THE DOWNTOWN DEBATE
EDITOR'S NOTE: Our cover story and June 12 Political Party on the state of downtown Tampa and St. Pete generated comment on our blog, blurbex.com, and letters to the editor. During the panel, the heads of the two downtown partnerships, Don Shea (St. Pete) and Christine Burdick (Tampa), emphasized that they're not in competition with one another: As Burdick put it, our "distinctive but complementary urban centers" benefit residents on both sides of the bay. But as the discussion made clear, comparisons, if invidious, may be inevitable. To hear more from the panelists, who also included developer Greg Minder, architect Chris Vela and St. Pete historic preservation whiz Bob Jeffrey, click on the "Political Party" link under "Events" on weeklyplanet.com, where you can listen to the podcast. To understand why some people insist on seeing the story as one of Tampa vs. St. Pete — not to mention Clearwater — read on.
TAMPA NEVER LEARNS
My grandfather, Thomas Franklin (T.F.) Alexander, came to Tampa in 1910 from South Georgia. My father, Holmes Alexander, was born in 1921, I was born in 1954, and my son was born in 1980, all in Tampa. I moved to St. Petersburg in January 2004. What took me so long to leave?
I believe I am more qualified than most to compare Tampa life to St. Pete life. I spent much of my childhood at the old Tribune building on what was then Lafayette Street — later Kennedy Boulevard — in downtown Tampa, researching the "old" days in the microfilm library. Only someone aware of Tampa's history can appreciate what it means to see all beauty squandered, all hope destroyed in what should have become a modern sub-tropical paradise.
I have nothing against Tampa. Tampa has been very good to me. But I have thought long and hard about this, and the one thing that will never change is the total hopelessness of what living in Tampa means. Tampa is, has been, and will always be a backwater town because of the people who have always run this town and continue to run this town, and it is only getting worse.
Tampa was created by transportation robber barons, and for the last 60-plus years has been controlled by lawyers and military personnel. In stark contrast, St. Petersburg was created by a Russian aristocrat and possesses an innate sense of natural beauty and order about it. Tampa will always be a cultural wasteland because it is incapable of appreciating beauty — especially its natural beauty — and thus will forever be blighted. Suffice it to say, every time there is an opportunity for our city leaders to create an environment that fosters livability and contribute to the public good, they fail; no, they don't even try. It's as if ideas and visions of civic good do not exist in their view of things — only commerce.
The Tampa waterfront prior to the urban renewal projects of the 1960s was a horrifically ugly miasma of railroad yards, docks, wharfs and run-down seafaring businesses — the bay and gulf provided a living, not scenery. The bay suffered from this abuse and often stunk to high heaven — another sweet irony delivered upon the movers and shakers who lived on it. This priceless waterfront real estate was not used for the cultural good; it was sold to the highest bidder for commercialization.
What we got was Curtis Hixon Hall — our first modern commercial center, which completely blocked the waterfront view — and our first modern skyscraper: the Exchange Bank Building. Where are the parks in downtown other than Plant Park, which has always been there? We don't have any! Hello city leaders, how do you expect an inner city population to live and prosper without green spaces? Oh, I almost forgot, we still should own a car so we may drive somewhere, anywhere but downtown, to enjoy them. The Bayshore clique don't need no stinking green spaces for the people. Unfortunately, vibrant cities do. For Tampa, it is now too late and nothing short of a major hurricane can change it.
Further commercialization of the waterfront continued up until an apotheosis only Tampa could achieve: The ugliest skyscraper in the history of the world was built on a piece of prime real estate — the NCNB building — better-known as the "beer can" building. This building has all the beauty of a high-rise maximum security prison. I imagine one day it will be. Now the ugliest building in the world is going to be the home of — you guessed it — the Tampa Museum of Art. Watching poor Tampa and its lickspittle mayors try to fund a museum worthy of a world-class city is an exercise in futility and contempt, depending on which side of the cultural fence one sits. The high irony that this architectural monstrosity is going to house our meager collection of art is more revealing than anyone may imagine without the keen sense of amusement one must cultivate from living their whole life in the cultural desolation which is Tampa.