Crab Tree: from icon to eyesore

Published March 17, 2007

CLEARWATER - In the years after World War II, a majestic oak on the corner lot was where the neighborhood men would gather in the evenings to gossip, play checkers and eat crab.

Banned from downtown establishments and most beaches because of the color of their skin, the black men of North Greenwood created their own outdoor social hall underneath its shade at the corner of Tangerine Street and Greenwood Avenue, now Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

But it was the crabs, the ones the young men would harvest from Stevenson Creek or Tampa Bay and bring back to the corner lot for boiling over an open fire, that gave the tree its name.

"It was the congregating spot," said E.J. Robinson, 75, of Clearwater, who spent 11 years of his young life, starting in 1944, living just across the street. "We would just say 'meet us under the Crab Tree.' "

But what was once a community asset has become a community eyesore in this corner of north Clearwater.

The lot surrounding the Crab Tree is now littered with trash. Instead of heading to their homes at sundown, folks now hang around until 3 and 4 a.m.

A murder at the Crab Tree in 1990 changed the atmosphere. Drugs have soiled the area as well.

The downturn has earned the tree a dubious distinction. Clearwater Police Capt. T. Holloway, who worked the area for 12 years starting in 1987, said the Crab Tree is likely the only tree in Florida with its own address. Police were getting so many calls to the tree, they gave it one: 1303 North Greenwood.

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In the 1940s and early 1950s, Leola Washington's parents owned the New Deal Cabstand across from the Crab Tree. It was the cafe where the cabbies received their calls and where folks bought dinner plates and drinks.

But it was the Crab Tree that was the social hub, where gossip was fed and a community forged.

Washington never went there herself. Most women didn't.

"I was a school teacher and there were just certain places I went and certain places I didn't," said Washington, 79, a retired teacher. "It was mostly a place for men. But everybody knew where it was."

Robinson left the neighborhood in 1963, but he remained in Clearwater. He remembers the Crab Tree fondly.

"The older men would play checkers, the younger boys would go out and catch crabs," Robinson said. "The crabs were boiled in an open pot under the tree and people would have crab."

Now a resident of Brendla Drive in Clearwater, Robinson never stops by the Crab Tree anymore. He hasn't for years. He said the drugs changed everything.

"Our enjoyment wasn't destructible," Robinson said. "We had beer, wine. But no drugs. Today, you might find anything under the Crab Tree. When I pass the Crab Tree now, I wave at the guys. I don't stop and hang out like I used to."

The Crab Tree's transformation is all the more glaring recently.

A wooden fence separates the tree from a new community redevelopment project dubbed Greenwood Park. An assortment of plastic chairs line the fence underneath the Crab Tree. A police substation sits across the street.

Jeff Kronschnabl, Clearwater's director of development and neighborhood services, said the city has been working with the corner's property owners, but nothing seems to keep the lots free of empty beer bottles and trash.

"In recent years, younger, less law-abiding characters established a presence in and around the Crab Tree and the community nature of it changed dramatically," said Wayne Shelor, 52, Clearwater police spokesman, a lifelong resident who has known of the tree since he was a teen.

"The Crab Tree, the life of the Crab Tree being a community gathering spot, has pretty much run its course. It was a community beacon. But like so much of our society, its better days are behind us now, regrettably."

On a recent morning at the Crab Tree, folks sat in chairs chatting. A woman moved about, almost in a dance, eating food out of a cup. When asked to speak about the Crab Tree, the woman couldn't be bothered.

"Keep it moving, brother, keep it moving" she said.

No one else wanted to speak.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.