[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Norman Jones Jr., a local historian and a community consultant for LiveArts, which is producing a musical about the Manhattan Casino, pauses near the stage of the old building recently during research for the production. The Manhattan, which was open from 1925 to 1968, drew some of the biggest names in music to St. Petersburg. Jones father, Norman Jones Sr., had a public relations office on 22nd Street. His son is steeped in the history of the street.
Reuben McCall liked the way home felt. And he had always wanted to run a nightclub.
"Ever since I was little, I wanted to own a Black Cat," said McCall, 73, referring to a 1940s club on Second Avenue S. "It was full of people. From the time I was 15 years old, I wanted me a Black Cat."
McCall opened the Champagne Lounge at 618 22nd St. S on Dec. 23, 1967.
He didn't know it, but he had just missed the crest of 22nd Street's wave. It peaked about 1962, then before anyone realized it, began a slow slide toward the rocks.
Integration was one of the forces that washed away The Deuces of old. Mercy Hospital closed in 1966 after Mound Park Hospital -- later called Bayfront Medical Center -- began admitting black patients. New doors opened in neighborhoods previously off-limits. People moved out to Bartlett Park, Lakewood and Childs Park.
"It was like shooting into a covey of birds. Everywhere people could go they were gone," said Paul Barco, who owned a 22nd Street grocery store and has lived on the 900 block since the mid 1950s.
Shut in for generations, people suddenly saw the possibility of freedom. Many left black neighborhoods simply because they could, not realizing they might also be leaving behind the sense of community that had sustained them.
The new opportunities bled away residents who had been 22nd Street business customers. Stores closed and jobs disappeared. Central Plaza and Tyrone Square Mall offered new places to shop.
Bayfront Center provided a new waterfront venue for big-time entertainers, many of whom also began playing armories in Tampa and St. Petersburg. Nationally, big name musicians who once electrified Manhattan crowds regularly began playing big venues elsewhere. They no longer had to rely on chitlin circuit stops to make ends meet. The new era stymied George Grogan, the master promoter. Suddenly, the old ballroom seemed dated. Its music stopped in 1968.
The same year, a city sanitation workers' strike spawned riots. Some 22nd Street businesses burned, bringing St. Petersburg a taste of what larger cities endured during the turbulent '60s, and further clouding life on The Deuces.
During the same decade, the drug culture emerged nationwide. Marijuana, cocaine and heroin showed up on 22nd, as elsewhere in town; drugs were reported in northeast enclaves like Shore Acres and Snell Isle, too.
Police said dope dens festered near the old Manhattan. And gunfire rattled the neighborhood where the best music once echoed. People swept up live rounds and spent shells from the sidewalks. "It became the underbelly of the city," said Lou Brown, the real estate agent.
Then the interstate highway cut through. By the late 1970s, homes and businesses were being uprooted from the 22nd Street community, draining more residents away from a struggling neighborhood. Some old-timers say it was the community's death blow.
The Champagne Lounge stayed open until 1993, a few months after the state lifted its liquor license because of drug activity inside. The city bought the property last year for $165,000.
Unused for nine years, a scarred bar still sits in the old club. A coil of warping 45 rpm records sags against a cardboard box. Amid the wreckage of tumbled stools, stacked cartons and haywire appliances, Reuben McCall recently reminisced.
"For many years, it was one of the nicest places you'd want to go in," McCall said. He hired local bands like the Brownstones to entertain.
McCall wasn't suspected of selling the drugs police said were dealt in the club, and he wasn't charged with anything when the state beverage department lifted the lounge's liquor license.
It happened in a different era than the one McCall knew when he opened.
"Most of the people I was used to started disappearing," McCall said. "The younger ones had a different way of having fun."
As recently as May 30, someone shot a man twice from a car window at 22nd Street S and Seventh Avenue. Usually, at least between Fifth and 15th avenues, the street is quieter. Police records for this year's first few months show eight calls about drugs and two for assaults.
Some small-business life remains.
Grady McCall -- no relation to Reuben -- starts cooking "two-dollar holler" breakfast specials by 6:30 a.m. McCall's Family Restaurant is at 963 22nd St. S, the same address where the S&S Market thrived from the late 1940s until the late 1960s.
At lunch, it feeds retirees. Construction workers pop in, looking for homestyle liver and onions instead of a sandwich off a cart.
Up the street, faithful customers carry away steaming cartons of grouper, whiting and catfish from Lorene's Fish House. On a good day, 45 to 50 combination platters are sold, said co-owner Arthur Office.
In the Boys and Girls Club, laughter echoes off the Quonset walls of what was the Royal Theater. It is the street's happiest sound. The club director talks about showing movies again, as in the old days.