Quirky quarter enchants residents
Driftwood's fewer than 50 homes are tucked amid narrow lanes and a lush canopy of oaks.
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
An entry sign marks the Driftwood neighborhood, where shady roads wind into a tightknit community. Many of the houses were designed by local artist Mark Dixon Dodd during the 1930s and few are ever sold to outsiders. Residents have fought the citys pavers and Florida Powers tree trimmers.
Wander through the metal and wood arch entryway and discover an enchanted land -- towering oaks that meet overhead, untamed indigenous plants and coddled wildlife.
Driftwood, a hideaway off a natural waterfront on Big Bayou, easily qualifies as one of the city's most whimsical neighborhoods.
Black racer snakes slither across narrow lanes. Bat houses hang invitingly. In this southeast St. Petersburg neighborhood, night herons have found a refuge, as have their human friends who march to the beat of a different drummer.
Residents put up a fuss when the city wanted to pave the narrow paths that are their roads. The city won. They put up another fuss when Florida Power sought to trim their verdant canopy. The encounter was a draw.
"There are so many of us who want to maintain the unique flavor of Driftwood. We don't want to look like Snell Isle or the Pink Streets. We want to be Driftwood," said Kim O'Brien, who lives with her husband, Robert Morey, in a 1950s home amid a sprawling garden of wooden walkways, aviaries, fruit trees, ferns, begonias, angel trumpets and other vegetation.
O'Brien, whose family has made its home in Driftwood for four generations, concedes that the community is not for everyone.
"We really do have a lot of characters living here," she said with a giggle as she strolled barefoot through the neighborhood.
"There are a lot of artists, a lot of college professors, a few doctors and a few lawyers, but basically, people who are pretty independent but appreciate the history and the beauty and the sense of community and," she said, lowering her voice conspiratorially, "the oddity of the neighbors."
Nestled between 24th Avenue SE and Driftwood Road S, from Florida Avenue S to Beach Drive SE, the neighborhood has just 49 homes. Many were designed by local artist Mark Dixon Dodd during the 1930s. The tightknit group of occupants are all members of the Driftwood Property Owners Association, which schedules only two formal meetings a year. In between, residents find every excuse to socialize.
"We have, like, silly things," said Ms. O'Brien. "Like a Fourth of July parade every year. Everybody congregates down at my mom's, and we all wave flags and bring the dogs and whatever stupid stuff we've got to show, and everybody walks through the neighborhood to music. And then we have progressive New Year's Eve parties together. There's just a lot within the neighborhood that really cements people, and we are also, without exception, pretty rugged individuals."
Driftwood certainly has had its intrepid residents. It was the only area in Pinellas County to see armed conflict during the Civil War. It was the site of the county's earliest post office and school. It also was a center for shipbuilding. Ms. O'Brien's mother, Helen Gandy-O'Brien, lives in the Mullet Farm, a Florida Cracker-style house that was built in 1910 by shipbuilder Barney Williams. Mrs. Gandy-O'Brien's father, George S. "Gidge" Gandy Jr., later purchased the house. Gidge Gandy, his brother, Al, and his father, George Sr., were responsible for construction of the first bridge to span Tampa Bay.
Driftwood also claims a history of shark harvesting and Prohibition-era bootlegging. The local speak-easy, which was next door to Ms. O'Brien's property, was called Hawaiian Gardens.
These days, though the community maintains its quirkiness, incongruously, it has taken on an exclusivity. Buying property in Driftwood is almost impossible, because houses rarely go on the open market.
Mark Brumby, who owns one of Driftwood's waterfront properties, has lived in the area for six years.
"I literally stumbled into Driftwood. It was just enchanting. Just as I was coming out, there was a small house on the edge of Driftwood for sale by owner. . . . I felt that the trees and nature were so inviting and to me, it was everything that Florida should be."
Brumby snatched up the property and lived there until recently, when he swapped it for the waterfront home he and new wife, Kimra, are refurbishing.
For some people, though, Driftwood's drawback could be the less affluent neighborhood that lies just outside its verdant walls. But Driftwood residents say they get along with their neighbors and refuse to isolate themselves from those around them.
"Some people have that sense of, oh, this must be a precarious neighborhood," Ms. O'Brien said. "It is not at all. We're a huge walking neighborhood, and everybody walks outside of the complex of Driftwood. We have an incredibly low crime rate, and there's an assumption of things that really, if you live here, is not borne out by your personal experiences.
"I like the diversity and I like the fact that you do get kids wandering in the neighborhood and they're like, it's so neat in here. It's so cool."
That sentiment apparently is shared by older sightseers. One recent afternoon a bus from Sunrise at North Shore, a retirement community, slowly made its way through the neighborhood.
"We ride through here from time to time to see nature's beauty in its natural state," driver Jimmie Daniels explained. "It's just a beautiful spot."
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