Sense of Community

Sense of Community

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    Three names shape one city

    Developers tied to its first two names failed to meet town expectations, but as Gulfport, the city reinvents itself.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 1, 2001

    [Times photo: Jennifer Davis]
    Glenn McCrackin, 89, conducts the Harmonica Club practice on Wednesdays. The club performed more than 60 times last year and donated much of the proceeds to charities and the Gulfport senior center.

    GULFPORT -- People move here for a myriad of reasons: cozy bungalows, large lots with huge, shady oaks, proximity to the water.

    But once homeowners invest in Gulfport, they don't just become converts to the way of life the city offers -- they become evangelists, urging others to buy into Gulfport, too.

    Roger Turner, who once owned a stained-glass shop in Gulfport and writes for the weekly newspaper, the Gulfport Gabber, said he felt like part of the city as soon as he moved in 11 years ago.

    "It's hard to put your finger on, but it's so easy to become a part of Gulfport and participate in what's going on here," Turner said. "I don't know why, I don't know how that is, but I know I've never lived anywhere that's quite like this."

    Gulfport's diversity has become one of its defining characteristics. Racially, the small city has a long-held reputation for being unwelcoming to blacks, though many who say the city outgrew racism years ago are sensitive to lingering skepticism about how African Americans are treated there.

    Meanwhile, gays and lesbians say they were drawn to Gulfport's burgeoning arts scene and apparent lack of hostility. A thriving arts community, supported philosophically and sometimes financially by the city itself, has helped bring Gulfport its modern-day flair.

    Michelle King and her husband bought a home in Gulfport after renting in Pass-a-Grille for a few years.

    "When we got ready to buy a house, we were looking for something that had "community,' " said King, who lives near the city's redevelopment district. She was lured to the city in the late 1980s by a friend.

    "I had driven down (Gulfport Boulevard), but I never had gone actually "inside,' so my friend drove me around there. The houses were reasonable, and the area was great," she said. "One of the things that we liked about it was the fact that it was diverse and looked like a lot of interesting people were moving in."

    Gulfport's settlement history stretches to 1867, when Civil War veteran Mames Barnett built his home at what would become 49th Street and 26th Avenue S. The town was incorporated less than 20 years later as Disston City, after Hamilton Disston, who had acquired 4-million acres of Florida land, including almost all of modern-day Gulfport, for about 25 cents an acre.

    [Times photo: Jennifer Davis]
    Harmonica Club members, from left, Stanley Arnett of South Pasadena, and Mignon Collins and Larry Nikoden, both of St. Petersburg, practice at the senior center at 5501 27th Ave. S.

    According to Our Story of Gulfport, Florida, a book compiled by the Gulfport Historical Society, the city faced disappointment in the late 1880s when Disston rallied his Northern business connections to bring a railroad to the city. Instead, the rails stopped at St. Petersburg.

    In 1906 another developer tried to lure retired Civil War veterans to what is now Gulfport, calling the development "Veteran City." He failed to attract many veterans, and in a town meeting at the Casino in 1910, residents voted 23-7 to incorporate and name their town Gulfport.

    The city is known for its public parks and gathering places: the casino, currently under renovation; the waterfront recreation center; its library and senior center, side by side on Beach Boulevard; and the new public theater, built as an annex to the senior center.

    Gulfport is also known statewide as a model for small cities hoping to provide more help locally with social services. The center provides daily meals and other programs for seniors, from games and entertainment to transportation assistance.

    Census numbers released this year show Gulfport's median age dropped over the past 10 years, from 49.8 to 47.3. An influx of young families is also reflected in the increase in children during the past 10 years. While the adult population increased 5 percent, the number of children 18 and younger increased 16 percent.

    The number of African-Americans who call Gulfport home increased by one-fourth in the past decade, despite Gulfport's old and still nagging reputation for being unwelcoming to blacks.

    Lydia Seminerio, a black woman who lives in Gulfport, said she has endured racist statements from neighbors, but she also feels safe and moved here for that reason.

    City officials applaud the efforts of Gulfport's ambitious homeowners, who have fixed up their older properties and brought new life to the city. Property values have more than doubled since 1989, with substantial jumps in values over the past two years.

    The town changed as homeowners discovered the potential of Gulfport's waterfront, said longtime Gulfport resident and real estate agent Mary Atkinson.

    "The waterfront became a lot more valuable than it was before," Atkinson said. "People didn't used to care if they were that close to the water."

    Atkinson, who is active in everything from the Gulfport Historical Society to the city's preservation board, has lived in Gulfport since 1953, when Boca Ciega High School was under construction. She raised three daughters in the city and called it an "idyllic" place to grow up, with everything close by and Little League games to draw the community together.

    Gulfport has hosted the Little League Southern Regional Championship for more than 30 years.

    Atkinson saw Beach Boulevard evolve from the town's center to a ghost town when Winn-Dixie was built on Gulfport Boulevard. Now the street leading to the Gulfport Casino is again the city's centerpiece, dubbed the "Waterfront Business District," and Gulfport's redevelopment area features several art shops, bars and restaurants.

    Next on the agenda for Gulfport is redevelopment of the 49th Street corridor, long considered lagging behind the renaissance elsewhere in the city. City officials hope to extend residents' pride about Beach Boulevard to the city's northern end.

    "There's a huge sense of community because of that downtown area," said King, who has lived in Gulfport 12 or 13 years and thinks she could now sell her home for twice what she paid for it. "It gives you the feeling of security of where you grew up."

    Gulfport facts:

    • The town was first called "Disston City," but the post office refused to recognize it because a Hillsborough County town had a similar name. It became "Bonifacio" and then "Veteran City" before it was incorporated as Gulfport in 1910.
    • Many people in Gulfport use their properties' cottages or garage apartments not as rental units or guest houses, but as art studios.
    • Gulfport's most misunderstood building: the Casino. Originally built near the turn of the century, the present casino is actually the city's third. Built in 1935, it hosts dances and community events, not blackjack.
    • City population, according to 2000 census: 12,527.

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