ST. PETERSBURG — Downtown’s offerings may have spread west along Central Avenue and up Beach Drive, but what preservationists dub the city’s “first block” — the one between Central and First Avenue North and Second and Third streets — remains emblematic of the city, to many.
The buildings that line the block, many of which date back to the late-1800s and early-1900s, house a diverse spate of business, including downtown mainstay Mastry’s, a handful of bars, Lucky Dill Deli and the Jannus Live open-air music venue.
A group of artists has joined the effort to preserve the block. An art show that kicks off Saturday at the Craftsman House Gallery, at 2955 Central Ave., will feature numerous artists’ takes on the block.
“It was the very first block of our city,” said Jeff Schorr, owner of the gallery. “We need City Council to landmark this block or else it could be gone.”
While nobody is trying to knock any buildings down there, preservationists say that if there isn’t a historic designation in place to hinder development, developers would have free rein.
“It’s not a threatened block,” said Emily Elwin of St. Petersburg Preservation, the nonprofit group seeking historic designation for the block. “We don’t anticipate it going anywhere, but it’s really a chance to recognize these buildings and let everyone benefit from this being a landmark.”
The art show, which runs through December, is a way to spread awareness of the block, its history and the efforts to keep the old buildings that line it intact. Schorr, who is a member of St. Petersburg Preservation’s board of directors, said he got the idea because art and history are often entwined.
“Lots of times ... when people start talking about preservation, the arts come up,” he said.
With so many music venues and colorful nightlife establishments in the area, telling the story of St. Petersburg’s first block through art just made sense, those behind the show say.
In some ways, the First Block show reflects the role the arts community is playing in St. Petersburg politics and in the local economy.
The arts community is too diverse to forge a political party — it’d be like herding cats, as one artist put it — but artists are becoming more visible in local politics. Many weighed in on both sides of the Lens debate, for example. And on Wednesday, the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance hosted a mayoral debate that focused on what how the city should foster the arts.
“It’s natural that the arts want a voice,” Schorr said. “On the other hand, the politicians are actually listening to us.”
In April, the City Council asked the Community Preservation Commission to look into designating the entire block as historic. Currently, only the old Detroit Hotel and the Binnie-Bishop building are protected. The commission recommended the City Council to approve historic designation for the entire block last month. Property owners along the block can object to St. Petersburg Preservation’s application but could still lose if the commission deems the block historically significant enough.
Part of the Craftsman House Gallery show’s aim is to illustrate the block;s significance in a variety of ways.
Eight artists have contributed paintings, sculpture and ceramic pieces representing what the block means to them.
Ceramic artist Charlie Parker is showing a pair of dice, in part as a play on words — dice are also blocks, after all — and in part to suggest that not protecting the block would be a role of the dice.
Parker said he and his wife have so many memories of the area: getting pizza at Fortunato’s, for example, and seeing the band Galactic play at what was then called Jannus Landing.
“That’s our favorite block in the whole world,” he said.
Other artists who contributed pieces to the show let the block’s sensory appeal inspire them.
“I grew up in St. Petersburg, and I’m very involved in preservation,” said artist Carrie Jadus, who submitted a painting depicting a colorful daytime scene along Central Avenue. “I’ve always felt like one of the best parts of St. Petersburg is our history. For, me it’s just about the aesthetics and the feel of the place.”