November 24, 2005. A date which will live in infamy. At least for residents of Seminole Heights.
It was on that morning that Tampa Tribune subscribers in this historic neighborhood north of downtown went out to the curb to pick up their newspaper and opened it to their local news section, which had been — until that day — called "Central Tampa."
At the top of the page was a new section name:
For this neighborhood and others in the urban core of Tampa, being forced to live under the banner of the city's most influential (and some would argue snootiest) neighborhood was the height of insult.
"This is a slap in the face of the community," David Scott Banghart said over lunch at the "Taco Bus" in Seminole Heights. He's lived here for six and a half years and runs the neighborhood blog.
The loss of the Central Tampa section had been announced the week before in a terse 65-word editor's note headlined "Coverage will be changing" that the section would be re-branded. "This is the last edition of the twice-weekly section called Central Tampa. Instead, you will receive news about your community in a twice-weekly regional section and in the daily Metro section," the note said, in part. It made no mention of the new name.
The change has gone over so poorly that neighbors have organized a letter-writing campaign, complained to their elected officials at a Tampa City Council meeting, discussed it with the mayor's neighborhood liaison and won a Feb. 28 public meeting with Trib Executive Editor Janet Weaver and Managing Editor Duke Maas,
It is both a demonstration of people's connection to their daily newspapers — even in this day and age when they are dying on the vine — and the fiercely proud nature of Seminole Heights residents, whose civic groups are arguably the best in Tampa.
Seminole Heights turned out hundreds of people in support of a new Starbucks in their neighborhood. They created their own crime patrols to shame and/or sweep prostitution along Nebraska Avenue out of their midst. They throw monthly porch parties and volunteer in a fix-up-a-neighbor's-house circle. Their blog recently connected stay-at-home moms for a playgroup.
Seminole Heights revels in its ethnic and sexual diversity; creative-class nature; beautiful older homes that don't cost $800,000 (unlike South Tampa); and grassroots activism.
More fundamentally, however, the dispute illustrates dramatically the divide in Tampa between those who live south of Kennedy Boulevard (or SOK — south of Kennedy — in South Tampa-speak) and the rest of the city that lies NOK. Although South Tampa residents treat it humorously — "Oh, I never go NOK" — the division is real, and the difference in mindset between South Tampa and the rest of the city palpable. Especially in Seminole Heights, where quite a few residents consider themselves refugees from South Tampa, driven out by rising property prices and towering condos.
"We all know the dividing line is Kennedy," said Jeff Harmon, one of the protest organizers who lives in Southeast Seminole Heights. "I've lived in Tampa for eight years now. It was one of the first things I learned about the city."
"Most of the time, I don't think many Tampa residents think about it, but it exists nonetheless," Harmon told the Planet in an e-mail.
Other neighbors express the divide in a more derisive way. Consider this sample from Banghart's blog, taken from e-mails that flew around the neighborhood within days of the change:
"Now we are forced to read about the 'problems' of South Tampa," the unidentified writer said. "South Tampa has its own weekly magazine in the Trib, as well as the supplement. We have nothing. Of course, we can read letters to the editor from people who have never seen a transvestite prostitute, who condemn us for our aggressive stance against such activity in our neighborhood. What hypocrisy! What would the residents of South Tampa and Lutz do if their main thoroughfare was populated by transvestite prostitutes?"
[Author's note: Resisting ... urge ... for ... joke ... here]
But seriously, for the three civic associations in Seminole Heights (Tampa's largest neighborhood, by the way) losing their Central Tampa section is no laughing matter.
"We feel that the Trib's decision creates a negative image of Central Tampa, and perpetuates the perception that we are not as important as other parts of the city, especially South Tampa," said Randy Baron, president of the Old Seminole Heights Civic Association. "This in turn has a disparate impact on the ability of Central Tampa neighborhoods to attract developers and investors."
Baron complained to the Tampa City Council in January, telling them, "When the Tampa Tribune discontinues the central Tampa section and moves into a South Tampa section, it creates the perception that central Tampa, Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights, East Tampa, West Tampa, all those neighborhoods are not important."
Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Alvarez responded, "And Wellswood." Her neighborhood. In Central Tampa.
The Tribune made the move for economic reasons, and back in November, Weaver told the Planet that coverage of the neighborhood would not suffer. It doesn't appear that there are fewer reporters on the beat in Central Tampa (several Trib scribes live in Seminole Heights, including beat reporter Kathy Steele). But it didn't help matters that when residents tried to track down their usual reporters, they found out they had been moved from the main office downtown to (you guessed it) the newspaper's South Tampa offices on Bay to Bay Boulevard. Ouch.
Most involved in the protest concede that the Tribune, as a private business, has the right to do whatever it wants. But, as Baron added, "they are in a unique position to create and dictate public opinion and need to understand that the impact of their decision affects more than their bottom line."
Harmon said he has already met with Tribune editors Ken Koehn and Bayard Steele, who echoed Weaver's assurances that the name change would not affect coverage. That explanation, however, hasn't calmed Seminole Heights. And they're not alone. Harmon has spoken to neighborhood groups in Ybor City and Tampa Heights, both of which were also covered by the former Central Tampa section.
Banghart said it appears very certain that the name Central Tampa is not coming back. He holds out hope, however, that the newspaper will reconsider its South Tampa section name and replace it with something more inclusive of all the neighborhoods the section now covers.
In the meantime, residents are turning to Banghart's blog, where traffic is up. "I am," he said, "the Central Tampa edition for Seminole Heights."