Memories provided by Russell Cato

‘It’s a sad feeling to know that this property removed a lot of culture,’ Russell Cato said, fighting back emotion during the Gas Plant and Laurel Park reunion.

ST. PETERSBURG — Hundreds of Black families, businesses, churches, and community spaces were displaced or destroyed by the construction of Tropicana Field. Former residents of the Gas Plant and Laurel Park neighborhoods and their descendants share memories of a safe, supportive, and thriving community and the lasting impact of its demolition.

The story of the Gas Plant and Laurel Park neighborhoods is both unique to Pinellas County as well as a history that has been repeated across this country, across generations of Black and Brown communities. If we are to move forward with race equity, we must know, understand, honor, and be changed by our collective past.

Russell Cato

Russell Cato, who calls himself a Gas Plant native, lived on Fourth Avenue and 10th Street South, attended Davis Elementary School and later Gibbs High School, and recalled when African-American families had to relocate out of the district.

Lamenting the interstate construction that “had come through the area, kind of knocking us out,” Cato admitted he was saddened by the destruction of the area’s unique community.

“I remember when we were kind of forced to get out of the Gas Plant area,” he said. “A lot of people kind of lost their culture.”

Cato asserted that “there were some great people that lived in the Gas Plant area,” including Archie Boston, Jr., who would become a renowned graphic design artist and professor.

“It’s a sad feeling to know that this property removed a lot of culture,” Cato said, fighting back emotion during the Gas Plant and Laurel Park reunion. “So, as I sit in this chair right now and think about the memories, I don’t want to cry. I just want to feel good about it. It’s hard; it’s hard. It’s very hard.”

Cato noted his mother was one of the last to move out of the area and wondered if young people could truly understand what home ownership meant to African Americans back then.

“There were Blacks who owned their own homes during that time, and my grandmother was one of those,” he said.

As young and old people alike attended the reunion, Cato added, “I’m so proud of the people that are coming back to look at this area!”

Russell Cato recorded her memories of growing up in the Gas Plant District on Dec. 12, 2021, at the Gas Plant/Laurel Park Reunion.

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