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Saturday, Apr 19, 2014

Iorio: St. Pete’s distinct identity


This year began with The New York Times Travel Section highlighting “52 Places to Go in 2014.” Some of the locations may take a little planning, time and money, such as Cape Town, South Africa, Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Arctic Circle, but the No. 49 spot doesn’t take any effort at all. It is none other than St. Petersburg, Fla.!

I have to agree that St. Petersburg would make a good vacation spot — it has a beautiful waterfront, wonderful hotels, interesting museums, baseball and great restaurants. The Chihuly Collection is my favorite art spot, and Beach Drive is a place for a memorable dinner and a stroll in a vibrant urban setting.

St. Petersburg and Tampa are two distinctly different cities but share similarities throughout their history.

As with Tampa, it was the railroad that generated growth and recognition for the tiny town. A Russian emigrant, Pyotr Alexeyevich Dementyev, or Peter Demens as he was known in the United States, brought the railroad to Central Avenue in 1888 and called the area St. Petersburg after his hometown in Russia. At the time, the little settlement was still part of Hillsborough County. Pinellas County didn’t gain its independence and form its own county until 1912. Lacking bridges to connect St. Petersburg to Tampa and points beyond, the railroad became an essential connection to lift St. Petersburg out of its isolation.

From the start, St. Petersburg lured Northern tourists, touting fishing and the climate. Even as far back as 1897, a special publication published by the West Hillsborough Times (the early name of the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times) highlighted the town in an article titled “No Place in Florida Offers Greater Attractions for the Tourist.”

Back then these were the city amenities: “three general stores, a jewelry shop, a novelty store, two drugstores, a barber shop, a bicycle store, a livery stable, an ice company, a cigar factory, a steam laundry, one tailor, two bakeries, two millinery shops, a blacksmith and wheelwright, a sawmill, several hotels and boarding houses, and an opera house.”

Today’s description in The New York Times describes a very different experience for the tourist: “With a redeveloped waterfront, a stunning Dali Museum, and sophisticated restaurants in place, the downtown energy is now heading up historic Central Avenue, thanks in part to the craft beer scene.”

What a difference 117 years make!

St. Petersburg incorporated as a city in 1903, built a city hall and ran its own police department. In the first decades of the 20th Century, the St. Petersburg Times ran a regular column titled “Why I Like St. Petersburg,” chronicling the stories of snowbirds that came to enjoy the good weather and ended up staying.

In 1925, W.J. Ottoway credited St. Petersburg with saving his life, declaring that before he moved to the city, doctors gave him only three years to live — and that was 18 years ago! In 1932, Mrs. Edwin Lyndall believed she had found the “Fountain of Youth” in St. Petersburg, commenting that her Northern friends marvel at her health and vitality after returning from a visit.

A boom period from 1920 to 1926 brought new housing, office buildings, hotels and cultural features such as the Coliseum, the Florida Theatre, and the Million Dollar Pier, the replacement of which generates much debate today. St. Petersburg became home to the “World’s Most Unusual Drugstore,” when “Doc” Webb opened his retail establishment that drew people from a broad area. Most importantly, the Gandy Bridge was constructed, which dramatically improved the commute between St. Petersburg and Tampa, dropping the distance from 43 miles to 19 miles.

Crossing the bridge between St. Petersburg and Tampa seems to be a great divide for some. Over the years many have seen a rivalry between Tampa and St. Petersburg, but the communities are really complementary, reinforcing the best that each has to offer.

Geography has played a big role in the development of each city, with Tampa becoming a larger business center due to its port and general access by land. But St. Petersburg has carved out a distinct identity as a livable city with a focus on cultural amenities.

The drive across any of the bridges can be viewed as a connection rather than a barrier.

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and I share a love for our local histories, and while in office we teamed up to discuss the differences and the similarities between our two communities in a forum called “The Tale of Two Cities.”

We will be together again on Jan. 22 at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club at noon for a forum before the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.

As the newly elected mayor in St. Petersburg seeks to raise the visibility of his city, The New York Times recognition is a nice start.

Pam Iorio, the former mayor of Tampa, is a speaker and author. Her history column, Our Journey, runs biweekly in The Tampa Tribune. Contact her at