St. Pete’s Salt Creek is now a ‘culturally and environmentally significant waterway’ | Columns | Tampa

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1914 map of Salt Creek c/o Thomas Hallock

Salt Creek is an overlooked ditch that runs through the heart of southern St. Petersburg.

When Nicole’s outside bands slapped St. Petersburg City Hall during the Council meeting last month, we were reminded that hurricanes weren’t expected to hit in November. Our rivers were still swelled by Ian, and after the Florida Democratic Party massacre on Election Day, a storm so late in the season felt like injury added insult.

Politics had taken precedence over the environment. Or even common sense. With a Cat-5 disaster fresh in memory, voters in Florida have reinstalled a senator who (until recently) denied the very existence of climate change. We re-elected a governor, soon to be a presidential candidate, who promises to do little for the causes of sea level rise. Ron DeSantis touts resilience but remains in the back pocket of the oil and gas industries. (Stock up on fire extinguishers, he says, but ignore faulty wiring.) League of Conservation Voters gives Marco Rubio an abysmal 7 out of 100 on his environmental scorecard. Where losing senatorial candidate Val Demings received an A grade (97%), winner DeSantis (LCV, 2%) baitedly mocks “benches of the global warming left.”

Moderate to liberal Floridians have good reason to feel cynical about civil discourse.

St. Pete, however, offers promises. Pinellas County is a peninsula upon a peninsula, and scale reduces public conversation to human scale. I met several mayors in our municipal parks. Living in St. Petersburg means having a selfie with Charlie Crist on his cell phone.

The reactionary Floridians stormed the United States Capitol. They attack the police (the very blue ones they claim to support) and exclude facts that do not correspond to their opinion. In St. Petersburg, to witness public life, I pass a metal detector, climb the steps, wink at the blank mural (just removed by Omali Yeshitela) in the stairwell of the story and take a seat.

I was there with Darden Rice, current president of Friends of Salt Creek, a community group formed at the encouragement of council co-chair Gina Driscoll. Salt Creek is an overlooked ditch that runs through the heart of southern St. Petersburg. Darden, who knows how government works, had a genius idea: to have Salt Creek declared a “waterway of cultural and environmental significance.”

A good move, of course, but strategically smart.

We waited three hours for our turn to speak. If you have never attended a city council meeting, I recommend you do so. I watched our elected officials approve zoning changes, negotiate between parties who disagreed over Manhattan’s famed casino, and plead with a developer to rethink parking on the already congested Central Avenue. Most of these problems required a side room and a stern kindergarten teacher, telling the kids to get along.

By the time we got to our point, the last of the evening, the board members were visibly exhausted.

Each his turn: Darden, Jenna Byrne with the Water Warrior Allianceand Michael McGrath with the Sierra Club.

I carefully timed my three minutes on the podium, taking the board members on an imaginary canoe trip through the Pinellas Peninsula. We started at USF, entering Salt Creek from Bayboro Harbor. We passed under Thrill Hill, through the unexpected wilderness of Bartlett Park and over the Lake Maggiore Dam (traveling in our imaginary ships). After a short portage, from 31st Street S to the parking lot behind the Skyway Jacks restaurant, we drifted through a retention pond to Clam Bayou, ending our journey at Gulfport Casino.

“This creek cuts through a fractured community, connecting us through our differences.”

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The beauty of Salt Creek and Clam Bayou coming together on a topographic map is precisely the connection. All kinds of people are affected: golfers, owners, friends of Boyd Hill, rich and poor, the homeless and boaters. This stream traces through a fractured community, connecting us through our differences.

Why can’t we do the same? Like nature, come together?

The city council voted, our measure passed unanimously, and after the last hammer blow, I had a drink after the meeting. To my surprise, I learned that a member of city council—on the other side of the political fence—can also be a drinking buddy. The Democrats have wine, the Republican drinks beer, but the camps agree on Bangkok shrimp.

I sat across from Ed Montanari, a retired American Airlines pilot known for maintaining the city’s conservative front. Politically, Montanari and I do not fall on the same page.

But we can always discuss. The pilot and I talked about flying into Tampa International Airport, flying over Pinellas County, and how St. Pete’s Lake Maggiore looks like a little Okeechobee from the air. We speculated about how lakes might have served a similar function: as reserves for sheet flow at the base of a peninsula.

We exchanged photos of our dogs. My partner Julie and I have a Norwegian Buhund, which looks like a German Shepherd, but smaller; Montanari is the relative of a shepherd named Jet.

Common interests replace caricature.

The 45th President taught our nation an important fact. As long as our elected officials remain hostages to the extremists, the process will not work. The one-party state of Florida, far right of center, is running for disaster. We need public houses. We need conversation.

Our small group had finished our drinks. A meeting that started late in the afternoon ended late at night. There were dogs that needed walking. We paid the bill, shook hands and hugged, said we hoped to talk again soon. We meant what we said.

Then we went home.

Thomas Hallock is Professor of English and Floridian Studies at the University of South Florida. He and Amanda Hagood host CL’s #Creekshed project, writing about urban waterways.

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