Off the park behind the closed Edward White Hospital, St. Petersburg’s Booker Creek runs through a rather scary culvert. Vines stretch from the steel walls of a towering man-made slot canyon. The entrance is overgrown, densely shaded, littered with abandoned office furniture. A water goat, designed to catch debris before flowing into the catchment lake, folds in on itself, crimped and useless.
The park and the weir speak of the contradictions that follow the design apart from nature. On one side of the cove is a well-maintained apartment complex; on the other, street people camp in a grove of untended Australian pines. The lake is home to an alum dispensing station, an age-old and efficient method of collecting contaminants. Fences loop sections of the watershed, then stop elsewhere at random. A jogging trail and picnic shelters give the area a park-like quality, though the steady din of Interstate-275 preserves an industrial feel.
Booker Creek, a Tampa Bay Times reporter noted decades ago, suffers from a “split personality.” Its course descends 60 feet in just 6.5 miles, changing character with the seasons. A turning point in the 20th century reportage described how a “six-inch stream” could swell after a heavy rain into a raging, six-foot-deep river, rushing dangerously “with the speed of a mill run”.
The strategy of the city has always been to contain and control. The creek has “been bridged, culverted and ringed with concrete and steel walls”, observed Peggy Vlerebome of The Times in 1972; it has been “violated during urban development”.
May 28, 1972, Sun Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) Journals.com When the owners of Fusion Apartments wanted to build on Central Avenue, the creek was considered a culvert. A few years later, when the Edge District wanted to create a wetland (allowing outdoor drinking), a shrewd lawyer proved the same creek to be navigable. Local eccentric Dan Harvey maintains the creek as an urban oasis on the north side of Central across from Fergs’ Sports Bar, then it plunges under First Avenue North, dug by Florida Power in the 1950s.
Once a shady ravine with lush tropical growth, its banks were buried under roadway and concrete piles with the construction of Interstate 275. The creek reappears as the connected lakes that surround the highway today, although if we trace these waters back in time, the waters flow much further.
I’ve been snooping around the heights for a while now. Pushing the reasonable boundaries of a relationship, I asked my partner and photographer Julie Armstrong to trace the spooky slot canyon, pointing us to the source, wherever it may be.
We trespassed over a trampled chain link and down a grassy path, into the liminal zone between gated apartments and medical facilities. The cove disappears by the new townhouses of Uptown Kenwood (“Your private retreat,” the ads tout, “perfectly located in one of Tampa Bay’s most desirable neighborhoods”). A hollow in the sidewalk marks 11th Avenue N.
Between the 25th and 26th, the ditch becomes clear again as “Booker Creek Linear Park” (an unmarked urban area) then cuts northwest, passing under private homes and drainage culverts, before narrowing open in “Emerald Lake”. A pumping station nestled near the playground at Sylvia C. Boring Park signals we’re on the right track.
I recognize the square tank, built in the early 1950s, from my research. After World War II, Pinellas County experienced a real estate boom. People flocked to the everyone’s paradise that was mid-century Florida. Historian Gary Mormino describes how landowners turned old farms, wastelands, and citrus groves “into cheap, middle-class homes in the sun.”
The construction flooding, in turn, caused flooding throughout the watershed.
In 1951, the city council approved a 15-year, $9 million project to redevelop lower Pinellas. The drainage problems that followed the rapid overdevelopment were so jumbled that the city didn’t even bother to prioritize. The capital plan included 56 tasks, listed not by need but in alphabetical order.
One such project was the square reservoir in front of us, unmarked Emerald Lake. The city would drain this now industrialized area and delineate the reservoir with not one but two dykes. When the freeway arrived, the Florida Department of Transportation tripled in size, using the area as a borrow area. They “didn’t care about the environment”, concedes city engineer Michael Perry, “they dug a hole” and left.
Because of this history, the watershed is now disappearing. I sip my espresso at Mazzaro (on 22nd Ave), rummage through a vinyl trash can at Bananas, or strap 2x4s to the roof of my Subaru in the Lowes parking lot, and never know I’m in a stream . We have no way to connect this fenced, double-dike retention pond (blocked between Sam’s Club and the mini-storage) with a real flowing body of water. I lived in St. Petersburg for decades, did more Lowe’s errands than the usual owner, but never once thought I was parking in a floodplain.
Due to the ‘split personality’ of the creek, the headwaters escape our attention.
Julie and I abandon our walk and return to our car. Using my mobile phone, we reconstruct the lakes connecting a buried stream. Kira Barrera, an environmental stalwart who works for the city, then tracked down a set of culvert maps for me. The drainage maps confirm what I have gleaned from newspaper articles that “the surface water system depends on the creation of new lakes”.
However, no historical recovery can help us identify the source of Booker Creek.
In 1972, The Times’ Vlerebome traced the origins of an underground trickle to Ninth Avenue N and 28th Street. Earlier reports push the point further north and west, to Lake Harshaw at 30th Avenue and 34th Street, behind the Goodwill Superstore and Pelican Palms Village trailer park. Going even further back in time, ranching family scion Jay B. Starkey (as in Starkey Road) would claim Hanna’s Pond, now Sirmons Lake, as “the largest of a series of ponds that once drained this zone”.
It’s a hot afternoon and our pooch is thirsty. After meandering from lake to lake, through neighborhoods of cinderblock houses, Julie and I give up. It cannot be said where Booker Creek actually begins. Most likely, the area was a swamp, dotted with small ponds, connected by ephemeral streams and sheet flow. As the floodplain became private property and parking lots, the city settled into this system of lakes and dredged culverts, with the occasional pump of a park to push water back into the bay. . None of these technologies make sense for our times, of course, and politicians seem to view ecological health as an afterthought.
The stream remains misunderstood, pathologized, having a “split personality”. We are devoid of, even enlightened by, this invisible nature. The only reminder of a spring in Booker Creek is the ugly steel fall. The culvert near the park evokes a time when engineers thought they could channel, divert, bury and clear runoff, alleviating sprawl in the most densely populated county in the entire state.
The Booker Creek slot canyon is neglected, shaded, unmarked, and dotted with vines. It is our monument to water management policies that are half a century out of date. I’m not sure I could find the courage to go through the parachute myself. It’s still a very scary place.