BY CAITLIN ASHWORTH, Neighborhood News Bureau
ST. PETERSBURG – In its heyday during decades of segregation, the city’s 22nd Street S was the vibrant heart of the black community with more than 100 businesses.
But dramatic changes came. The civil rights laws of the 1960s meant black people could live, shop and attend school in once-forbidden places. The arrival of Interstate 275 in the early 1970s effectively cut the neighborhood in half, and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980 brought violent crime and more disruption.
Today, virtually all of the old businesses have disappeared from the once-bustling street. But one company with roots that apparently reach back to the 1940s remains open.
The Blue Star Cab Co.
“Open 24 hours, seven days a week,” said Mary Greene, the supervisor of dispatchers. She has been with Blue Star for about 55 years.
“We have never closed.”
Working out of a small office in the back of a former gasoline station at 1311 22nd St. S, Greene deploys 20 drivers around the Tampa Bay area. There are many “die-hard customers” who have remained loyal to Blue Star for years, she said.
The history of the Blue Star Cab Co. is hazy. Its early owners and drivers are dead, and there are scant mentions in newspaper archives.
The Royal Cab Co. dates back to the 1940s, and so does the South Side Cab Co., which appears in a list of 1940s black businesses in a book about 22nd Street South by Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson.
Entrepreneur Jesse Abrams, who was apparently an ownership partner in two cab companies over the years, was co-founder of South Side Cab, which by the early 1960s had become the Blue Star Cab Co.
“It was one of the major sources of transportation for black folks in this area for a long time,” the Rev. Willie Miller told the Tampa Bay Times when Abrams, his longtime friend, died in 2013.
“They went so far as to pick your child up, and if you weren’t home they’d hang onto your child until you got home.”
Greene said Blue Star Cab and Yellow Cab were for a time the only two taxi companies in St. Petersburg. Blue Star served the black community and Yellow Cab the white. Then in 1962 Yellow Cab created a subsidiary called Checker Cab Co. to serve the black community.
James Thrasher, who was president of Blue Star at the time, objected, but the city’s legal department determined that the new endeavor was legal.
In 1963, another black cab company, Quick City Cabs, sprouted at the corner of 22nd Street S and 15th Avenue. It had six cabs, bringing the number of cabs in the black community to 43. Twenty-five operated under Blue Star and 12 under Checker.
After civil rights laws and integration came later in the 1960s, Blue Star was able to expand beyond the old boundaries of segregation.
Today, options are limitless.
“If you want to go to New York, we can take you,” said Victor Asuzu, a Nigerian native who has been with Blue Star for 15 years and its president for more than a year.
The heat from the Florida sun radiated off the black cement as the air conditioning rushed out the vents of Asuzu’s white Impala with a blue star on the door, lightly brushing the first place blue ribbon hanging from the rear view mirror. His 9-year-old daughter, Bianca, won it during a school track and field event.
Asuzu said summers are slow for Blue Star. Children are out of school and don’t need rides. However, when St. Petersburg College’s new Midtown Center opens across the street this fall, it could bring new customers, he said.
First Friday, a monthly event that allows open containers in designated areas of downtown St. Petersburg, is always busy for taxi drivers. But the night isn’t always a good thing, he said. Sometimes the intoxicated are unable to pay once Asuzu gets them home safely.
“I just want him out of the cab before he pukes,” he said.
Asuzu keeps his cab vacuumed and his equipment up to state regulations. His biggest problem, he said, is his monthly insurance bill, which lingers on the front seat until his three-day grace period is over.
Like a lot of cabbies, Asuzu said the lack of regulations for ride-share companies is unfair.
“I don’t understand how the city allows them to operate here,” he said.
In February, the St. Petersburg City Council discussed revising the decades-old ordinance that regulates vehicles for hire but did not take final action.
In 1952, South Side Cab became the first black-owned and operated taxi company to have radio-dispatched cabs on Florida’s West Coast. Although taxi companies now compete with the new technology of ride-share companies using smart phone apps, Blue Star sticks to its roots. It uses radio dispatching, documented with pen and paper.
Greene started dispatching for Blue Star while she attended Gibbs High School in the 1960s.
The hours were flexible, so Greene could support and raise her children. She was able put all three through college.
Greene’s children are now adults, but she has a new incentive to stay at Blue Star a few years longer.
She reached into her purse and pulled out her granddaughter’s high school senior class photos.
“I work for her now,” Greene said.
Caitlin Ashworth is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Information from the Tampa Bay Times and Evening Independent was used in this report.