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The Art Of Living In Downtown St. Petersburg







Most evenings, as the sun prepares to sink beyond the Gulf of Mexico, Barbara Lewis settles into her ringside seat for what may be one of the greatest shows on earth.

From her 30th-story balcony in downtown St. Petersburg, The Dali Museum, The Mahaffey Theater, Al Lang Field, the sprawling USFSP campus, the Poynter Institute, Demens Landing, Albert Whitted Airport and marina are all bathed in the glow of the setting sun, captured in its various incarnations on Lewis' iPhone.

Sometimes there is a rainbow. Once there were two, all recorded for posterity as beacons of renewal for a city and a soul.

Most days, she can see the hulking pink silhouette of the Don CeSar Hotel to the west and on a clear day, Lewis can even make out the precise, clean lines of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge connecting Pinellas County to Manatee County and Bradenton to the south.

While the skyline pays silent tribute to St. Petersburg's historic past, and construction cranes hint at its ambitious future, the streets below hum with a vibrant energy that has already arrived.

It is that energy -- thrumming from visitors to the Saturday Morning Market to the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer fans partying in the streets below -- that drew Lewis to this place at a critical juncture of her life.

"I love driving into the garage. I love opening my front door. It means I'm home."

Having spent decades sampling some of the most unique environments on both sides of Tampa Bay, Lewis has mastered the art of living in a city that is on the cusp of rediscovery by the rest of the world, a budding destination for new urban dwellers. A zip code that made the New York Times' list of places to visit in 2014.

"In the time I've been here, hundreds of condo units came on line, and there's a huge increase in the social scene, nightclubs, restaurants," says Gary Grooms, president of St. Petersburg's Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA).

It is this growing residential component that distinguishes the new St. Petersburg from the one better known historically for green benches and blue-haired ladies scented with orange blossom perfume.

The old tourist mecca, where elderly snowbirds once occupied park benches that lined the sidewalks of Central Avenue, 4th Street and Williams Park, is becoming a magnet for urban professionals to live, work and play in an agreeable climate, where the arts, culture, education and history converge against the backdrop of the unique downtown waterfront.

Grooms points to the massive restoration of the historic Vinoy Renaissance Hotel as the watershed for St. Petersburg's rebirth.

"It's the one thing that turned the corner -- that kind of investment in downtown and a historic property," he says. "Millions of dollars were spent here; it gave us a cornerstone to anchor the north part of downtown."

For Lewis, a Baby Boomer businesswoman with an artsy/bohemian heart, the walkability, the eclectic culture and the sense of community represent exactly what she needed at this phase of her life.

The former teacher/real estate agent/entrepreneur has always marched to a different drummer, guided by fate, circumstance and a penchant for living outside the box.

Her short-lived teaching career, for instance, drew heavily from the book, "Teaching as a Subversive Activity.''

"I loved the kids and I loved teaching, but I did not like filling out color-coded charts. In my rebelliousness, I would use a wrong color," says Lewis.

Making A Break From The Past

Still, her friends were shocked when she put her canal-front Davis Islands home next to downtown Tampa on the market and threw open the doors for a massive estate sale in which she liquidated decades of family heirlooms, collectible art and some of her own artistic creations. She was eager to move on to an uncluttered life.

"I always thought I wanted to be a minimalist in another life. Then it suddenly hit me: Why not this one?"

She had moved to Davis Islands in the mid-'90s, after her husband, Steve, died from a cancer linked to Agent Orange he was exposed to in Vietnam. Most of the memories and memorabilia came with her. It was time to let go.

What she didn't sell, she gave to friends and charities. And three days before Christmas 2012, she journeyed across Tampa Bay and set up housekeeping in a magnificent condominium, with a grand Italian marble lobby, a view to die for and new lease on life.

"People would say, 'How can you sell your house?' And then they would see this place and say, 'I understand why.'"

If the view from the balcony reflects downtown St. Petersburg's soul, the condo itself is a window to the inspiration it has given Lewis.

It is a 1,450-square-foot canvas upon which she has placed the carefully chosen keepsakes of her life. The walls are filled with whimsical pieces acquired at local art shows, and native masks collected when she and Steve, an anthropology major, spent six months of an impromptu honeymoon buying primitive art, living out of an old Holden -- a classic outback car.

When the couple returned to Tampa, they settled in Seminole Heights on the Hillsborough River and founded River City Realty, specializing in promoting the renewal of one of Tampa's oldest, most historic neighborhoods.

The best thing about living on the river in an urban environment, she says, was the unparalleled sense of community, where neighbors gathered for covered-dish suppers and impromptu porch parties.

"I don't know if it's the mindset of people who are drawn to the river, or what," she says. "It was pretty special."

Urban Porch Parties And Music In The Park

An affinity for water, history and art is a cultural constant for Lewis. It is what she shared with Steve, the first love of her life, and with George, the second, a talented local artist she met aboard a friend's boat, nearly a decade later. George passed away in 2009. His work has a prominent place in her condo masterpiece, amid an eclectic display of Lewis' whimsy.

A Georgia O'Keefe book resides on the coffee table, a rustic medicine cabinet has become a display case for crafted earrings, and plaster orthotic molds of Lewis own feet serve as another odd primitive art form.

"They cost too much to just throw them away," she says.

A vintage 1950s ice cream parlor table with jaunty red leather chairs serves her dining purposes, and here and there, her own paintings and crafts -- including extraordinary examples from her prolific basket-weaving phase -- have found a place in pleasing nooks and crannies.

Lewis has feathered a nest that is cozy and inviting, yet the world outside her door beckons daily. She has thrown herself full-force into all the community has to offer.

Six months after she moved to St. Petersburg, she took an accounting of her new life: "I'm just back from 'Happy Hour with the Historian' at the history museum … with my door open, I hear the music of the 'Putnam County Spelling Bee' in the park across the way.

"Last night I went to an urban porch party, and tomorrow I go to an event at the Morean Arts Center.

"Saturday night is gallery walk, although it is really a ride now that the area has expanded and free trolleys are involved. And Sunday I plan to attend a staging of "The Odd Couple'' at The Studio@620."

A year has passed since Lewis embarked on this latest rite of passage and her new lifestyle still inspires awe: She can walk to the podiatrist, the optical center and the grocery store.

And on any given day, she can walk out her door, in any direction, and find artists at work in nearby warehouse galleries, try out a trendy new café or stumble upon a surprise community garden, tucked along a side street.

This time of year, when the weather is cool, the Saturday market is in full swing, as are regular porch parties sponsored by the DNA and St. Petersburg Preservation.

Lewis' favorite historical site is the downtown open-air post office, which she calls "an architectural delight. It's got me writing letters again."

The Formula For Staying Power

Lawyer Peter Belmont, the outgoing president of St. Petersburg Preservation, credits the complementary mix of old and new with the community's staying power as a tourist destination, as well as its growing appeal to those who want to call downtown St. Petersburg home.

While restaurants, galleries and corner watering holes are coming on strong, "We're still a little weak in other retail," Belmont says.

"You want a little of everything -- dry cleaners, office supply stores, pharmacies, home furnishings, clothing stores -- the kinds of things you used to find in a downtown because people used to live downtown."

Well, they're living there again, and true believers have no doubt the rest will follow. As far as Barbara Lewis is concerned, it's well worth the wait.

"Moving here was definitely the best decision I've made -- possibly, in decades. Maybe ever."

Jan Hollingsworth, a freelance writer and editor, has been telling Tampa Bay's growth stories since the 1970s. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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