th Avenue. Although they were sure this was the right move, others were not so easily convinced.
“It was a spiritual calling: Save the buildings. Restore the buildings,” Brayboy says. “Most people who knew us or knew what we were doing questioned our sanity. Why would we do that? Why would we wait until this age in our lives to get involved and consider a ‘high-risk’ area and boarded up buildings?”
But the Brayboys moved forward anyway.
“These properties had been boarded up for 35 consecutive years,” Brayboy says. “We’re bidding for the properties and the other bidders are saying they don’t want the buildings, they just want the land. That’s the position we were in. If we win we save the community history…. If we don’t save them, they’re gone.”
Carloyn Brayboy retired from her 39-year career at IBM and devoted herself to the project. But even after covering the cost of the renovation and getting on their hands and knees to do some of the work themselves, the Brayboys were still fighting an uphill battle.
They were turned down by 12 restaurant owners who they thought might want to become tenants and open their eateries inside their building before finally deciding to open their own restaurant, Chief’s Creole Café, using recipes passed down from Elihu’s mother.
And their vision for the future of 22nd Street is far from complete.
“I have a building further down the street that has been closed since the early ’90s,” Brayboy says. “It’s a beautiful two-story building that was originally a hotel to the top and commercial spaces to the bottom. Our goal in 2017 is to do the redevelopment of that building and bring it back to life.”
The building was constructed in 1925, making it among the oldest still left in the city, he says.
Although the Brayboys hope others will join them in the preservation and revitalization of the Southside, Elihu Brayboy says he knows nothing will stop the neighborhood from moving forward.
Even in the nearly five years since they purchased their first building on the Southside, the community has started to evolve.
Carla Bristol, the owner of Gallerie 909, a fine art gallery next door to Chief’s Creole Café was one of the first new business owners to open up shop in one of the Brayboys’ buildings. She was there before Chief’s opened and before the beauty supply store that was initially a few blocks away moved into the space across the street and the barbeque restaurant next door opened too.
She chose the location because she thought it was important for the young black children growing up in the area to know what it was like to have access to fine art in their neighborhood. In her gallery, she has $5 greeting cards alongside $60 African-inspired skirts and $1,800 works of art.
Since opening her doors Bristol has seen foot traffic increase in the area, participated as business owners built a collaborative support system, and gotten to know dozens of local children and introduced them to the arts.
Using their own money, she and the other business owners have paid for decorations to adorn street lamps, hosted countless events to drive community support, and painted buildings to beautify the area when city funds were either unavailable or denied in the still underserved area.
“We are on our own, and it’s not a good feeling,” says Bristol, who believes the city has failed to truly embrace the growth she and the other business owners have brought to the area, which continues to leave the area vulnerable to gentrification.
Time will tell if the community will become engaged enough be a part of that future or if they will be left out and largely forgotten.
“I think gentrification is a way of identifying the transfer of ownership of one neighborhood from where it used to be,” Brayboy says. “I think we have to look at it as a consequence of what will happen when the original heirs do not reinvest into the properties.
“It’s not inappropriate. It is what happens and what should happen.”