The Gas Plant and Laurel Park neighborhoods were filled with homes, churches, businesses, a library, a theater, schools, and playgrounds. They were thriving communities with rich histories.
BY JEFFERY L. PEATEN III, Contributor
ST. PETERSBURG – Next month, a reunion will be held for former residents and their descendants of the Gas Plant and Laurel Park neighborhoods. Both neighborhoods were razed to make way for what some called progress, and others called a broken promise. The Dec. 12 celebration of the past is for former residents and their direct descendants.
Voices Heard, Voices Matter (VHVM) of the Bloomberg Harvard Group, the African American Heritage Association, Institute on Black Life at the University of South Florida the City of St. Petersburg, and now The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg (FHSP) has now joined the effort.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg (FHSP), a private foundation formed in 2013 following the sale of the nonprofit Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, is partially funding the event. Carl Lavender, FSHP chief equity officer, believes the timing of the reunion, which takes place as the debate surrounding the Tropicana Redevelopment Plan continues, is impeccable.
“Timing was divine,” said Lavender. “With the new mayor coming in with an understanding of the legacy. It is perfect.”
When construction began on the Florida Suncoast Dome, now known as Tropicana Field, more than 30 years ago, hundreds of Black families were displaced. The Gas Plant neighborhood was the second African-American neighborhood formed in St. Petersburg between 1890-1900 and Laurel Park, which was acquired by the city in 1988 and would ultimately be demolished so the land could be used as a parking lot for the stadium, was a public housing complex built in the 1940s.
Needless to say, the demolition of these neighborhoods to make way for a baseball stadium was a devastating blow to St. Petersburg’s Black community.The Gas Plant and Laurel Park neighborhoods were filled with homes, churches, businesses, a library, a theater, schools, and playgrounds. They were thriving communities with rich histories. Many hope that redevelopment will include plans that will usher in a new era of prosperity in the city’s African-American community.
“This event is important because we cannot go deeper into the century without recognizing the history,” continued Lavender. “It is time to celebrate those impacted and their ability to sustain.”
Voices Heard, Voices Matter (VHVM) is one of several groups involved in organizing the reunion. Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, and a member of VHVM, agrees with Lavender.
“The reunion is a way to memorialize their narratives and incorporate their lives, histories and stories into our future,” said Mathis. “These neighborhoods had a rich history of businesses, residents, families, restaurants, bars, churches and community. It wasn’t just the physical buildings that were removed, it was a sense of community and the social, financial, cultural and familial ties that brought people together.”
The reunion will celebrate the rich history of these two African-American neighborhoods, and provide a forum for former residents ousted from their homes to make way for the construction of the baseball stadium. They’ll be able to share their thoughts and ideas on how to move forward with redevelopment plans for the area.
Perhaps most importantly, the Gas Plant/Laurel Park Reunion will ensure an important part of the city’s history is not lost or forgotten.
In addition to celebrating the past, the reunion will serve to remind the city of the promises that still need to be fulfilled to those who were displaced and the city’s entire African American community. The Gas Plant/Laurel Park Reunion offers a unique opportunity to do so, while also celebrating the history and shared experiences of those who lived in these neighborhoods.
“Why is it important for FHSP to be involved,” asked Lavender. “The reunion gives the foundation a chance to listen, reflect on, and coalition build with VHVM and others dedicated to equity to focus on what happens next.”
Activities are scheduled from noon until 3 p.m. Participants will have the option to attend in person or virtually via Zoom and Facebook livestream. Onsite activities will take place at Tropicana Field in Parking Lot 4.
Those who wish to attend, please click here to register or call (727) 371-6153 for more information. The registration deadline is Nov. 30. There is no cost to attend the reunion.