The Trained Eye

Try the trolley for a snowbird's-eye view of Tampa

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click to enlarge Let's, uh, roll:Conductor Robert Garcia stands in front - of the trolley. - LISA MAURIELLO
Let's, uh, roll:Conductor Robert Garcia stands in front of the trolley.

A couple of years ago, there wasn't much for a visitor to Tampa — say a conventioneer or a cruise ship passenger — to do without a car. But when the trolley hit the tracks last year, it connected the dots to create a new picture of old Tampa Town, one we locals hardly recognize. To get the full tourist treatment, you've got to ride the train.

I board at the evocatively titled Tampa Bay Federal Credit Union Station at Centro Ybor. Correct change is required, so I dig through the dank recesses of my purse till I unearth three wadded-up dollar bills — the fare for a daylong pass. The driver feeds them into a vending-machine-style slot. The one in the Planet staff lounge is finicky, spitting out your bill with an impatient buzz for so much as a dog-eared corner, but this one gobbles the grubbiest of bills with gusto. I can't help marveling out loud to the conductor at its suction.

"Oh, yeah, that thing'll take your underwear if you're not careful," he says.

As soon as I take a seat, the source of his allusion comes into focus. Tampa Bay Federal Credit Union Station should be called Victoria's Secret Station because what you see from the streetcar is the underwear merchant's window display: a giant picture of a luscious set of breasts served up like two huge scoops of ice cream in a shiny satin bra.

The model attached to the breasts pouts a little as the train heads down the tracks, as if she's sulking about being left behind. How many times a day does the driver pass all that underwear gently cupping firm, splendiferous mounds of flesh? How can he fail to register it, at least subconsciously?

Lingerie is soon forgotten, though, as the visceral experience of the ride sets in. This is a real streetcar, a faithful replica of the double-truck Birney electric streetcar that connected Ybor City, West Tampa, Ballast Point, Hyde Park and Sulphur Springs from the 1890s till the mid-1940s. The rhythmic clack and rumble rattle the oak and cherrywood benches and transport you back 100 years, to a nascent Ybor, just beginning to teem with artisans, revolutionaries, gangsters and gamblers.

From 19th-century Ybor, the streetcar takes you directly to 21st-century Tampa, under I-4, where the rag beds of homeless men nestle amid tall grasses, past huge cargo ships to the Port Authority building, with its giant globe behind a four-story, green glass window.

The green glass theme continues in the next building: the wonderfully playful green glass wave-shaped Florida Aquarium. Next door, the Michael Graves-style cruise terminal, with its porthole windows attended by crisply uniformed porters, looks like an ocean liner gliding toward the aquarium's glass wave.

Such an imaginative integration of styles and imagery makes the sugary confection of Channelside mall next door seem all the more garish by comparison. Its Mediterranean Revival Revival style is pretty enough by itself and not inappropriate to our climate and history. But buildings, especially ones this massive, should relate to their immediate surroundings, and this one doesn't even make the attempt. If it were at least painted in deep, saturated Tuscan tones instead of frothy pastels, it might have less of an ersatz Epcot feel and clash less obtrusively with the darker tones of the terminal and its matching parking garage.

The streetcar drops me off directly in front of Channelside's other major design snafu: an ugly tunnel that bears no visual relation to the rest of the building. It has an inexplicable rotunda halfway through, painted with murals that make it look even more like a theme park.

The tunnel was a tardy solution to the fact that the original structure provided no direct access from Channelside Drive to the interior shops, restaurants and movie theaters. The only pathway from the parking lot across the street leads to the cruise terminal. Before the tunnel was built, visitors generally wandered around until they discovered they had to walk all the way around to the other side of the mall to get inside.

It was as if a draftsman had forgotten to add a graceful arched Mediterranean passageway, lined with sheltered shops and cafes, leading in from the street.

Still, once you're inside, you discover a lovely fountain in a circular courtyard lined with bougainvillea-draped colonnades, wrought iron balconies and umbrella tables. It's a cozy place to sit outdoors in any weather and enjoy a waterfront view, have a drink and a bite to eat and watch the ships and tourists go by before catching a movie.

The faux '70s cracker style of Stump's Supper Club again provides a weird visual dissonance and theme-park flavor, but the food is decent (and decently priced), and the outdoor seating is comfortable.

The dusty piñatas and sombreros hanging from the ceiling signal the Southwestern theme of Margarita Mama's, which offers fabulous panoramas of the shipping lanes from its tiny balcony and a hidden, dark, goth-like and decidedly un-Southwestern lounge that bears an odd resemblance to the Castle in Ybor. The chain's menu makes a small nod to Tampa with mojitos, and Cuban and roast pork sandwiches.

The shops at Channelside sell tropical clothing, costume jewelry, wine and cigars. There's even a presidential souvenir shop where you can buy caps, robes, jackets, etc., bearing the presidential seal; refrigerator magnets with pictures of First Lady Laura Bush and Texas-size cigars. You can even have your picture taken with a life-size paper doll of George W. himself. Scheduled to open soon are a bowling alley, an ice cream shop, a tapas bar and, perhaps most emblematic of Tampa, a Hooters.

To get the train to the St. Pete Times Forum from here, you have to hike down Channelside Drive, past the south end of the mall and board at The Tampa Tribune station. I can't help feeling a little monument envy here. I worry that if the Planet doesn't secure naming rights to the parking garage across the street soon, we might lose the chance to La Gaceta or Tampa Bay Business Journal.

Next week: the conclusion of a tourist's-eye view of Tampa, wherein we discover the secret of green glass and a very special hidden waterfront nook.

Senior Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at 8130248-8888 ext. 122 or [email protected].

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