Nature & Community on a St. Petersburg Stream

Author: student (page 1 of 2)

Just Barely (Sommer Downs)

What is it about the city that makes people crack? What is it about nature that brings us back to ourselves? Will I crack? When will this happen to me?

The city life has been known to wear humans down.

Like most things, the idea makes me think of Van Gogh, how he had to leave Paris for the natural landscapes of Arles and Auver-Sur-Oise, where he became a true artist. For those who live in the city, and love it, finding nature here is incredibly important. The littlest peeks of nature are the most significant, a patch of grass under a shady tree; a forest, a waterside view; the entire ocean.

I find myself and others looking for these nature spots in parks and outdoor green spaces. A place to do yoga, to run, to lay and read, to write. To just be, to just exist. The hustle and bustle lifestyle of the city may make you lose your inner peace, but it is easy to find it again if you look hard enough.

Today, in Roser Park, I don’t have to look very hard at all. Below me on my path, turtles dance in the water, flitting around rocks and a Polar Pop cup. They seem fine, right? Nature in the city may be a creek polluted with syringes and tall boy cans, but it’s enough for me. I’m not cracking, I refuse to crack. I look forward to friends and lovers I haven’t met yet. I feel thankful to have met the ones I have. I’m still sane, and I’m still in love with all of it, from the city streets to the hidden places of all things green. It’s in the place, but it’s also in the perspective, and living in the city, you must learn how to make nature out of everything. Walking in Roser Park, while the birds chirp, and the greenery sways, I ask myself, Am I in the city anymore?

The answer is yes. But just barely.

Learning to Read (Darby Blekicki)

“How to read a creek” is something that if I asked most people I know would do a full stop, stare me down for a second or two, and then say, “How the hell am I supposed to know, Darby?” My personal theory is that none of them have seen, recognized, and then acknowledged any creek. “Reading” a creek isn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, since it has layers. First, you need to see the creek itself, observe it. Anyone observing it has to see the creek itself and recognize it as nature, which when most people look at Salt Creek, they don’t see that. They see an overgrown little flow of water that cuts through south St. Pete and the only use is as a dumping ground. And, yeah, a lot of people take the creek up on that “offer” for being a trash heap, with the closer you get to Bartlett Pond, the more garbage.

But continue reading the creek, look past the garbage, and now into the biological side of the waterway. Recognized it. There’s a plethora of animals, plants, and microorganisms that call the creek home. For my own personal biological pleasure, I know there has to be a ton of algae in this creek, which build a basis for everything else. In the food chain, a lot of different algae are known as “high quality food.” Tampa Bay itself is an estuary, which is a great breeding ground for everything living and water dependent. The creek goes from the harbor through a few different named waterways until it becomes a ditch, and even in that ditch, there’s still all these organisms who live in the water, even if it’s murky.

Looking past the organisms who live in Salt Creek, there’s the history of the waterway to continue, the last layer of my “creek reading essentials.” Acknowledge the history, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Salt Creek was a historically marginalized waterway, getting dredged to make way for Bayboro Harbor and then having industry set up on its banks. Compared to Bayboro Harbor, Salt Creek really got the short end of the stick, just like a lot of the people who live nearby it. It runs through south St. Petersburg, a historically black community. The creek and its history are not glamorous, nor are they known by many of the people living nearby or even on the shores. I lived in St. Petersburg for two years without knowing much about the area, and I’d been visiting the area for nearly a decade before a class introduced me to Salt Creek and its history.

Reading a creek takes effort, even if it can be dumbed down to three major steps. So with these steps, look around at your creeks and see how you can read them.

An Uncomfortable Connection (Tami Toms)


How important are names? A creek evokes images of pristine nature, clear water, and birds swooping to take a quick drink. A ditch, on the other hand, brings to mind muddy run-off strewn with Styrofoam cups, soda cans, and torn junk mail. The creek is like a community leader and the ditch is a mob boss, both provide similar results, but the images are polar opposites.  To LeFebvre, the terms that distinguish spaces, like creeks or ditches, use a spacial code (LeFebvre 16) and we think that we know what the terms represent.

There are many good reasons to manage urban water. We want to keep our homes dry, avoid flooding, irrigate lands, or utilize dry land. Knowing that Booker Creek is urban and has a history of pollution from the old gas plant’s chemicals, sawdust from the old Pinellas Lumber yard, and road runoff, I was surprised as we walked along Booker Creek to see turtles of all sizes swimming in the sunny water.  In cool shadows, minnows, larger fish and what looked like a Snook lazily moved through the crystal water. A bougainvillea leaned over the creek as if planted decades ago by a wayward artist, to form an idyllic view. Algae, dark and rich, has had years to form on concrete and even on the crusty shell of an old turtle. Footbridges and benches beckon us to wander and explore. While high concrete walls wrap around the creek trying to keep it contained and docile.

Under an oak tree, a ragged couple relaxed and fished beside a battered bicycle. I wondered if I should tell them that any fish might be contaminated.  Then, I wondered if fish from the creek might be a needed meal, or maybe they were just fishing to pass a peaceful afternoon together. Maybe I didn’t have the right to tell them anything. What did I know anyway? Eventually, Booker Creek feeds out to the harbor, from the harbor to the bay, and from the bay to the Gulf of Mexico. The Snook that might be swimming in a creek today, may later be caught in the gulf and I would have no suspicion of the quality of its meat.

Drainage inlets along the creek are marked with small plaques to warn that the runoff will head to the bay. A small fish is the symbol used. The urban grime that fills the gutters leading to the inlet will pick up oil from vehicles, fertilizer from yards, plastic wrappers, grass clipping, and much more. The little fish plaque is meant to warn us. The rain or sprinklers on yards will push all the grime to the same creeks, to the same harbor, to the same gulf. Water forms an uncomfortable connection and exposes the links we all share.

One Block Over (Katelyn Beane)

The looming shadows of skyscrapers cover us while walking through bustling streets. With the setting sun comes the cascading of night. As suddenly as a flick of a switch, street lights brightly glow in the dark. The break between buildings is scattered with old trees around a grass filled park. Benches and criss-crossed paths cut through the greenery, marking the presence of Man.

Approaching the center of the park feels as though the surrounding city has faded away. The roaring of cars zooming by has become distorted, replacing the chirping of birds with the rustling of trees. Music thumps from Jannus Live down the street. Sound resonates through my ears. The overlap of mingling sounds creates a noisy synergy; a combination of nature’s harmony and the white noise of Man.

All around me are people enjoying twilight strolls while I stand on the green grass. I wonder what they see as they move on by. Do they bear witness to the stark contrast between this space? Between the nature in Williams Park and and towering office buildings located one block over?

I see the clear and distinctly drawn boundaries indicating where nature has been allotted. In this space, it is allowed to be whatever it chooses; however, even here it is maintained and groomed by human standards. That also means that it is full of human by-products. Trash cans are all around; plastic in multiple forms litters the ground. Yet, in Williams Park, nature stands amidst the concrete, metal, and glass that shape the city. A reminder of the past and a piece of the natural world, Williams Park is a symbol to the city of St. Petersburg.

The Social Perception of a Creek (Emily Akers)

Creeks, just like rivers, streams, and all natural waterways, are inextricably shaped by the social spaces in which they are found. In essence, a creek and a community are one, even if society doesn’t always view it through that lens. Examining the case of Salt Creek shows this relationship clearly. The community of south St. Petersburg, where the creek is found, is highly marginalized, and the state of the watershed mirrors that treatment. Once it feeds far enough away from the upscale harbor and its expensive yachts, the waterway is littered with trash and covered in places with an oily film. But when a city doesn’t care about its citizens, how can it expect its citizens to care about a silly little creek?

Just as important as the physical state is the social perception of the creek itself. Are we calling it a creek? Or are we calling it a ditch? Salt Creek is both creek and ditch, depending on where you’re at. The way in which we label our waterways has a profound impact on how they will be treated, and this idea operates in a cyclical manner. As soon as a creek is labeled a ditch, the community will treat it as such. Consequently, as soon as a creek becomes run down and starts to take on the appearance of a ditch, people will label it in that way. In reality, the parts that are perceived as “ditch” are merely representations of the social climate in which they are geographically located.

Putting the Roses Down (Tori Malizzi)

The creek winds through downtown St. Petersburg like turquoise ribbon. Muddied beds with small toe prints of raccoons and birds enclose the laughing water, guiding it towards the horizon. Small silver fish dart in between rocks and water plants, rippling the creek’s surface. It is a haven. The trees reach up like giant sentinels protecting a clouded sky and warning off civilization. A creek is a story. This is the story I want to read; the story I forced upon the creek.  

I’d like it to be read like a cheesy middle-school poem or the beginning of a romance novel. Nature changes into fantasy. I want to cradle the water and hug the trees and dance with the small silver fish. It turns into a fairytale. I hide the litter and idealize the humanity that has turned the crystal waters to a slugging brown. I close my eyes and dream of what this ditch could be; what it should be. I ignore the flaws and the reality and wait for the stale waters to sweep me off my feet.

But Salt Creek is not a beautiful prince.

Nature is not a romance novel.  

I have to put my roses down and look at the swamp grass that clots the banks.

I have to learn to read nature in its own language.  

I have not always been concerned with the environment, but I have always been in love it.  Growing up on a farm instilled a love of the nature and the wild as I raced around broken stalks of dried corn. My grassy yard transformed into a mythical meadow filled with fairy circles. The tree in the front yard was a twisted portal and the Periwinkle vines opened gateways. As I grew, the stories only changed and morphed. Out of muddy waters grows a crystal creek. I painted the landscapes in whatever way I saw fit, effectively killing the nature I loved so much. Nature is a living thing. It tells its own story.

The story of Salt Creek is not ones of noble steeds, towering trees, or mystical enchantments, but systematic abuse of a neighborhood, of people, and of nature. To truly protect the nature I love so much, I must stop trying to change it into what it isn’t. By romanticizing nature, we not only distance ourselves from the now, but also the truth behind why pristine nature turns into a wasteland. We must learn how to protect what’s left.

The Man and the Bridge (Nina Shand)

We are in a two-person kayak in a shallow section of Salt Creek. Mangroves surround us, stretching out two and three feet from the bank to scrape the sides of our raft. The roots are filled with litter and discarded items that tell a story of the creek’s community: an extra-large Styrofoam Polar Pop cup, McDonald’s bags, a used condom, a torn plaid shirt, a soccer ball. The north bank leads to a parking lot for Family Dollar and McDonald’s; the southern bank, an empty lot. The branches reach across our path, making it impossible for us to continue. At this point, Salt Creek is hardly wide enough for us to turn around, and we leave the area with twigs and trash trailing behind.

On our return, we approach the Fourth Street Bridge. The falling Clearance! sign on the Family Dollar is sun bleached. The McDonalds drive-thru is full. A jagged and rusted pipe hangs in our path, right at eye level, and I tell my partner we will need to come to a stop to maneuver around the thing. I put my hand on the cool cement to stop our forward momentum, and I notice old credit cards stuffed between the pipe and the bridge: silver, red, and blue. To our right there is a man. White tee, jean shorts, clean white socks and sneakers. Two hands full of cash. My partner, aware of the necessity to return our rental on time to avoid a fee, asks the man “excuse me, sir, do you have the time?” With a casual roll of the wrist, the man tells us “2:40” and goes right back to counting. She apologizes for interrupting with a high pitched “Thank you!” I’ve pointed our kayak away from the broken pipe and I’ve wedged the oar into the creek bottom to propel the boat forward. I push off and we both begin to paddle a little faster.

Back in the wild corridor between the Third and Fourth Street bridges, a white egret crosses our path and I take a deep breath, laughing off my nerves. I feel at peace in this natural space, and I think again about the bridge and the man. Salt Creek subverts the street grid that was designed to create separate socio-economic spaces. The bridge is literally a liminal space, a transitional tool that occupies both boundaries, which makes a place that is susceptible to appropriation. A bridge becomes a place of secret action.

Like me, the man was using nature as a means of escape. I was using my time on the creek to forget about responsibility. In a way, the man was doing the same thing. He saw an opportunity to create a space that was separate from the one created for him, and he took action. He appropriated the space to participate in an economic society outside of the one that seems rigged against him. Nature in the city allows us this opportunity: to relax, replenish, and resist.

Baffles (Kara Nicholl)

I habitually look right every time I drive eastbound up I-175. People entering the highway from the Fourth Street ramp have a tendency to merge lanes like a sixty-year old grandmother, still a little high on anesthesia and having just been cleared from her shoulder surgery: slowly, suddenly, and without any use of a turn signal. Plus, I have to keep an eye out for cops who might pull me over for doing sixty-five in a fifty. Once I am safe from swerving grandmothers and police cars, I look at the Trop. I am more than a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t notice the baseballs and bats patterned on the outside of the dome until I was sixteen. I had even attended several games there prior to the revelation; how the detail escaped me for so long still baffles me.

What baffles me even more, however, is the fact that my hometown of twenty years has not one, but two creeks that I only just learned about in my twentieth year of life. How had I never noticed them? Better yet, how had I never recognized them as creeks? I drive over where Salt Creek cuts underneath 34th Street next to 26th Avenue South almost every weekday, always thinking that the ribbon of water was simply a drainage ditch. I never even knew that Booker Creek existed. Did I just never bother paying attention?

Having walked alongside Booker Creek by following its path from Bayboro Harbor all the way up to Central Avenue and 16th Street, I still look right. But instead of admiring the sculpted sports equipment on the stadium, my attention is drawn to the narrow watershed snaking its way from underneath the interstate. It’s hard to see clearly. Speeding past such a small piece of earth on such a fast roadway (when there are no cops to slow me down) means that the creek comes and goes too quickly for me to really look at it. The Trop easily outsizes it, and besides, who wouldn’t want to observe such a cleverly designed building? I mean, they put sports on the outside—not just the inside. Everyone who sees it knows it’s a baseball stadium.

But not everyone knows that Booker Creek is a creek. It’s hard to look at nature in the city when the city is designed to make people turn away from nature.

How Do You Read a Creek? (Cassidy Towers)

A creek, by definition, is a waterway that winds down into a marsh. But it is so much more than what meets the eye. A creek is a home; a home to fish, insects, snakes, and birds. When I think of a creek, I think about how it sounds. Water trickling over rocks and brush trying to find its place in the world. I hear the hum of the insects that thrive off it’s marshland. I can smell that boggy wetland smell that reminds me of home. I feel my feet sinking into the ground beneath the moving water and I wonder where this will take me. Although the creek is connected to a larger river, the creek itself is all its own. The creek is hidden from the route of the river and gives privacy to all that live there. It’s like a private community; quiet and reserved on the outside, bustling and wild on the inside. It’s like finding the secret door to a club you’ve been trying to get into for weeks; exclusive and exciting. Kayaking Salt Creek by USFSP this semester showed me how a creek will go anywhere it can, underneath thickets and bridges just to find it’s forever home, a ditch.

Booze, Baseball, Booker Creek (M. Lyons)

It was two days shy of my twenty-first birthday. Opening day. St. Petersburg was buzzing. Rays and Red Sox fans piled into Ferg’s for the hallowed American tradition of getting plastered on three-dollar beers, then watching grown men hit a tiny leather ball with a stick. Police strolled through the sea of baseball-capped heads bobbing up and down along the asphalt of Central Avenue. “We can’t pour them over here … too many cops.” My friend Hope holds our crumpled brown bag of travel-sized liquor bottles like a secret in her cardigan. “I don’t know,” I say. “Let’s keep walking.” 

Sweaty navy and baby blue clad torsos are pushed out of the way as we move through the bar to the stadium. The Trop is ugly, but today, it looks like Mount Sinai. We waited five long months for this day; the thousand-foot walk from Ferg’s to the outfield gate felt like a pilgrimage to Holy Ground. We were ready to scale the mountain up to the nosebleeds to practice our religion. Florida winters are sunny, but they are not nearly as bright as days during baseball season, even if the Trop does not let the warmth in. As we walk through the tunnel under 1st Avenue, the sound of a saxophone playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” reverberates off of the sky blue concrete. “Over there looks good. Let’s walk down the hill a little bit.” 

Hope pulls the liquid treasures from the bag. The Cokes from Publix were warm already but that didn’t matter; we had found a spot to drink. 

From the sidewalk leading from Ferg’s to Tropicana Field, Booker Creek looks like a ditch. The water shoots through the narrow channel down the hill, but you would not know the creek is even there unless you looked. We stood at the bottom of the ravine and were transported into a different world. The sound of the saxophone and the boisterous people above us were a footnote to us in that moment. We stood in the March sunlight, looking at the water, and drinking cheap rum as the clamor of opening day tore away from us. The rum tasted like sunscreen. A world sits beneath the oak trees, in the heart of the city, in the shadow of the great white dome. 

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