Saint Petersburg, FL

Hidden History: Gas Plant District

Modern Globe

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Gas Plant/Laurel Park neighborhood.Photo bySt. Pete History Center

The Gas Plant District was the second African-American neighborhood formed in St. Petersburg. The neighborhood encompassed all along Ninth Street South and south of First Avenue South. What was once a thriving community was dismantled in the 70s as the interstate was built to run right through it. Later, Tropicana Field was built and demolished any residual sense of community. However, rumblings of a new stadium are happening and revitalization may finally come to the area.

The Gas Plant District

The area's original settlers came to this area to help finish the Orange Belt Railway. The Orange Belt Railway was a narrow-gauge railroad that carried citrus, vegetables and passengers from St. Pete to Sanford. Although most of the railroad is now defunct, there is still a stretch from Clearwater southeast to St. Petersburg that remains active.

As the population grew and prospered, businesses, homes, churches and entertainment flourished. Davis Academy, later Davis Elementary, one of the first school for Black children opened. It became a community where working-class Black families could thrive.

As Gwendolyn Reese stated in her article, "I AM: The story of the Gas Plant Neighborhood":

The neighborhood was home to many people, me included, who still have pleasant memories of growing up there. The communal fish fries on Friday, crab boils on Saturday and barbecues were a major part of the social life of the neighborhood, as was the sound of children’s laughter as they played kickball, hopscotch and four-square in the alleys and backyards of the homes along Sugar Hill, Dixie, and Dunmore Avenues.

Making room for the Trop

The neighborhood's dismantling came first with introducing the interstate. In 1970, plans to extend I-75 into Pinellas County took shape. There were many delays and protests as business owners and community leaders pushed against the government, stating that construction of this road would hurt their livelihoods. However, through the process of eminent domain, Black families in Methodist Town and the Gas Plant District were uprooted.

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Model of the Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg in 1987.Photo bySt. Pete History Center

Designs for a baseball stadium in Pinellas were floated as early as 1983 as the county wanted to get in on the professional sports scene. Actual construction on what was originally called the Florida Suncoast Dome began in 1986. The two gas tanks that gave the district its name were demolished to make way for the stadium. The St. Petersburg City Council voted to refurbish the neighborhood in the early 80s to coincide with the stadium. They promised affordable housing and assured people that the new stadium would provide a wealth of new jobs.

Neither housing nor jobs came through for the Gas Plant population. When the stadium went up, what was left of the community fell.

A possibly brighter future

In June 2022, St. Pete Mayor Kenneth T. Welch announced the city is looking towards the Gas Plant District for Tropicana Field site redevelopment. In 2027, the Rays lease on Tropicana Field expires. The City of St. Pete is looking to rebuild the stadium and affordable housing, community development and "equitable access to all residents, visitors and stakeholders."

It sounds similar to the promise made in the area 40 years ago.

However, in the proposal is the "Gas Plant Promise" which states:

The site also must effectively recognize, honor, and support the community displaced due to construction of the original stadium, in an impactful and sustainable manner.

Perhaps the future of the Gas Plant District will honor its vibrant past.

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