In the last post I responded to some of the concerns and misconceptions surrounding the issue of Family Dollar moving into our neighborhood. Now I’d like to go into my background and show you why I’m concerned for our future.
I grew up in Clair Mel, an ethnically diverse, working class community east of Tampa. After graduating from Brandon Sr. High School (disclaimer- I met Doug Carter at this time when he was an intern in a friend’s class) I moved to Ybor City. Drawn By the art and music scene and the open minded and optimistic vibe, I made a home.
Ybor City in 1990 was a very different place. There were more abandoned buildings on 7th ave. than businesses. The rents were cheap which gave the residents a lot of free time to create. Everyone knew each other and there was a real small town feel. You could sit on a bench in the old courtyard where Centro Ybor stands now and just watch the world go by. We had punk clubs and late night skate sessions and Jamaican food and coffee shops and art and music and the world was ours.
We also had a great mix of small businesses serving the community and the rest of Tampa. Poetry slams and film nights at Three Birds bookstore, hippy and punk gear at Sweet Charity, hip fashion at Blue Funk or vintage stuff at La France and Uptown Threads, seeing bands at the Rainbow or the Star Club, A drink at Rough Riders, Reverend Ralph at Carmines, Dave Ware at the Emerald, Louis Clark everywhere, Ybor Pizza, Cephas’ Hot Shop, the Blues Ship, Dog Eat Dog, the smell of roasting coffee and baking Cuban bread… I could go on for pages and each of those memories is attached to a business and the people who built it.
These businesses were a vital part of the community we had. These were well meaning folks who just wanted to make the neighborhood shine and make a living. They started working together to promote and build our neighborhood. Their efforts paid off. Soon Ybor’s economy was picking up which was great because it meant more options and employment for the locals. Boarded up windows were soon filled with stock and hip, young people started coming down to shop, eat, drink, and dance. Shops began to stay open on Friday and Saturday nights to cater to the new crowds. There was a vintage season- it couldn’t have been more than six months but it seems like it was years- where everything was perfect.
Then the carpetbaggers rolled in.
Investors from out of town with lots of money and different plans than we had came sniffing and found something they really wanted. Buildings started getting bought and renovated or just sat on till the time was right. At first it was just the empty buildings getting renovated and everyone thought it was great because shiny new shops with shiny new tenants would bring shiny new customers. Of course there were concerns for keeping the historic esthetic of the area intact but the Barrio Latino board was there for just that purpose. All they had to do was focus on the customers and everything would be fine.
Of course at this time with all the new people on the streets crime began to rise. In the old days crime was pretty low for residents. Everyone was poor and muggings just weren’t worth it. The new crowds brought criminals who couldn’t tell a local from a tourist and didn’t care. We went from having two beat cops who knew everyone by name and were considered friends to having many anonymous uniforms who couldn’t tell the locals from the tourists and didn’t care, either. Shops used to having a few customers at a time suddenly were packed and losses from shoplifting went up. Some shops began to close on Friday and Saturday nights because the losses were so bad.
Soon the original landlords decided to jump on the gravy train and commercial rents began to rise. A few of the old local businesses couldn’t hack it and relocated or folded. Soon the real estate investors started renovating occupied buildings and more businesses were lost. The businesses coming in to replace them couldn’t afford to gamble on niche markets or catering to the bohemians. They either went to higher-end art and retail shops or they chased the lowest common denominator and opened bars and club. The City Council was more than happy to oblige and installed a wet zoning vending machine in the foyer outside their chambers. The new higher stakes meant that business owners could buy anything. Soon even the historic esthetic was for sale and men with deep pockets opened architectural monstrosities like Frankie’s Patio and the ugly apartments near the freeway.
Now I could hear the ‘bump…bump…bump…’ from the clubs in my bedroom on 4th Ave. People would park in front of our house and block us in or out constantly. One neighbor had a window broken by a drunk who came back and found his car towed. I had vomit on my stoop and fights breaking out on my side walk way too often.
In spite of the newly increased crime and chaos residential property was in demand. We were notified, along with everyone on the block, that our landlord was going to renovate our houses and we had to move. My neighbors were mostly elderly black folks who had been living there for years. They all knew each other and sat out on the stoops talking and joking most every night. Now I watched them load their possessions into trucks and leave. I know my immediate neighbor Smiley and Miss Essie from a few doors down ended up spending their remaining years in public housing- proud, retired workers who had always paid their own way pushed aside so hipsters could have cute restored shotgun shacks.
This broke my heart because I realized that I had played a part in it. While we were so busy creating our cool little business corridor we never thought of how it would affect our neighbors a few blocks over. They didn’t go to punk shows or hang out in coffee shops and they couldn’t afford some of the new restaurants or the clothes in the boutiques. No one included them in the process and no one was there to see them leave but me. These folks didn’t complain and welcomed us when we moved in and now they had lost their homes.
Of course we lost our home too. Since Ybor had become unaffordable we followed some of our fellow refugees and moved to Seminole Heights. While it lacked the urban vibe and the community we were used to, it was quiet and the rents were low. While I’ve never found another community like my old Ybor City, maybe I haven’t looked. When you lose something like that you don’t want to chance losing it again. I’ve made a home in Seminole Heights and I’m surrounded by neighbors I like and friends close by and that’s enough.
I did a large job in Ybor recently that required some over night work. I was horrified to see 7th Ave. at 3am on a Friday night. It was an unrecognizable mad house of drunken sex and violence. I stood there with my partner, an old Ybor resident, and it was surreal remembering how it was and seeing it how it is. I know that Ybor and Seminole Heights are two completely different places and we lack the infrastructure that made Ybor possible, but we do have the potential to destroy what makes our neighborhood special.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see several of our larger commercial spaces turning into night clubs or large bars; to imagine investors buying our real estate and raising the rents; to see traffic, noise, and crime increasing; to find businesses we like disappear because they can’t compete with the new market they helped create. Is it that hard to imagine that it could happen here? It will happen here if we don’t speak up. It will happen here if we don’t work together. It will happen here if we don’t plan the future of Seminole Heights very carefully. It will happen here if we let a few business owners goad us into fighting their battles for them.
Let me leave you with this from the Greater Seminole Heights Vision Plan from the City of Tampa’s Land Development Coordination department of the Growth Management and Development Services office from 2009. The city worked with neighborhood and business leaders to draft this plan of action for the sane development of Seminole Heights. It’s not poetry but see if it matches the ‘vision’ of the monoculture entertainment district being developed now-
- Urban Form/Mixed Use Development (i.e.Commercial Redevelopment)
o Focus on the maximization of uses/intensities along the identified commercial/mixed use corridors, including establishment of key intersections as community and/or neighborhood activity centers
o Foster the development of mixed use projects including the integration of neighborhood serving uses
o Ensure the sensitive transition of uses from the core commercial areas into the surrounding stable neighborhoods
o ‘Incentivize’ the transition of single use corridors to mixed use/community-neighborhood serving uses