Where are the voices of Midtown in the Tropicana Field redevelopment?

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Tropicana Field, known as “The Dome” to locals, rests on the bones of the Gas Plant community, which was torn down in the ’80s to make way for the Trop. Midtown residents have raised concerns about the decisions regarding the stadium’s redevelopment.

 

BY ERIN MURPHY, Neighborhood News Bureau

“Imagine if you woke up one day, and you found out that every part of your neighborhood was going to be destroyed. [Imagine] your childhood home, your parents grew up there; the church or the synagogue or the institutions of worship that you had – they’re gone, they’re going to be gone,” said Jim Schnur, the head of special collections and university archives at the USF St. Petersburg Nelson Poynter Memorial Library.

Demolition of the Gas Plant

For residents of the neighborhood known as the Gas Plant district, this destruction wasn’t something imagined; it was a reality. The Gas Plant community was demolished in the early 1980s to make way for Tropicana Field.

“They’ve kinda built over people,” said Kenneth Roberts, the kitchen manager at Chief’s Creole Cafe.

Although some might regard the site in St. Petersburg where the Trop now rests as the home of the Tampa Bay Rays, others still remember the rich history that lies beneath it.

“The school [my grandmother] went to as a child used to be there,” said Jayson James, a resident of Midtown. “It’s no longer there because they put the stadium there. You know, many of the churches in the area, in the black community, originated there [but] are no longer there because [that’s where] they put the stadium.”

A community forced to move

Even though the construction of Tropicana Field did, in some ways, bring new life to the city according to some, the stadium was a catalyst for a lot of the rebirth of downtown St. Petersburg, but to many in Midtown it remains a point of contention.

“Tropicana Field [tends] to leave a bad taste in [the] mouths of many of the residents of [Midtown],” said Terri Lipsey Scott, the chair of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum. “It was sold under the pretense of providing jobs and economic development for a community, [but] African Americans lost their homes and were never able to recover as landowners.”

The fact is, when the Trop moved in, many people were forced to move out.

“You got people moving; you got to take up your house and your furniture and your belongings, and you gotta be disrupted, because now you’ve got to find a place to stay,” said Roberts. “You’ve got all that pressure, got your mom, that single parent trying to figure out where she’s going to move four kids on the money she’s making.”

In spite of these concerns, families, friends and neighbors were forced to leave, their homes were forgotten, their community demolished.

“You have the entire footprint of a former community, a former neighborhood,” said Schnur. “A lot of the people who lived there were forced to disrupt their lives and move somewhere else.”

Redevelopment

Now, three decades later, it is the Tropicana Field that is in talks to move “somewhere else.”

HKS Architects, the group hired by the city to create a master plan for the site’s redevelopment, began the process during the summer. Now, according to one report by the Tampa Bay Times the city expects to have the plan ready within a month’s time.

“We were hired by the City of St. Petersburg to develop a Concept Master Plan with the goal of enticing the Rays to stay on this site,” said HKS Vice President Julie Hiromoto in an email interview. “This first phase of work essentially documents a Vision for the site, to help everyone understand the community, economic development and quality of life potential for this very special site. It is hard to conceive the full impact this City-owned property could have when people are confronted daily by a massive sea of (mostly empty) asphalt,” added Hiromoto.

Although the Rays have yet to decide whether to stay or go, the city has already decided that I-175 will remain.

“We were asked by our client to remove this strategy from the Concept Master Plan,” said Hiromoto. “That doesn’t mean it won’t eventually happen, but it was determined that we should make the plan work now without removing I-175.”

The voices of Midtown

As redevelopment nears, the residents of Midtown are still concerned that their voices may be trumped by economic interests once more.

“The conversation about what to do with the site should take special consideration of the people who were impacted last time big decisions were made,” said Schnur. “One of the things that’s often forgotten is that the people who lived [in the Gas Plant district] when there were conversations about urban renewal, didn’t have much say at all.”

According to Hiromoto, the redevelopment process began in the summer, starting with six weeks of public outreach, engagement, and listening.

“[The process] included three large format public meetings: at the Coliseum, at Campbell Park Rec Center, and an additional meeting organized by Imam Askia Aquil at SPC Midtown,” she said. “[Aquil] also encouraged the attendees to self-organize and reminded them of the community’s responsibility to make their collective voices heard.”

But meetings aside, many in Midtown may still be wary that their voices will not be considered when decisions are made.

“I’m not so much a stakeholder, but [I] have a voice,” said Roberts. “But how’s [voicing my opinion] going to help me? My community? My situation, my store, my housing? [How’s this going to] affect my children growing up – the park that’s right here, are you going to tear it down to make way for this? How is it going to affect me then?”

All of the community feedback received is documented by the HKS team, according to Hiromoto.

“We [have] heard several stories of broken promises,” she said. “It is important to learn from the past and aspire towards the future. We have an amazing opportunity to do things the right way on this site. The local authenticity of St. Petersburg, history, culture and the Gas Plant neighborhood are very important to the diversity, vitality, and success of the project.”

A debt to the community

Residents of Midtown are concerned that the preservation of their history may not translate to protection and respect for the actual people that built that history. A project of this magnitude could easily cause rent and property prices to soar, forcing the community to move once more.

“I would like to know what they are going to do with it in conjunction with the existing community and the community that they removed when they built the Tropicana Field,” said James. “What are you going to do? [Don’t] just acknowledge the history of the area, but [ingrain] that in everything that’s done in the area.”

The decision to keep I-175 in the Concept Master Plan may feel like a bad metaphor to some. Keeping the interstate means keeping the physical barrier that divides the African-American communities of Midtown from the Trop and the surrounding downtown area. Instead of tearing it down and uniting the people of St. Petersburg, keeping the interstate could potentially perpetuate misconceptions about a community that has already endured so much.

“Midtown is like life because I’ve lived in Midtown or here in Methodist Town all my life,” said James. “That’s what I know. People outside the community have this misconception of Midtown that it’s some big, bad, dangerous area. Midtown is life; it’s my life. It’s my neighborhood. It’s my family.”

According to Scott, it was recently written in a local paper that there is a 30-year debt that is due to the African American community.

“I can’t agree more. I’m fearful to think what we might entertain,” said Scott.

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