Throughout my lifetime living in the Sunshine State, the city of St Petersburg has remained this mysterious place on the other side of Tampa Bay. A metropolis more enigmatic than the St. Petersburg half a world away partially thanks to a few jokes by the king of late night comedy. Johnny Carson once dubbed that "instead of the newlywed St. Petersburg is home to the nearly dead" which brought plenty of laughs at the expense of Florida's fourth largest city. A stigma remained - perhaps well deserved - prompting the city to spend over two decades rebranding itself in search of the last laugh.
The Sunshine City
The unfortunate nickname of St. Petersburg as "God's waiting room" was in place long before The Tonight Show or mainstream television, and was partially thanks to a now famous offer by the local newspaper. In the early part of the 20th century, the editor of The Evening Independent had an idea that was sure to attract plenty of attention. He proclaimed that St. Petersburg was "The Sunshine City," and promised to give his newspaper away on any day that the sun failed to shine. The promise remained in place for over 75 years and the paper was only given away 296 times, roughly four days per year. The promotion garnered national attention and set the wheels in motion for an explosion in the city's growth.
|Sculpture commemorating the "Sunshine Offer"|
St. Petersburg experienced a boom in the 1920's which wasn't the result of new industry or the discovery of gold, but the exploitation of the area's most plentiful natural resource...sunlight. Popular medical opinion at the time preached that exposure to the sun carried with it the key to good health, making "The Sunshine City" a popular destination for tourists and retirees. As the population of St. Petersburg continued to rise, so did the average age of its residents creating the fodder for late night television.
|One of many statues scattered around the city's parks.|
The boom continued for several decades, and brought along with it a symbol which promoters of the city today would probably rather forget...the green bench. The streets of St. Petersburg were lined with scores of these famous benches where the local retirees would gather day after day. They'd sit for hours outside the open air post office or McCrory Five & Dime and watch the world pass while they themselves waited to die. That's probably how Mr. Carson and many others saw it anyway, and the stigma seemed just as permanent as the famous green benches.
|See what I mean?|
In the late-1980's St. Petersburg caught a break that would begin a twenty year makeover of the city's geriatric image. The famous Vinoy Park hotel - a renowned symbol of St. Petersburg's 1920's heyday - reopened with much fanfare. The return of The Vinoy not only cleaned up an eyesore on the city's beautiful waterfront but, perhaps most importantly, signaled that a renaissance had begun in St. Petersburg.
|A new condo building towers over The Vinoy on the right.|
The desolate, aging landscape of the city's downtown was given a new breath of life. The grey hairs and green benches were unbolted from the sidewalks and eventually replaced by gleaming condo towers and even a Starbucks or two. Easily the biggest signal that St. Petersburg had turned a new leaf was the arrival of major professional sports. In 1998 the city's Florida Suncoast Dome finally got a tenant - nearly a decade after it was built - as the newly christened Tropicana Field welcomed baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.
|What Salvidor Dali thought of the green bench...|
As with the original renaissance, the makeover of St. Petersburg brought with it an influx of the arts. A new location for The Dali museum opened last year and is home to the largest display of the artist's work outside of Europe. The irony of a museum dedicated to surrealism in a city famous for being "Gods waiting room" is hard to miss, especially in this building...
|The new Dali Museum|
In addition to The Dali, St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts is easily the most impressive in the Sunshine State with permanent works by Monet, Cezanne, and Renoir. On this day, the hands of Providence steered yours truly inside to discover a fascinating display of golf art. Yes, the words "fascinating," "golf," and "art" were all just used in the same sentence. Just down the street from the Museum of Fine Arts lies the newest addition to St. Petersburg's art scene - The Chihuly Collection. Here, one will find countless pieces by the renowned glassmaker and yet another example of how the city is leaving behind the St. Petersburg of old.
|The Bellagio comes to St. Pete|
Something that sets St. Petersburg apart from other metropolitan areas is the city's downtown, which seems to be occupied more by residents than offices. Sure, there are a few corporate names scattered around town, but the high rises which dominate the skyline are mostly filled with beds and dining room tables, as opposed to cubicles and board rooms. This fosters a different kind of downtown experience, where dogs on a leash outnumber suits on a cell phone, and the sunset draws people to the city's waterfront instead of the traditional 5pm exodus.
|A skyline without signs for banks?|
St. Petersburg is different. The makeover of the last two decades has transformed the city from an aging butt of jokes on late night TV, to a vibrant, dare I say youthful gem of Florida's west coast. The Sunshine City is unlike any other in the Sunshine State, thanks to a passion for the arts and a downtown which is more frequented as home than work. Still, the renaissance of St. Petersburg is far from complete, as the city works to undue a fifty year old stigma and finally step out from the shadow of its larger neighbor across Tampa Bay.
If you go...
- Have lunch at The Chattaway - Great burgers
- View the Sunshine Skyway bridge from remains of the old bridge - $2 toll
- Take the history tour at The Vinoy - $10 per person
- For a more complete guide, check out I Love Downtown St. Petersburg