For close to a century, the Gas Plant neighborhood (so-called due to twin gas cylinders towering over it) represented achievement and possibilities. The majority Black community in St. Petersburg, Florida, contained hundreds of single-family homes and locally owned businesses. Churches, shops, entertainment venues and the offices of Black professionals dotted the tightly knit area where sugarcane and mango, guava and avocado trees grew in the yards of residents.
Interstate 75 is a product of the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act. Its construction bisected the Gas Plant community, displacing residents from their homes, separating parishioners from their churches and businesses from their customers. Those who could do so relocated.
In short time, the iconic gas towers giving the community its name were removed, more businesses closed, even more people moved away. The Gas Plant community faded away. In 1978, the St. Petersburg City Council designated the Gas Plant area as a redevelopment zone for affordable housing and an industrial park. Nearly 1,000 jobs and economic resources were promised. The plan changed (see box), and in 1990, Tropicana Field — or “the Trop,” as it’s commonly called — opened its doors as home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now simply the Tampa Bay Rays), a Major League Baseball team.
A third-generation resident of St. Petersburg and the Gas Plant community, Ken Welch, 58, became the city’s first Black mayor in 2022. Among his goals: catalyzing and leading a city, state and federal effort to restore the neighborhood of his childhood.
AARP: What was it like to grow up in the Gas Plant community?
Mayor Ken Welch: It was a community in every sense of the word. When folks talk about reconnecting the community or restoring the damage the community endured from the interstate, and then from the Trop, I link them together because they had similar impacts.
I always tell the story that if I took a mango from Miss Brown's yard without asking her, the ladies on the street would chastise me. And by the time I got to the church, they'd have all heard about it. So, I'd end up having to go back and apologize and rake Miss Brown's yard. That sense of community helped raise all the kids and instill those values. Folks were looking out for one another. When people were dispersed and sent all around the city, you lost that sense of community. In my view, we need funding for programs that rebuild that sense of community and target our young people, because they've lost the nurturing we got growing up in the Gas Plant.
AARP: Tell us about your grandfather and what happened to his business.
Welch: He had a topsoil and firewood business called Welch's Woodyard. He was born at the turn of the 20th century. All the boys in my family worked there during the summer and after school. I still have an axe handle from the woodyard right here in my office.
There was a class of Black entrepreneurs when I was growing up in the Gas Plant neighborhood. My uncle’s sister had a restaurant across the street. The Brown family, who were in-laws, had a dry cleaning business. There was a full gamut of doctors, dentists and other professionals living in the Gas Plant. The entire African American community lived there because of redlining.
When the highway came, he moved from 16th Street, which is where Tropicana Field is now. He kept most of his client base, but he didn’t have the same foot traffic. Many businesses were impacted that way. Some didn't recover. I don't believe his sister's restaurant ever recovered, for example. It was very personal, and I didn’t understand as a kid why he was moving his business. The interstate highway was just a few blocks from our church. The highway prevented some people from going there, but folks persevered.
My dad was on the city council at the time. He was not happy about the highway and said at the time, “Why is it always the African American community that has to sacrifice?” But arguments were successfully made in the name of “progress,” and there were promises of jobs and entrepreneurial support for Black businesses and of homeowners getting market value for their homes and all those things. So the Trop project moved forward.
Nearly 40 years later those promises have not come to fruition. As the son of a city council member to whom those promises were made, and the grandson of a man whose business was one of the first to be dislocated by the highway construction, I am privileged to guide what redevelopment looks like.
AARP: Did the history of the Gas Plant community impact your decision to run for mayor?
Welch: It informed my definition of what progress means to the city and how much the Black community has sacrificed in the name of progress.
Repairing by Redeveloping
As explained in the request for proposal, the Gas Plant neighborhood had been “a predominately African American community of several small neighborhoods. The construction of I-275 and I-175 in the late 1960s and early 1970s caused much dislocation and removal of connective segments of street grid effectively isolating Gas Plant from the surrounding neighborhoods to the south and west.”
An approved redevelopment plan promised housing and new jobs, but the city council scrapped the plans in 1986 to build the baseball stadium now used by the Tampa Bay Rays.
On January 30, 2023, the mayor's office announced the selection of Hines and Tampa Bay Rays as the master developer of the Historic Gas Plant Redevelopment Project.
"I saw a need to build a better path forward by prioritizing the community's need for affordable and workforce housing — both onsite and offsite. And as a child who visited many a restaurant, corner store and worked at my grandfather's woodyard, the opportunity for restorative economic opportunities needed to be a clearly stated priority," said Welch, announcing the selection, noting that more than 2,000 St. Petersburg residents and stakeholders had shared their thoughts and recommendations.
About the development team, he added: "I am naming the partner and a concept for a project that will last over a decade and will span multiple administrations. As the plan moves forward under my administration, we will adhere to our model of inclusive governance asking for input from all stakeholders, including the community, to ensure that we are meeting the goals of this development. I know our St. Pete community will stay engaged and informed as this project takes shape."
Learn more about the neighborhood plan at StPete.org/GasPlant.
It's providential for me to be mayor at a time when the city wants to redevelop some 86 acres that represent the second displacement of the Black community, which was done in the pursuit of baseball and what ultimately became Tropicana Field. That uprooted a thousand residents, businesses and churches in the Gas Plant area.
The first dislocation was caused by the construction of Interstate 75, which went right through where my grandfather's business was. For me, the Gas Plant’s history informs what equitable development is. Some folks come in and look at 86 acres and think it's a blank slate. I would argue that it's not a blank slate. It is literally etched with the blood and sacrifice of almost a thousand people who gave up their community and their businesses in the name of progress. I live that life. That is my history.
AARP: Why do you think your predecessors in St. Petersburg's government allowed the Gas Plant residents to be so profoundly impacted by constructing the highway and baseball field?
Welch: The whole history of redlining in St. Pete is no different from what you see around the country. Laws were put on the books about where African Americans could live, and it placed them in the Gas Plant for the most part. Later, that just happened to be the area where there was the least resistance. Folks who were pursuing professional baseball needed a large area where a baseball stadium could be placed. The number one driver was the pursuit of baseball. And just like when the interstate came in, the disruption to the Black community was a secondary issue in terms of the powerful folks making the decision.
A disparity study of St. Pete showed an underutilization of minority business enterprises. A structural racism study showed the clear pattern of structural racism and its impacts in St. Petersburg. Among those obvious impacts was the redlining, and then the dislocation of the African American community.
AARP: Neither your grandfather nor father are alive to see you lead this redevelopment effort.
Welch: Yes. My father passed in 2013. But he always told me that there was a promise made to the Gas Plant community and we must make sure that promise is kept. When I ran for mayor, the question came up. I would always answer, “This is personal for me. I lived this. It’s not just another project. I lived it. I've seen the impacts on the community. It’s about equitable development and shared progress.”
AARP: What is the pulse of the residents — especially those who remember the community before the construction and displacements?
Welch: I don't have to read their pulse. They are very vocal! The community is highly engaged. The new Gas Plant neighborhood will be an equitable development that honors the history and the promises that were made. As a child of the Gas Plant, that’s the only way to move forward in my eyes.
Jimmie Briggs is a documentary storyteller, writer and advocate for racial and gender equity. He is the co-founder and executive director emeritus of Man Up Campaign, a global initiative to activate youth to stop violence against women and girls, and the author of Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War (Basic Books, 2005). A native Missourian, he is the author of an upcoming oral history of Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the 2014 police killing of teenager Michael Brown Jr. Briggs’s articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Huffington Post, and The Root, among other publications.
Additional research by Laura Cantwell, AARP Florida
More 'Before the Highway' articles
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Page published February 1, 2023
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