Sunday, February 25, 2018

Visiting St Petersburg

Somehow I wangled a three day weekend way from work. My wife, my dog and I took off for a seven hour drive to St Petersburg. St Petersburg is a destination we want to explore. You'd  think Miami would be the closest  big city worth seeing but St Petersburg draws our attention. Indeed I think it's probably a better place to live than Key West these days. In any event we always stop at the Miccosukee Tribal Rest Area off I-75, which is called Alligator Alley where the highway crosses the Everglades.  And that stop allows time for a portrait of Joe Cool:
Most Florida interstates look like this picture below and for people expecting the Everglades to be atmospheric cypress swamps and live oak and basking alligators the actual River of Grass has to be something of a disappointment. Certainly those areas exist if you know where to find them but you would be better off asking photographer Clyde Butcher who likes to wade the Everglades with a  box camera and tripod. This is what the place looks like as you drive the freeway. If you want a  better look at swampy country take Highway 41 Tamiami Trail (Tampa-Miami Trail) further south.
Our first stop was to buy dinner to go. Rusty and I walked while my wife sought out our barbecue dinner. This part of St Petersburg shows no chain businesses at all which is quite surprising as so many towns struggle with the box  store concept.  St Petersburg has this vibrant Central Avenue which was filled with young people drinking craft beer and eating food from around the country and the world. 
 Rusty was pooped and got busy resting.
The Dali museum is holding an exhibit showcasing the world of Dali and  Duchamp, another of those offbeat pairings of Dali that we would never imagine. I really enjoyed the exhibit of Dali and Disney from a couple of years ago. Marcel Duchamp was more challenging and his study of a nude female figure seen as though by a voyeur  freaked out the museum so much they prohibited photography so you will have to go see it for yourself. It's really nothing more than infantilizing the public but there it is. In the time s in which we live let's be grateful they could put it on at all.
It was a lovely day in St Petersburg and we were relaxed thinking that Rusty was having a good day in daycare. Management has changed at our favorite place for him to stay and I guess he didn't much like being left alone in a cage and let them know.But we were blissfully unaware of his stress imagining we had done right by him for the day.
Rusty and I explored the alleys and streets around Central Avenue over the course of two nights and three days. I really enjoyed these empty silent rights of way before anyone else was awake and moving.   
 When I lived in St Petersburg 30 years ago (that long!) the joke was that it was the largest above ground cemetery in the world and all those famous green benches were in place and occupied by people waiting to die of boredom. They called St Pete "God's Waiting Room." None of that applies anymore. The benches and the shuffleboard is all gone now and St Petersburg has art and culture to spare, excellent beaches, a mild winter climate, not terrible traffic problems on most of the surface streets and value for money in housing and eating.
Not to mention Haslam's which was an oasis thirty years ago when I was planning sailing trips from my slip at Demen's Landing in the city marina. I needed books to take with me when I traveled.
It's  still there:
From the St Petersburg City website:

In 1875, General John Williams came down from Detroit and bought 2,500 acres of land on Tampa Bay. He envisioned a grand city with graceful parks and broad streets, the trademark of today's St. Petersburg. The city's first hotel was named after his birthplace, Detroit.

Thirteen years later, Peter Demens, a noble Russian aristocrat, brought the Orange Belt Railway to St. Petersburg. On June 8, 1888, the first train arrived, carrying empty freight cars and one passenger, a shoe salesman from Savannah. Built one rail at a time, with unpaid laborers and creditors threatening to lynch Demens all the way, the railroad finally chugged to St. Petersburg. Demens named the city after his birthplace, St. Petersburg, Russia. St. Petersburg incorporated as a city in June 1903.

The story I heard which was more fun was that Williams and Demens had a gamble and the Russian won so he got to name the city while Williams got to name the new city's principal hotel.
Then there is the Chihuly center where the man called Dale exhibits his works. And astonishing they are too.
I loved these white translucent pieces, a stylized and luscious representation of a coral reef to my eye.
Oddly I found my iPhone took better pictures than my big camera. The iPhone tends to deaden the range of light and color in pictures by removing a lot of human choices. In this setting the iPhone was perfect.
 The cool thing about #chihuly is they want you to take pictures and give them all the publicity of course. Pretty smart, however this does lead to a lot of picture taking and not so much contemplating. They have carefully arranged benches around the exhibit area and its well worth planning to spend some time and sit in rapturous contemplation of what is possible with glass and the human breath (and imagination). Then take a few pictures.
Lunch was Hawkers on Central Avenue. A  take on Asian Street food we spent $80 for lunch with alcohol and enjoyed it very much. 
It was in the manner of the fad of tapas dining so we ordered a bunch of dishes including the old staple Pad Thai rendered exquisite this time. Singapore fried soft shelled crab with a spicy sauce was delicious as were the buns, the breads the curries and on and on. I had he least alcohol beer on tap at 4.9% and it was still quite harsh for my delicate taste buds so beer snobs are well served. 
 An after lunch walk showed off some more of St Pete's architecture and sunny beauty. The thing that struck me about St Pete is that it seems to embody, from a purely outsider's perspective a lot of the values people seek when they look at Key West, before they figure out Key West is not the laid back paradise it has managed to promote. St Petersburg is a large city spread over miles of the Pinellas peninsula and there are sections of the city that are high crime neighborhoods. 
But when you look at what St Pete has to offer I think you'd be better off relocating here than the Keys. Rental properties for those not seeking to burn bridges are abundant and cheap (and pet friendly). The weather is pretty good though summers are humid and afternoon downpours are a fact of life. The beaches are first rate and not far away, unlike Orlando. There is a ton of stuff to do in the urban agglomeration that is Tampa-St Pete- Clearwater. That includes world class newspapers, a decent university, college sports and if you consider St Petersburg is seven hours north of Key West the rest of the country is that much closer to hand for a weekend road trip.
We have friends who have relocated to St Pete recently and really like it and it was too bad we couldn't meet this past weekend because I would have quizzed them. In any event my wife and I are on a retirement path that means its not feasible to simply move but were I looking to live in Florida my three choices would be St Augustine, Orlando and here and here beats the other two for me. Key West and Miami would not be in the running though the Ft Lauderdale suburb of Hollywood is a pretty little town if you must live in the southeast.
 I really liked the emphasis on local businesses of all sorts.

 I took this picture to capture the shape of the ceiling on the porch of this nicely restored cottage:
One other thing worth mentioning is that the bridges across Tampa Bay have always been a  bit of  a choking hazard for commuter traffic. I used to read the morning news at the community radio station in Tampa so my commute began around 4:30 so I avoided then as I avoid now, the regular heavy stream of commuters. However around town even at the height of winter season St Petersburg does not feel choked with traffic and people the way Key West does. It was easy to turn out of side streets, there was lots of parking and neighborhoods weren't jammed with angry residents looking toput one over on their winter neighbors.

 A dark and not too salubrious neighborhood bar:
 Interesting food choices, and notice the brewing equipment, required in the Central District:

 What more do you need? Beer, tacos and cheerful decor:
 Lots of room to breathe at seven in the morning of a holiday weekend Sunday. Rusty enjoyed the walks though in addition to his traumatic boarding experience he also got to hear the sunset cannon from the yacht club on the waterfront during his evening walk. Two rounds reduced him to a quivering mass of PTSD. He was chased and shot at by nursery farmers while on the streets of the Redlands in Homestead and his buddies were poisoned and shot so he has cause to hate gunfire. The good news was he didn't chew through his leash and run off though the temptation must have been strong and he let me guide him back to the car and safety. 
I noticed the gay bear flag so this might not be my first choice if I were into grooming my ...bear but I suspect I might like living around these parts very much if I were thirty again and looking to escape the winters Up North.
I wish Miami, four hours closer to home, were as easygoing and welcoming as St Petersburg.