Meet me on the porch

When neighbors get together, the urban landscape gets better.

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click to enlarge GLASS HOUSES: Susan Gott’s Phoenix Glass Studio, as well as her own home, will be on this year’s home tour. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
GLASS HOUSES: Susan Gott’s Phoenix Glass Studio, as well as her own home, will be on this year’s home tour.

Front porches with their friendly openness are the secret to Seminole Heights’ success. People who see their neighbors outside, walking their dogs, pushing strollers, riding bikes and planting zinnias are much more likely to befriend them, and that leads to a sense of community. In Seminole Heights’ case, it has led to potent activism.

Both Hyde Park and Seminole Heights, with their craftsman bungalows, sprang up from 1911-1927, shaped by Tampa’s streetcars and urban grid. Their churches and neighborhood shops were tucked among the homes, bounded by brick streets and oaks. Hyde Park’s advantage was that Bayshore Boulevard framed its southern boundary with lovely water views and breezes.

Seminole Heights, whose Central Avenue has its share of grand homes, was cruelly sliced by the interstate construction which severed the easy flow of neighbors from east to west. The widening of several state roads — Nebraska, Florida, Hillsborough, Tampa and Dr. Martin Luther King Avenues — changed the intimate scale of the streets, introducing one-way truck traffic and ruining front yards and gardens along the way.

The area declined as the post-World War II suburbs lured new investment, and used car lots overtook the commercial corridors. Then, 25 years ago, after Hyde Park was rediscovered and getting a bit pricey, savvy preservationists looked at Seminole Heights and recognized it as a diamond in the rough.

These pioneers invested in home improvements and formed civic groups to better the neighborhood, restoring historic Hillsborough High School and chasing away the prostitutes roaming Nebraska Avenue.

But nothing builds a team faster than a common enemy. The proposed widening of Hillsborough Avenue cast the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) squarely in that role.

The result: A well-landscaped and detailed red brick wall, bordering both sides of Hillsborough Avenue between the river and I-275, that protects the Seminole Heights neighborhood from the intrusiveness of incessant traffic. When a zillion cars speed past your door, a wall really helps. But this was not just an enlightened addition by FDOT; this wall was a hard-won victory, representing five years in the trenches by an intrepid group of citizens.

“The first FDOT secretary laughed at our concerns,” reminisced Pat Kemp, one of the founders and a past president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association (OSHNA). “Ultimately they narrowed the Hillsborough Avenue roadbed and intersections and moved 10 houses out of the path of the widening into the neighborhood, including a rare Japanese bungalow and Dale Mabry’s house. In fact, The Refinery and Forever Beautiful Salon and Day Spa were two of the relocated homes.”

As an example of grassroots activism, Seminole Heights is truly encouraging. The neighborhoods which make up this well-organized area — South Seminole Heights, Old Seminole Heights, Hampton Terrace and Southeast Seminole Heights — have learned to put up a united front for a common cause. Their victories include winning public funding for renovation of the historic Seminole Heights Garden Center, complete with public art and butterfly garden, and disallowing a drugstore chain which refused to conform to urban design guidelines.

Bicycle excursions for both families and serious riders are part of the neighborhood culture. Alan Snel, the cycling guru and activist who organized these outings, recently moved, but his legacy continues. The Seminole Heights Community Gardens just celebrated its third year, and the monthly farmers’ market continues through May on Hillsborough High School’s grand lawn. A new public library will open in early December, its bungalow design insisted upon by the local Friends of the Seminole Heights Library Group.

But even well-organized efforts sometimes fail. Recent losses are the Family Dollar’s tacky signage and lack of landscaping, and landscaping removal by FDOT as part of the interstate widening project. The neighborhood would also prefer sound barriers as part of the widening project, but so far FDOT has resisted, saying there is no money set aside for them.

This weekend sees Seminole Heights’ 15th Annual Home Tour, to be held Sun., April 7, from 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. The Annual Home Tour’s original purpose was to “showcase our beautiful neighborhood to the rest of the city,” explained Mona Roberson, tour committee member. “People only knew the ugly highways, but not the meticulously restored historic homes on tree-lined streets a block away.”

March’s issue of Southern Living magazine contains a glowing piece about this year’s tour, which will include 11 homes and businesses in three neighborhoods. Susan Gott, the gifted local glass artist, will open her historic home as well as her Phoenix Glass Studio to visitors. For info, go to Debi Johnson, president of OSHNA, says that the funds raised from the tour will be used to underwrite the organization’s myriad activities, quarterly newsletters, potluck suppers, street signs and a contribution to this year’s charity, Francis House.

Do surroundings shape us? Absolutely! The rich weave of social and cultural threads are supported by the warp and woof of porches, trees and brick streets, homes, shops and cafes. Seminole Heights can boast a tapestry of connections which are something to prize.

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