MAXWELL:  Midtown is barren of good food and fun

2/20/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


During the last 30 days, I have had the pleasure of playing host to four out-of-towners _ a columnist for the Vineyard Gazette in Martha’s Vineyard, an attorney from Jackson, Miss., a second cousin from New York City and a university professor from Chicago.

The columnist, attorney and cousin (a jazz pianist) are black, and the professor (a former college classmate) is white. They were in town primarily on business. My task was to help entertain them, which included finding good food and drink in St. Petersburg. All stayed at well-appointed area hotels, so I did not have to worry about lodging.

All love art museums. No problem. I gave them heavy doses of our own Dali Museum. All love bookstores. They got their fill. Their love of libraries gave me the opportunity to show off the University of South Florida library in St. Petersburg and the Poynter Institute across the street.

All are awed by Florida’s waterfront life, so I brought them to St. Pete Beach, Tierre Verde, Fort De Soto Park and the Blind Pass area. The two movie lovers and I treated ourselves to flicks at BayWalk.

All love outdoor dining and drinking, so I impressed them with great moments on the Vinoy’s front porch, the sidewalk of The Moon Under Water and the waterfront terrace of Billy’s Stone Crab.

I had no trouble entertaining my cosmopolitan guests until one subject came up, and each brought it up: What can we do in the black neighborhood?

My answer was an embarrassed, simple one: “Not much.”

My cousin, who lives in Harlem and is surrounded by black jazz musicians, wanted to listen to some “good jazz in the hood,” as he calls it. He was disappointed when I gave him the bad news that our “hood” is not the place for jazz. I told him about the times _ just a few years ago _ when I met friends at Spot Lites on 16th Street S for excellent jazz. But those days are gone.

When my Chicago friend and I left a movie at BayWalk one night, he wanted to eat soul food. In Chicago, we dined at a soul food eatery in the black neighborhood at least once a week after a movie or play.

The unfortunate truth is that black residents here cannot sit down at night for a full-course soul food meal in Midtown. Even Atwater’s closes shut like a tomb. Sure, you can drive through KFC, and you can grab something fast at a few other places, but do not expect a family atmosphere. In the same way, I cannot find a place in Midtown to bring out-of-towners for a good bottle of wine _ not even a glass.

I want everyone to read my words in the spirit that I write them: I am upset by these conditions, this poor quality of life, this absence of amenities that many other communities take for granted.

When my friends ask how can I live in such a place, I catch myself saying something like: “Things aren’t as bad as they used to be.” I have come to realize that the word “bad” is part of the lexicon when talking about Midtown. In fact, “bad” is the benchmark for measuring the quality of life here.

Trying to describe the area recently, a public official told me, “I know we still have problems, but things aren’t as “bad’ as they were before TyRon Lewis was killed.”

He did not hear himself using “bad.” Few of us hear ourselves using “bad” to begin defining life in Midtown, which means, of course, that any improvement over here is better than nothing.

Mayor Rick Baker and Chamber of Commerce head Russ Sloan should be commended for being concerned about Midtown’s depiction in the St. Petersburg Times. They are paid to fret about the city’s image. But they also must face the reality that people, like my out-of-town friends and colleagues, literally cannot find good food, drink and music over here. (Note: Reporting the crisis does not make the writer Midtown’s enemy.)

What would Baker and Sloan tell my guests when they visit and ask about having a good time in Midtown? Where would they bring my guests for an evening meal? Where would they bring my Chicago pal to sit and enjoy a bottle of Pinot Grigio?

Here, I am going public with a little-talked-about phenomenon: One reason some local companies, including the St. Petersburg Times, cannot retain young black professionals is the lack of a vibrant social and intellectual climate in the black community. That is right. Although the Times, for example, is one of the nation’s best newspaper employers, young blacks leave for cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Houston.

Finally. Where in Midtown would city officials bring their out-of-town guests for a good time? Where would the average reader, black or white, bring his or her guests? How we answer this question suggests part of what needs to be done in Midtown.