'A good place to grow up' turns 50
The homes built in the 1950s haven't lost their appeal to young families, retirees and some who have matured with them.
By JON WILSON
© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Edward Jozwiak is out almost every day weeding, trimming and hand-watering parts of his lawn on 26th Avenue N in a Harshaw subdivision. Henry Mercer Harshaw, who had been around since the citys 1920s boom, began the development about 1951.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Populated by Middle America, the Harshaw subdivisions are in the middle of the city and contain middle-class houses. They are archetypal 1950s St. Petersburg communities, exactly where Uncle Melvin and Aunt Maude from Moline might come to retire.
"It's a good community. It's up high and the people are friendly," said Ed Witkowski.
In the early 1980s, Witkowski and his wife, Eleanor, moved to Harshaw from Pittsburgh after Witkowski retired from U.S. Steel after 33 years.
Eleanor Witkowski wasn't so sure about the move.
"I told him, "I'll give you one year of my life.' I was here not even six months and it felt like it was home," she said.
For a half-century, Harshaw has provided retirement homes, starters for young families and quick-access houses for people just moving to town.
A sameness pervaded the mid 20th century Florida architecture. But the trim concrete-block houses, many with two bedrooms and a bath and a half, have had lasting appeal. People liked terrazzo floors and jalousie windows. Upkeep was easy, and the lawns weren't too big to manage.
Also, the houses have enjoyed a reputation for reselling quickly in case new Floridians fell out of love with heat and humidity.
Several Harshaw subdivisions straddle 22nd Avenue N just west of 34th Street. Monuments mark entrances on 22nd. Dug in dog-leg fashion, two man-made, eight-acre lakes break up the grid-designed streets south of 22nd. Fishing in the lakes is not allowed.
Henry Mercer Harshaw, who had been around since the city's 1920s boom, foresaw the next one after World War II. He began his subdivision about 1951.
Kevin Riskowitz was 3 years old when his family moved to Harshaw from New Jersey in 1957. He grew up on 17th Avenue N at 43rd Street.
There were still open fields and a section of 17th Avenue hadn't been paved. Parts of the neighborhood still felt semirural. "We used to build forts," said Riskowitz, who now lives in Azalea.
With four bedrooms, his house was bigger than most. An attic fan cooled the place in those pre-air conditioning times. On a clear day, you could vaguely make out St. Petersburg's downtown skyline to the southeast.
"It was a good place to grow up. It would be an exception for people to get locked out of their house because people didn't lock their doors," Riskowitz said.
People lock their doors these days. Still, "We're pretty quiet," said Wally Cravens, former president of the Disston Heights Civic Association, a sprawling organization whose boundaries include Harshaw.
Now, as in Riskowitz's day, describing Harshaw almost writes a real estate ad: on main roads, bus lines, convenient to shopping and churches.
A big outing for Riskowitz was a trip to Central Plaza or to Tyrone Gardens at 58th Street N and Ninth Avenue. A closer strip shopping center on 34th Street N offered at various times Grand Way and Food Fair grocery stores, and the J.M. Fields variety store.
The Witkowskis can shop at the same 34th Street center, which still offers an Eckerd drugstore, a Big Lots, a contract postal unit and several other shops.
Their expanded community includes the Church of the Transfiguration less than a mile north.
In fact, said Ed Witkowski, every place they want to go is no more than seven minutes away by car -- if the traffic's right.
"The only thing I don't like about (the neighborhood) is Interstate 30," he joked, referring to 30th Avenue N, which is heavily traveled some times during the day.
But just across 30th is Gladden Park, where Ed Witkowski walks -- a mile and a half, every morning and evening.
Communities of St. Petersburg