Hard Candy: Two St. Pete Beaches

A few months back the reporter who covered St. Pete Beach City Commission meetings quit and my editor asked me to cover the meetings until he found a suitable replacement. Because I will write about anything for money and because I’m a little scared to tell him no, I agreed. I took my laptop, notebook and lucky pen and I trotted down to city hall, less than a half-mile from my home. This, I thought, would be a piece of cake.
I later described the meeting as Dante’s ninth level of hell on steroids. St. Pete Beach City Commission meetings that last less than four hours are like fairies: I want to believe, even though I’ve never seen one. My first clue should have been when the commissioners had all packed not only lunch but a change of clothes.
A lot of the meetings I attended swelled with bluster and tension about height restrictions and how the city intends to deal with them. We’re talking about hours of filibuster-like discussion infused with a passion I generally reserve for grand patriotic acts or my friend Leah’s lemon cream sauce over snapper. It seemed like a lot of pointless posturing and stirring the pot to no productive end. As a newcomer to the beach and an outsider at the meetings, I thought it was perfectly clear that the commission had no intention of building high rises along Upham Beach or anywhere else. They had certain laws in place but these people insisted that wasn’t enough. At best, I thought their protests were over-the-top. At worst, I cast about commission chambers looking for the Kool-Aid they all must be drinking.
I spent a couple months whining about the people who spoke and how I didn’t get what they were talking about and why did they go on and on about height and referendums and for god’s sake could they please just shut up so I could get out of there and go watch Deadliest Catch? But then my cousin came down for a visit and we spent some time on Clearwater Beach.
I grew up in Clearwater, went to the beach more than I went to church, and put more than my fair share of miles on my mom’s K-car cruising up and down Mandalay. My high school held its senior prom and 10-year reunion at the old Holiday Inn; my marine biology teacher sent us to the north beach to net for fish. I knew all the best places to park that weren’t technically illegal, and I knew where to go to hang out and be away from the tourists. Most importantly, I frittered away hours of a teenage existence walking up and down the beach itself. I could take the Plymouth, drive up and down the beach, and see from the road which stretch of beach had the least people.
I don’t get up there much anymore, because seeing what the Clearwater City Commission has allowed on Clearwater Beach breaks my heart. My beach is gone. The Spyglass Motel, a landmark, got demolished and a nondescript pink giant swelled up in its place. In understand the rooms sell for about $2 million and the Hyatt manages the hotel. High rises line the beach on both ends.
Now everything there calls out to tourists, not locals. If you live on Clearwater Beach, good luck catching a movie or buying groceries or anything else not directly related to alcohol or t-shirts. You can’t even see the beach from the road anymore; I’m assuming it’s still there. Someone certainly would have mentioned high rises marching out to sea, wouldn’t they?
Throughout the day my mind contrasted Clearwater Beach and St. Pete Beach and I realized that St. Pete Beach is every bit as tourist-capable as Clearwater Beach, except without the high rises and with a sense of community.
That’s because there’s really two St. Pete Beaches. There’s the one where people from Michigan visit in the winter. They stay at the Tradewinds or the Don or the Travelodge and they eat at the Hurricane or Crabby Bill’s or order a pizza. They get frozen drinks at any number of beach bars and they have a lovely time. We are, of course, glad to have them. Mostly.
Then there’s our beach.
There’s the beach with the new burger place; I walk Calypso past it almost every night and see the owner and her boyfriend sharing a beer on the patio after closing time. I don’t know how, but she always remembers my name as well as my affinity for her white wine mustard. They do a good tourist business but it’s not unheard of to see the fire marshal picking up a to-go order, either.
There’s the beach where a local named Paul comes by Dolphin Village every night to see the sailboats leave the dock. He walks down from his home, shakes a Pall Mall out of his pack, and sits and watches the boats sail away, loaded with visitors eager to see the sun set over the Gulf.
There’s the beach with the Beach Theatre. This theatre cannot possibly compete with BayWalk, and no one wants them to try. It’s old, it has one screen, and things don’t always work. I’ve walked in moments before a movie started to see a kid with a set of wrenches trying to fix a broken seat. I’ve been there when the popcorn machine was broken or when they’d run out of popcorn. Sometimes the projectionist can’t get the film in focus. But you know what? The kid fixed the seats, the clerk behind the counter popped more popcorn and delivered it seat-side, and they get the film in focus eventually. The guy behind the counter recognizes the regulars and talks animatedly about what films the Beach Theatre will show next. He’s all of what, 23?, and he connects with this gloriously run-down theatre and its loyal local following more than anyone I’ve ever seen selling $15 popcorn “value meals” at BayWalk.
There’s the beach where on Sunday mornings I walk down to the Upham Beach concession stand for coffee and eggs. The coffee cups don’t match and I think they’ll slap you if you attempt to order a latte, but locals wander by, drink their no-frills coffee, and watch families from Ohio and Missouri build sandcastles on our beach. One regular spreads the Sunday paper out on a picnic table, drinks his coffee, and occasionally raises an eyebrow at another regular, a heron waiting patiently about three feet away.
There’s the beach with Shaner’s, the mom-and-pop grocery where they’ll cut up a bone for Calypso but also warn me about her getting too many. They take special orders but don’t ask for a name or a deposit; it’s a small town, after all. They know who you are and trust you at your word. Yes, they’re small and no, they aren’t open as late as the chain stores, but their fish and meats cost less than the supermarkets and they’ll cut up a bone for Calypso if I ask. No, they don’t have their guarantee posted on the wall, but then, I’ve never needed it.
There’s the beach where the residents show up and argue about what I deemed imaginary height threats and sue the commissioners and rail against the city, but when the beach post office gets threatened with closure, they all arrange a Stone Soup-style rally where everyone offers to do something to help.
When Shells closed no one seemed to notice but the Swigwam, a locals bar behind the Shells, reopened almost instantly. These places aren’t just restaurants and shops; they’re the heart of the beach that props up the tourist trade; they give a superficially transient town a sense of place and home and comfort. Walking along Clearwater Beach last week I tried to find places that would offer its locals that same sense of community.
No one walked his dog along the splashy BeachWalk. None of the shopkeepers sat outside with a cool drink and waved at regulars. Every restaurant had matching coffee mugs. The mom-and-pop hotels of my youth, along with their 1960s-era signs and jalousie windows, yielded to towering condos stretching skyward and blotting out the beach. The snack stand once so like the one on Upham now had polished wood floors, fancy chairs, and an air-conditioned dining room. It served green key lime pie and watered down frozen drinks. T-shirt shops and bars littered the main drag. I was standing on Any Beach, U.S.A., and I shivered in the August heat.
And all of a sudden those arguments at the Commission meetings didn’t seem so silly anymore.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@TheGabber.com. Comment online at HardCandyOnline.Blogspot.com.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.