Country club past lingers in haven
Once out in the country, Azalea offers residents a respite from the bustle of work and traffic.
By JON WILSON
© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001
[Times photos: Jennifer Davis]
Steve Montgomery and his wife, Pat, spend time in their back yard with their two dachshund puppies. Montgomery first lived in Azalea in the 1950s. It was kind of out in the country, he says.
Even now, 50 years after it sprouted in what were the city's hinterlands, Azalea muffles the urban clatter.
It's a subtle thing. Westbound motorists, having plowed through the Tyrone commercial area on 22nd Avenue N, might catch themselves taking a deep breath soon after slowing at the Pinellas Trail.
A couple of blocks farther, the park to the left is a clue. It's the centerpiece of the quiet Azalea neighborhood, where trees often are big and old enough to shade entire yards. If they're oaks, beards of Spanish moss sway from thick branches.
Steve Montgomery lives on 72nd Street N, which winds past the park and the sprawling Raytheon plant down to Ninth Avenue N, where there's a little strip center. Its Gypsy Hideaway offers neighbors a good coffee-and-chat haven.
If anything can crack the neighborhood tranquility, it's that 72nd Street. It connects 22nd to Ninth, and too many cars and trucks speed through.
"We've trying to get some traffic calming here," he said.
Montgomery, a former president of the Azalea Homes Community Association, mentions only a few irritants: the traffic and lack of sidewalks -- and the possibility that city government doesn't pay enough attention to neighborhoods farther from downtown.
Montgomery cited a feeling that sometimes emerges in Azalea and nearby neighborhoods: "The city has just turned its back, I think, on the whole northwest area."
Last year, Azalea recreation center renovations, which included a program room, represented the first city attention to the area in years, Montgomery said.
Originally dubbed Azaleaville, the neighborhood began with homes built in 1951. The neighborhood lies between 22nd and Fifth avenues N, bounded by the trail and Country Club Road.
The "country club" designation derives from the Jungle Country Club (now Admiral Farragut Academy), whose golf course once covered the area.
The neighborhood association began with a covered-dish supper in 1952, soon after the first homes were built. According to a Times article, those attending put food out on tables that builders had been using near Ninth Avenue N and the Seaboard railroad tracks. (The rail bed became the Pinellas Trail years later.)
Montgomery, now retired, moved to Azalea in 1957 when his mother bought the house in which he lives.
"It was kind of out in the country," Montgomery said.
During World War II, according to historian Walter Fuller, thousands of soldiers in training set up a tent city on what was the golf course and an airfield -- land destined to become Azaleaville a few years later.
Montgomery moved away from St. Petersburg for a while, but returned in the mid 1990s. Neighbors whose lawns he mowed decades before still lived there.
"It felt good," he said. "It was like coming home."
In the Montgomerys back yard, neighbors gather to discuss Azalea issues and improvements they would like to see, such as traffic calming on 72nd Street. The city has just turned its back, I think, on the whole northwest area, Steve Montgomery says.
The neighborhood projects a comfortable, settled ambience. Here and there, portable basketball goals create driveway courts, suggesting younger families live among the retirees Montgomery mentions.
Character touches abound: a tree-hung, front-yard tire swing, for example, and a sculptured dolphin holding a mailbox. American flags hang from poles and porch staffs, even on days not designated holidays.
And the residents themselves still mold the sense of community, said Karen Smith, the Azalea Homes president.
Smith said she would like to see even more communication among residents.
"It's different than 50 years ago. Everybody's working except for those retired. You don't have the same dynamic of the activities going on."
Still, the basics are present. You can see them in the people on the streets.
"That's part of the sense of community, knowing the guy who rides his bike on Saturday or the woman who jogs with the stroller on Wednesday," Smith said.
"You might not know their names but they're people you identify as being part of the community."
Communities of St. Petersburg