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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Steve Otto Columns

Keeping an eye on St. Petersburg

You would think we already have enough eyes watching everything we do. Now people in St. Petersburg are thinking about creating an even bigger eye, or at least a lens, that will stare out from just offshore as a replacement to the upside-down pyramid. When I was a kid, about as neat a thing as could happen was going to the Million Dollar Pier with my grandpa. Going anywhere with my grandfather was special. With my dad off in some faraway part of the world in the Air Force, my grandpa filled a special void. The two of us would go to church on Sundays and stay late to count the money with the other ushers while Grandma and my mom would be at home already putting things together for the big Sunday dinner.
On Tuesday nights, once in a while, he would take me to the wrestling matches at the armory in Tampa, where he would quickly lose his stern German demeanor and holler along with the rest of the crowd when Eddie Graham and some other local hero would get bonked with a chair by the villain. But the Million Dollar Pier, which preceded the upside-down pyramid that's there now, was something else. It was huge, and on the inside there were lots of little stores and even a TV station. You could go outside, and there would be fishermen with pelicans hanging around them looking for a handout. I loved the pier. There was something exotic about driving across the Gandy Bridge at night from Tampa to the pier. It was like its own island country. After an hour or so, we would go back to downtown St. Pete and drive over to Webb's City for a milkshake. This was back when they not only gave you a tall glass with the milkshake but also included the steel container with enough to fill up your glass almost to the top again. You could, or at least it seemed to me, buy anything at Webb's City, not to mention see dancing chickens or live mermaids. My grandfather would pick up a selection of out-of-town newspapers, and I would be allowed to select a comic book before heading back across the bay to Tampa, which had none of the magic of the pier or Webb's City. I can understand why Webb's disappeared in our world. First it was megamalls and now online shopping, where everyone is electronically plugged into phones, as if they are afraid to be disconnected for even a minute. But the pier is a different ballgame. I like the lens idea that's proposed as a replacement for that ugly pyramid, if only because it is something special you won't find anywhere else. Frankly, as long as that clunker pyramid comes down, they can put up a lens or an eye or almost any body part and it would be an improvement. St. Petersburg, whether by good planning or, more likely by luck, has created a waterfront entertainment and dining district that is the envy of its big brother across the bay. The new pier will be as much of an attraction as whatever is on it — and reflect the creativity and style of the city that surrounds it.
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