P-town & P-burg

A tale of two arts towns.

click to enlarge P-town & P-burg - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
P-town & P-burg

It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack of what is found there.

—from "Asphodel That Greeny Flower" by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

We've just arrived in P-town — the locals' name for Provincetown — on the curling tip of Cape Cod, feeling a tad ill after gorging on our ritual snack of malasadas: a heavy, rich, free-form Portuguese doughnut, designed by Salvador Dalí. We do this so we don't have to think about it any more: it's almost impossible to eat exactly the right amount of malasadas. (Portuguese sailors were early inhabitants, and their culinary influence lingers.)

Fortunately, P-town's a walking village, strung out along Cape Cod Bay. Funky and picturesque, with its weather-beaten peaked rooftops, it's smaller and more compact than our own waterfront city — but St. Petersburg leaders could learn a lot from a visit here.

Not long ago, Mayor Bill Foster formed the St. Petersburg Sports Alliance with the sensible plan of taking advantage of our year-round good weather (which is better than P-town's). A good idea, but I think the mayor is misreading our city's possibilities.

Encourage sports, yes, but our experience with the Tampa Bay Rays has shown that St. Pete isn't really a big-time sports-minded city: despite having a fine team, our attendance is mediocre, even when fattened with Yankee and Red Sox fans. (Having grown up in Brooklyn with the Brooklyn Dodgers, I know what a baseball-loving city feels like, and we're not it.)

What St. Petersburg does have, however — like P-town — is creative energy. What would fit us better than sports is a St. Petersburg Arts Alliance.

The handsome new Dalí Museum is almost ready; world-famous glass artist Dale Chihuly is opening a center here on Beach Drive next month; our lovely Museum of Fine Arts has a new wing, and received a major gift (a Georgia O'Keeffe painting) in May. The two most recent plays at American Stage Theater, Driving Miss Daisy and Hair, set attendance records.

New art galleries have opened on Central Avenue, Gulfport's arts community is bubbling, multi-disciplined [email protected] is the hip place to go. Jazz and other music, including opera, are popping up all over, spearheaded by Paul Wilborn at the Palladium. "The City of Writers," organized by Roy Peter Clark and the Poynter Institute, is just getting warmed up. And the May issue of American Style magazine named St. Petersburg as the #1 Arts Destination for Mid-Size American Cities — ahead of New Orleans, Alexandria and Chattanooga

Cafés, bistros and brasseries are buzzing; you can't sit down at a restaurant without tripping over a potter or a poet. Students from Eckerd College, SPC and USF are staying in town after graduation. Despite the recession — maybe because of the recession — the arts are building here.

I'm thinking these things as we walk along Commercial Street in P-town, checking out the art galleries and restaurants with the other tourists. Our basic conclusions: Keep St. Petersburg walkable and intimate as possible; save the old buildings, hang on to those public parks. St. Petersburg is headed in the right direction, but needs a helping hand. Hilda Neily, an artist who has a P-town gallery but also lives in Gulfport part of each year, suggests that St. Pete offer more education in the arts, introducing our citizens to the pleasures and value of seeing, hearing, making and owning art. St. Petersburg should publicize our artists like baseball players. Everyone knows who Evan Longoria is, but do they know Bob Stackhouse?

Getting baseball and other sports to mix in our lives is a decent idea — but it's off center, just as ideas about history might be a bit skewed when held by someone who doesn't believe in evolution.

There's one aspect of this artistic renaissance that may not appeal to our mayor: it reflects, as in most vibrant American cities, a growing gay population, whose energy and flair bring economic success, not just through what they create, but by attracting young businesspeople who value an air of openness and acceptance. (Provincetown's zip code — 02657 — has the highest concentration of same-sex households in America.)

Of course, we don't want St. Petersburg to become P-burg. We don't think about sex as much as P-town, except on weekends, like malasadas. And P-town has problems. Its success with tourism has brought higher prices, and many of its charming homes have morphed into expensive b&b's (also charming). On Commercial Street, chintziness grins like a brass monkey. (What next, pole dancers?)

No, what is important is that the mayor get behind the art ball, which is already rolling, with the same enthusiasm that he puts behind sports.

What is art but God in the blood

crying to get out into this world?

—Peter Meinke is Poet Laureate of St. Petersburg, and will be writer-in-residence at USF/Tampa for the fall semester. The last quote is from his poem "Letter from Warsaw."

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