A St. Petersburg native replants her roots in Florida’s Sunshine City
I think I had a near perfect Florida childhood—barefoot days, whispering salty breezes and carefree hours on the sparkling water—but it was a moment on the far side of the world that really brought me home to St. Petersburg.
Here’s what happened.
As a St. Pete kid, I grew up playing on the bright, sun-washed Gulf Coast, kayaking, canoeing, and hanging out at beautiful Lassing Park with my friends. I don’t think I wore shoes until I was nine.
There were a lot of other things to do, also. Mom volunteered with local arts organizations, so I was taken along to concerts, plays, operas, you name it, soaking up culture from symphonies to Shakespeare, most within sight of St. Pete’s beautiful downtown waterfront.
And since Dad had a private pilot’s license, I often flew with him from Albert Whitted Airport, a small airfield on the waterfront downtown. I grew to love flying so much that I got my own license when I was 17. Having sole control over the plane (and my fate) was an invigorating sense of freedom. Nothing could hold me back and I found that addicting. All I wanted was to fly further, see more and just explore the world.
Spreading my wings
After graduating from the University of South Florida, I got my chance to see the world at ground level by way of the London School of Economics. London was fascinating and encompassed a world of opportunity. I had seen and felt the opportunity in the sky and London gave me the chance to cease it.
Completing my studies abroad, I still craved uninhibited exploration, so I stayed internationally focused during my job search. I was lucky enough to land a job with Jabil Circuit, a worldwide technology manufacturing company based in St. Pete. However, I wasn’t moving back home with my parents. Jabil sent me all over Asia and the South Pacific to conduct training and I lived in Shanghai, taking every chance to learn about the cuisine, culture and atmosphere. I was where I thought I needed to be to experience new things.
Rediscovering a world of entertainment
On a plane ride home after a year in Asia, I was expecting to find things the “same old, same old.” But what I came home to was a city of new horizons. St. Pete suddenly came alive and it was like I had lifted my head for the first time.
In the space of four or five years the city had seemingly changed overnight. My hometown had become more than a Florida coast city, but a city of the world. It was almost a total makeover.
Every time I came back for a visit I would discover something new.
Within a few days, I discovered live music, celebrity-chef restaurants and arts . I might as well have been in New York or London. I’ve seen plays in London’s Globe Theater and on New York’s Broadway, and I think St. Pete’s arts community can hang with them any day.
Every time I came back for a visit I would discover something new. New favorites soon followed, such as Stillwaters Tavern and a place called Kings Street Food Counter, where they specialize in hot dogs, grilled cheese and exotic milkshakes.
And then there’s the very walkable Beach Drive, a booming, high rise-punctuated stretch—between The Vinoy Renaissance Resort to the north and Al Lang Stadium to the south—that some are calling St. Pete’s own Rodeo Drive. From morning, when table umbrellas pop up along the street to shade the brunch and lunch crowd, to the sparkle of the evening dinner rush and beyond, Beach Drive is really the place to see and be seen.Tourists and locals alike flock to the permanent Dale Chihuly glass-art collection at the Morean Arts Center, as well as the Dalí Museum and A-list restaurants like Philippe Berriot’s Cassis American Brasserie, 400 Beach Drive Seafood & Tap House and Michael Mina and Don Pintabona’s Farmtable Kitchen. There’s always something happening and I tried a new restaurant each time I visited. Each trip home ended up turning into an adventure filled with new things and rediscovery.
On trips home, St. Pete continually amazed me. It was starting to look like such a positive, interesting place to be. When my boyfriend, Sean, visited me in Shanghai during a long work junket—a five or six week tour of Shanghai, rural China, Bali, and Australia—it finally clicked for me.
One evening we were crossing a bridge, looking out over the multicolored sparkle of the city’s distinctive city center. Sean pointed out the city lights reflected in the Huangpu River.
“Now that is a beautiful sight,” Sean said.
And it was beautiful, but the magic of the evening still wasn’t completely there for me. It wasn’t quite the same as being in St. Pete. I had begun to feel chained by the frequent air travel. I still wanted to be free to explore on my terms, but I missed that sense of belonging. St. Pete has reinvented itself, but it had become more connected to the world than I had.
“It’s nice, but I wish I was in St. Pete,” I said to Sean. “I feel like I’ve journeyed too far from who I was when I was flying a plane over Tampa Bay.”
The water and the sunshine. It grabs hold of you and doesn't let you go.
I have a close friend who left St. Pete and became a successful commercial artist in New York City. He limits his trips home to St. Petersburg to just four days. He told me, "If I stay any longer than that, I know I will never leave." For the first time, I understood what he meant. There is something special, seductive and magical about that city, the water and the sunshine. It grabs hold of you and doesn't let you go.
And so, finally, I listened to myself and the call to come home.
Back to my roots
Now Sean and I are happily settled in St. Pete’s friendly Old South East neighborhood; it was just certified as an artists’ enclave, so you can buy artwork right off of people’s porches.
We eat downtown, frequent the opera company and never shy from local breweries. I’m even involved with freeFall Theatre Company, which does wonderful new and progressive pieces. In St. Pete, you’re never short of options.
For me, that can mean yoga on the bay or exploring the Indian markets for hard-to-find seasoned naan flatbread, or the always interesting Vietnamese market for great ginger, dried mushrooms—even Vietnamese dumplings to go. The Asia I knew and enjoyed is right here!
And that’s the thing about St. Pete; no matter what you’re in the mood for, something here will answer it.
Sometimes we just walk down to my old favorite, Lassing Park, where there’s usually a pickup Ultimate Frisbee game for Sean. Normally I take the dogs and sometimes the cat when she’s in the mood for some sun—who isn’t?
And that’s the thing about St. Pete; no matter what you’re in the mood for, something here will answer it. That freedom I felt as a pilot, which helped inspire my globetrotting, is now no longer limited to the skies for me. I don’t have to constantly travel around the world to test new boundaries or enrich my life.
Years ago that happy kid watching the gulls and spoonbills winging up from Bird Island—and maybe imagining some soaring of her own—never would have dreamed how completely St. Pete would end up being her sure-enough Sunshine City. But it did.