The Deuces Live seeks community input for 22nd Street renaissance project

The Deuces Live is looking for your input on the future of the 22nd Street corridor.

BY MARK PARKER, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – The historic 22nd Street South corridor — affectionately known as The Deuces — was once the jewel in the crown of St. Pete’s Black community.

The nonprofit organization The Deuces Live was recently awarded the prestigious Our Town grant from the National Endowment of Arts and is seeking to partner with the community to restore the area to its former glory.

“Heritage, soul, potential,” said Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg Chief Equity Officer Carl Lavender when asked for three words to describe what is great about the 22nd Street, which is a Florida-certified Main Street.

Starting as a dirt road in the country and born out of segregation and necessity, The Deuces became a lifeline for the Black community. During its peak around 1960, more than 100 Black-owned or operated businesses thrived, and musical legends such as Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, and B.B. King wowed audiences at the Manhattan Casino.

The Royal Theater circa 1948

“People could literally live and die on that street,” said Veatrice Farrell, executive director of The Deuces Live. “The hospital was on 15th Avenue and 22nd Street, and the funeral home was on 9th Avenue and 22nd Street.”

Segregation made it hard for African Americans to go where they wanted to go and do what they wanted to do. Creating what became known as St. Petersburg’s Black Wall Street was a solution.

“People found they could live their lives away from that on 22nd Street,” said Farrell.

Rose Smith-Hayes, 75, has lived on The Deuces in the 50s and 60s. She wistfully recalls the memories she made there as a little girl.

“My mom wouldn’t leave my brother and me alone, so if we didn’t have a babysitter and there was a big band or show at the Manhattan Casino, she would park the car, and we would sit on the hood where we could see in the window,” Smith-Hayes said. “We would watch them dance, and we could hear the band play. That was one of my really best memories.”

Smith-Hayes also fondly recalls the food on the strip. Barbeque sauce that people would travel from Tampa for, ham sandwiches stuffed with so much meat that she would go home and make two sandwiches from one, and probably her favorite — the soft-serve ice cream shop.

“Snow Peak had the soft-serve ice cream that I just loved,” recalled Smith-Hayes. “We would get fried chicken, fried gizzards, and the ice cream. I would like to see things like that come back.”

It was more than just the homes, businesses, entertainment, and food, however. It was also a culture.

By 1939 or 1940, Sidney Harden, Sr. saved enough money to open a grocery store in the north half of a building on the corner of 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue South.

“Girls would put on their beautiful dresses, their shoes, and they would literally just walk The Deuces looking pretty,” Smith-Hayes said. “Guys would dress up, put on their nice clothes and shoes and their hats, and they would stroll The Deuces. It was just the place to be.”

“And all of that was destroyed. The whole neighborhood of people just destroyed.”

First came desegregation, and then an interstate was built through the heart of the 22nd Street enclave. Between 1974 and 1981, families and businesses alike were uprooted to make way for Interstate 275.

“I don’t know where everybody went, a lot of them ended up in Childs Park, but it was a destruction of a neighborhood, destruction of a culture, destruction of a way of life,” asserted Smith-Hayes. “Because when they did that, the fun stopped.”

Yet after decades of blight and broken promises, there is reason to be hopeful and excited for The Deuces again.

Farrell is proud that The Deuces Live made the I-275 underpass that once upended the neighborhood their own. That includes improved landscaping, murals on the embankment, and LED lighting that illuminates the underpass colors at night.

They have installed lighting on the Pinellas County Trail, and industrial concrete signs have been converted to six different pieces of art. They also host Saturday movies at the historic Royal Theater and Thursday evening Block Party music and vendor events.

In 2014, Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy opened Chief’s Creole Café in the old Sidney Harden’s grocery store.

In 2018, The Deuces Live partnered with the neighboring Warehouse Arts District and the City of St. Petersburg to develop an award-winning “Action Plan” to revitalize the community. More than $300,000 worth of resources were invested to transform this area of south St. Petersburg into a vibrant, walkable neighborhood once more, with a focus on music, arts, food, culture, and heritage.

The ongoing efforts have recently been further aided by being just one of 51 recipients of the NEA Our Town grants, which fund projects that integrate arts, culture and design into efforts that strengthen communities. In addition, the City of St. Petersburg has pledged to match that funding up to $100,000.

“I want to thank the NEA for recognizing the significance and opportunity on the historic Deuces,” said Mayor Rick Kriseman. “Thanks to the vision of our partners in developing this area, and the NEA, we are one step closer to realizing the full potential of this corridor. This will be a special place that brings people together. I am looking forward to taking the next steps of our shared journey on The Deuces together.”

The Deuces Live has hired Ashton Design for the next step in the journey. For more than 35 years they have been creating brands and conceiving placemaking initiatives. These are featured at several Major League Baseball Parks as well as similar main streets in Maryland. They also know that they need the community’s help for this to work.

“We’re most successful when this process is collaborative,” said Alexi Ikonomou, designer at Ashton. “We rely on stakeholders’ insights and the communication and dialogue, as well our immersive and extensive research about the project.”

The project is currently in the first of four phases, which is stakeholder engagement. That is why those in the community must take the survey at https://bit.ly/3nY9c8J.

“If I had to say one thing to everyone, it would be to please take that survey,” Farrell said.

The potential is as high as the history is deep on The Deuces, as echoed by Lavender at the last stakeholder’s meeting.

“If properly navigated, it could really be the true evidence of the melting pot of St. Petersburg,” Lavender said. “There is no other intersection in our city that has that potential. Not downtown, not on Central, not on Tyrone Boulevard. No other intersection in our city has the potential to be the model for what America should really look like.”

He continued, “Man, what a great Canvas for a terrific poet, writer, or navigators because it’s just fantastic, but it’s also a challenge.”

Your input will inform their decisions. Take the short survey and share your thoughts at https://bit.ly/3nY9c8J.

To reach Mark Parker, email mparker@theweeklychallenger.com

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