Story by JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2002
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
For years, men gathered to gab and play checkers on a decorated board at Joe Yates barbershop, 1239 22nd St. S. This photo was taken in 2001, before the shop closed. Yates died in November.
ST. PETERSBURG -- When the noon sun burns The Deuces, the Sno-Peak's windows are shut tight. The ancient takeout stand looks closed, like nearly everything else on 22nd Street S.
But after dark, six nights a week, drifting vapors of frying chicken season the shadows. People cluster around two window counters and wait for food.
On a recent Saturday, men leaned against a pickup, talking about the Bucs. Another in a silky orange skullcap hummed a hymn and sipped water from a plastic bottle.
Inside, his fingers pale with flour, Bobby Bowers kneaded raw gizzards. His family has owned the Sno-Peak for 50 years.
Bowers, 46, remembers 22nd Street's old days.
"There was always something going on. Somebody out 24-7, let me tell you. Tell you the truth, this is about the only place left now," Bowers said, popping the gizzards into a crackling deep fry.
In its day, 22nd Street S was considered one of the nation's African-American main streets, a smaller version of such promenades as Atlanta's Sweet Auburn and Beale Street in Memphis.
Its double 2's gave the street an enduring nickname. During the late 1950s and early '60s, The Deuces boasted more than 100 businesses, peaking at about 111 in 1960, according to records. Perhaps 75 percent were black-owned.
Old-timers talk about black-tie balls at the nightclub called the Manhattan Casino. There, big-name musicians cooked the finest 1930s jazz, Sister Rosetta Tharpe sang about crossing the Jordan and James Brown shouted 1960s soul. From Louis Armstrong to Ray Charles, everyone played the Manhattan.
Look at the desolate street now, and it's hard to believe what it once was. But knowing what this ribbon of road once meant is key to reading the city itself, where it has been and where it might be headed as the school district prepares for radical changes and the city tries to revive an area it calls Midtown.
The Deuces lies near the heart of Midtown, where city government has drawn a line around predominantly black neighborhoods, singling them out for attention that leaders hope will bring vibrant new development.
Irony looms large in The Deuces' legacy. It was a Jim Crow strip that grew on St. Petersburg's margins during an era when blacks couldn't move freely in most of the city. But to many African-Americans older than 35, 22nd Street was home.
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Rosalie Peck at the Manhattan Casino.
A black person could be born, live and die on 22nd Street. There is nothing like it now. Doctors, lawyers and accountants conducted business near clothing stores, markets, a Badcock furniture store and a Postal Service substation.
Crowds packed Geech's barbecue stand, and Gibbs High School homecoming parades twisted through the neighborhood. Easter brought out families to stroll in their Sunday best.
The Royal movie theater at 10th Avenue packed in families. Mercy Hospital dominated the 1300 block, and a funeral home on Ninth served the bereaved. Mom-and-pop restaurants, beauty salons and soda shops sprouted beside cobblers, tailors and taverns.
"It brought so much joy into our lives. We looked forward to meeting there. People just had fun," said Constance Samuels, 63, who grew up in the neighborhood.
Public officials, business leaders and struggling store owners wish 22nd Street pulsed as it once did. Not much remains to suggest the street's busy past.
About 20 businesses (most black-owned), are left in the old core, Fifth to 15th avenues S. The neon flickered out years ago. Empty storefronts line the way. Vacant lots yawn. During winter, homeless people huddle next to trash barrel fires.
In contrast to decades past, when officials wanted little to do with The Deuces, government agencies are the biggest 22nd Street owners. The last major private project was the United House of Prayer church, built in 1996 at 15th Avenue.
Mayor Rick Baker's administration has made improving the city's most depressed corridor a priority. "It can't be exactly the way it was. Times have changed too much. But it can serve the community better than it is now," he said. (See "A Happening Place" )
Despite its decline, 22nd Street still sparks wistful conversations. People of a certain generation reach toward its memory as they would a vanished grail. In a larger world that treated them badly, it was a place they could be together in peace at home.