My Tampa Year
This week marks the one-year anniversary of Finding Tampa. (That’s the paper anniversary – seems appropriate for an electronic medium.) My goals at the beginning were simple: improve my photography and learn more about my new home town, having just moved to Tampa a few weeks earlier.
My progress on the first goal is clearly subjective, but I do feel that my photography has improved over this time period. As for the second goal, I have certainly become more comfortable with the layout of Tampa. But I still have a lot to learn about the history and culture of Tampa. For that I am relying heavily on some of my favorite local bloggers, including Tampania, the Ybor City Stogie, and Re/Creating Tampa
Still, after one year, I do feel comfortable offering a few observations:
1) It’s still the economy, stupid
Free-range criminal Rick Scott is doing his best to make Florida uninhabitable for decent people. (If you want to see a master at calling out Tricky Rick and his kind, I highly recommend the SOG City Oracle.) The liar-in-chief has done his best to rob from the poor and middle class (what’s left of them) to give handouts to the wealthy. The state senate is also notoriously corrupt. Until we vote responsibly and throw the bum(s) out, the Tampa Bay Area and the entire state will continue to struggle.
2) Ybor Love
I lived on the other side of Tampa Bay, in St. Petersburg, from 2004 to 2010. For a city that is so close, it seems like a different culture. I visited the historic neighborhood of Ybor City a couple of times during those years. At the time, I didn’t understand what the fuss was about.
Now I get it. I can’t explain it, but I understand why Ybor City is so popular. Most people regard it as a nightlife destination. I go there during the day, for the architecture and diversity of people and local businesses. The neighborhood does seem to be undergoing a slow process of gentrification, so go now while you can still enjoy it.
I did not expect Tampa to be so visually appealing. Everywhere I go, I find something interesting to point my camera at. Apparently I like brick.
There are a lot more older, historic (or historic-looking) buildings than I had expected. I have no formal knowledge of architecture, but I know what I like, and Tampa has a lot of it.
4) Diversity is the Ticket
During the aforementioned years in St. Petersburg, I lived in a conventional suburban neighborhood. For blocks in every direction, there was nothing but single-family homes with lawns covered with boring turfgrass. My neighborhood in Tampa is still the suburbs, but it is much more interesting for its diversity. Within a few blocks, we have single-family homes, multi-family homes, condos, apartment complexes, commercial buildings and retail space. The uses and architectural styles vary, often within the same block, and the view is better for it.
5) Downtown? Dead? No!
There is a persistent myth that downtown Tampa is dead, especially at night. It’s true, if your idea of fun is limited to cocktails at 3AM, then you should head elsewhere. On the other hand…
…there is no shortage of activities for daytime and evening. There are restaurants like Pizza Fusion, a huge public library branch, a fine used book store in the Old Tampa Book Company, new art and children’s museums, the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, the Tampa Theatre, the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, annual events like the Cigar City Criterium, and concerts at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. If you can’t find something to do downtown, you’re not trying.
6) Scorched Earth Policy
Florida voters do some silly things. Sometimes it’s funny, but often as not it’s heartbreaking. Collectively, we have repeatedly rejected responsible mass transit, and zombie-in-chief Rick Scott recently turned down federal cash to build high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. (On the other hand, he recently decided to invest hundreds of millions of Florida tax dollars in the Sunrail project. The jury is still out on this one, but as far as I can tell it is primarily a way to funnel more central Florida suburbanites into Disney World.) Too many voters are uninformed when it comes to the true cost of car-obsession and endless road-building. And, of course, doesn’t this look like fun?
If we had done things right from the start, we could be getting from point A to point B in cool train stations like this one:
Wait, it occurs to me that Tampa actually HAS a cool train station. Yes, I’m certain I’ve seen one somewhere…
What happened to the people who built that historic landmark? Why aren’t we building the historic landmarks of the future? There is a terrible cost, in time, money and environmental terms, to our bizarre network of roads and suburban sprawl. Tampa’s economic future, I believe, depends on mass transit (primarily urban rail and frequent bus service) and the density that goes along with it. HART, the Hillsborough County bus transit system, is doing the best they can with limited resources. But we need a modern transit system if we are going to be a world class city.
7) For Good Grub, Go Local
I was laid off during the Great Recession and went back to school to re-train myself. As such, our household budget is tight and we don’t get out to eat much. The good news is, many of the best restaurants are also the most affordable. (One of my fondest memories of a 2007 trip to New York City is a decision to skip travel guide restaurant recommendations and scout out diners that looked to be inhabited by locals. We found delicious food and great prices.) One local delight is the Salvadoran restaurant Pupuseria and Cafeteria, on MLK near St. Joseph’s Hospital; we went based on a review by Tampa Bay Breakfasts. This was literally one of the best-tasting breakfasts I’ve ever had, it reminded me of breakfasts I’ve had in Mexico and Belize. The price and service were also excellent.
That is one of many good local restaurants, and I have learned there is no reason to eat at a chain restaurant in Tampa. There are plenty of quality, affordable, locally-owned restaurants that keep more of our money working at home instead of sending it off to a corporate office.
To sum up, I’m encouraged by Tampa but it’s a work in progress. Transit and a balanced economic policy are sorely lacking. Hopefully after another year of Finding Tampa, I will be a better photographer, wiser to the world, and employed. And hopefully we will all be looking at a better economy.