Gasparilla’s alter ego: St. Petersburg

Published on: January 30, 2013

The oft-maligned pier with its signature inverted pyramid design may be doomed but that didn’t stop hundreds of people from enjoying it on the same day that 300,000 people were packed into Tampa for Gasparilla. Mitch Traphagen Photo

The oft-maligned pier with its signature inverted pyramid design may be doomed but that didn’t stop hundreds of people from enjoying it on the same day that 300,000 people were packed into Tampa for Gasparilla. Mitch Traphagen Photo


No women were tearing off their shirts. Not a single plastic cup of beer was dumped over anyone’s head in the street. Although a few strands of beads could be seen here and there, there was peace at the numerous museums, sidewalk cafes, and the farmer’s market on Saturday in St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, just over the Howard Franklin Bridge, an estimated 300,000 people were packed into downtown Tampa cheering on an invasion. The Tampa Police Department was pretty happy with how things went; with only 70 or so people arrested and 130 citations written, it was a relatively calm year. On that day, St. Petersburg was Gasparilla’s alter ego. If you wanted a glass of rum, you could sit down at a sidewalk cafe and ask a waiter to bring you one.

St. Petersburg lives in several shadows. It is Tampa’s smaller twin, it is less worldly than the Russian city of the same name, and in the minds of those who live elsewhere, it generally doesn’t even exist as anything more than “Tampa Bay.” Others still consider it God’s waiting room, a bastion of old people simply waiting to die. But those days are largely in the past. Somehow, this city seemed to make better use of the boom years to better survive the quieter years. Downtown Tampa on any given weekend has an almost post-apocalyptic feel. Downtown St. Petersburg, however, while not necessarily buzzing with frantic activity, is alive with frequent events in waterfront parks and a popular farmer’s market.

It is safe to say that someone, perhaps a lot of someones, tossed their cookies on Bayshore Boulevard on Saturday, just as the saying goes that if you put 50,000 monkeys in front of typewriters, one of them will bang out a literary masterpiece. Saturday was the big city’s biggest party, the area’s answer to Mardi Gras, and the revelry, combined with beer, rum and sunshine, almost certainly produced what is medically known as emesis. Even the Tampa Bay Times warned that while the city excels at cleaning up the mess left behind by more than a quarter of a million people, joggers along the iconic waterfront boulevard should be prepared to deal with, as they put it, some “stench.”

Meanwhile in downtown St. Pete, a little girl furiously pedaled her bicycle, with the training wheels barely touching the ground, towards the Museum of Fine Arts, while her bemused father called out to her to turn around. She did, smiling as she again pedaled past the many sidewalk strollers she had just passed a moment before. Other children climbed trees and people gathered around the numerous corner hotdog stands to enjoy lunch with their legs dangling over the water at the Vinoy Park.

Some people think of St. Petersburg as God's waiting room.  This guy would probably beg to differ. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Some people think of St. Petersburg as God’s waiting room. This guy would probably beg to differ. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Along the oft-maligned St. Petersburg Pier, joggers jogged, people fished and families took in the city skyline or the dozens of sailboats out on the bay from the inverted pyramid’s observation deck. The only sign of the growing discord about the fate of the 40-year-old structure were the many signs stating, “Stop the Lens.” The Lens is a design chosen by the city to replace the upside pyramid and the various shops within with a more artistic design, notably absent the shops, that, truth be told, seem to come and go with an unfortunate regularity. On a beautiful winter weekend, the long stretch of black asphalt leading to the building is wonderfully picturesque, with a cool breeze from the bay. During the peak of summer, however, it can be a walk of hellish proportions.

The seemingly doomed pier does have one major thing going for it — the fifth floor observation deck offers what is arguably the best possible view of Tampa Bay. It is an unparalleled view of the St. Petersburg skyline, the distant Tampa skyline, the smokestacks of the TECO power plant in Apollo Beach, and dozens of sailboats, large and small, cutting through the calm water using only the power of wind.

On such a perfect Saturday, Michelle and I decided to join the children and a few tourists in pedaling around the city. Just outside of the inverted pyramid, a young man was renting surreys — bicycles shaped like small cars that could accommodate two, four or even six riders. All of the seats had pedals and steering wheels and, while the force required for motion was shared among all, the steering was the sole responsibility of the person in the front left hand seat. Sitting on the right side, my continual attempts at steering to disprove that reality as Michelle weaved through the tourists on the broad sidewalks was for naught. That, of course, did not stop me from trying.

Upon renting our two-seated surrey, the young business owner told us to be careful and if we decided to sue him over a mishap, all we would get would be a few rusty bikes but that he would get to wipe out his debt and start over again. And with that, he smiled and waved and we pedaled off, riding from the historic Vinoy Hotel, through a park along Beach Drive, to the farmers market and out into the bay at Demens Landing Park.

Mitch Traphagen Photo

Mitch Traphagen Photo

There is something liberating about being a tourist in your own city. There are no worries about going the wrong way, to the wrong place or looking foolish. After living here for any length of time, we all know that looking foolish is nearly impossible in Florida. On the contrary, it was fun to see the city as millions of visitors do. Perhaps next week we’ll try to do that in Tampa. Certainly, by then, perhaps with a few rain showers for good measure, the place should largely be emesis-free.

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