The Urban Explorer's Handbook

Welcome to the Neighborhoods

The notion of city as monolith, as a concrete jungle of nameless drones, is more literary device than reality. It's just as possible to live a lonely, cut-off life inside a suburban tract home as in an urban apartment - and the morning commute is just as isolating on the expressway as on mass transit, where at least you're forced to jostle up against humanity.

And in cities with vibrant neighborhoods, the possibility exists for small-town intimacy - a connection with the shopkeeper at the corner, with the couple next door - that hardly exists anymore in most American suburbs. Yes, you can go to a city to vanish, to be anonymous. But the more compelling reason is that a city offers you endless opportunities to be with the world - to avoid the mass-produced, traffic-choked, WalMart-ized strip-malling of America that's more truly faceless than cities have ever been. "Only connect," E. M. Forster famously said, and a city is ready-made for the task.

So what to make of traffic-choked, strip-malled Tampa Bay? When I moved here a little more than seven months ago after living most of my working life in Philadelphia, the area looked more suburb than city to me. I got lost frequently, each endless vista of Mickey D's and Applebee's and Office Depots looking pretty much like the next. There was sameness without cohesion - the whole region, it seemed, was in chains (of the national variety). Where was the distinctive identity, the sense of place? What made Tampa Tampa, St. Pete St. Pete?

I realized before too long that in Tampa Bay you have to know where to look. Hyde Park, where we rented an apartment, was the first revelation: so calm, in places so posh, with its own village center (albeit one with a checkered past). Downtown St. Pete was another: outdoor cafes, a waterfront you can walk to, museums, music clubs, theater - hey, kids, we found a city!

But newcomers get pointed in the direction of SoHo and Central Avenue right off the bat. It was the discoveries off the beaten boulevards that began to teach me how people live here, and why.

And that's the spirit behind this, the Planet's first Urban Explorer's Handbook. It's informed, frankly, by a certain amount of new-guy spirit: I'm still discovering Tampa Bay, and in a way this is the kind of guidebook I wish I'd had when I moved here. Not that we're making any pretense of being comprehensive. I simply asked our staffers and contributing writers to find eight neighborhoods where things are working - good places to live and play where small-town-inside-the-big-city connections are taking place.

Some of these neighborhoods are more widely known than others: Tampa's Seminole Heights, for instance, growing in appeal and civic pride (and property value) by the minute. Others are less so: the South Tampa (but - horrors! - north of Kennedy) enclave WestShore/Bon Air. Some places, like Gulfport in Pinellas, have multiple identities (senior retreat? lesbian mecca? dive-bar central?), which we try to sort through; others, like Temple Terrace in Hillsborough, have a bad rep which we (and they) try to rectify. Without exploring every neighborhood in the Bay area, we tried to look into a representative sampling - from planned community (Westchase) to beach town (Pass-a-Grille) to bungalow district (Historic Kenwood).

Certain trends surfaced throughout - the importance of neighborhood associations, for one. Kenwood's porch parties and Seminole Heights' home improvement teams don't just happen; they're fostered by alert, involved residents, and by city agencies that help them connect, like Tampa's office of neighborhood and community relations and its sunny but tough director, Shannon Edge.

Another common theme: the simultaneous fear of, and hunger for, new development, as in Safety Harbor, where new condos could either alter or enhance the complexion of a quaint downtown. Nowhere is the outcome of such development more debatable, or more crucial, than in the urban neighborhood that's not built yet: Tampa's Channel District. Will an influx of new residents fuel Mayor Iorio's vision of a vibrant downtown - a center where none now exists, a neighborhood that could embody Tampa's future? Or are we building, as writer Mary Mulhern cautions, a "vertical suburbia"?

There is so much urban exploring still to do. As Wayne Garcia points out in his "Political Whore" column this week, West Tampa is ripe for revival, with leaders like Maura Barrios ready to take full advantage of the area's rich Latin heritage and strong community spirit. The Iorio administration points with pride to advances in fighting drugs and crime in East Tampa. With this handbook, we're just beginning to scratch the surface. We invite you to keep exploring with us every week.

Or do some exploring on your own. I mentioned that I live in Hyde Park; it wasn't till I started putting this issue together that I discovered a part of Hyde Park that I didn't know existed. Hyde Park North, or Cultural Hyde Park North (the name is still in flux), is one of the most recently formed neighborhood associations in Tampa, representing the area tucked between the Crosstown Expressway, Bayshore, Horatio and the eastern end of Swann.

Longtime resident Enza Aiello, who heads up the new association, led me on a tour of the neighborhood, an eclectic mix of small businesses and law offices, of bungalows and apartment complexes which (for me) was full of "Who knew?" moments. Who knew there was a great place near my house to get beignets and chicory coffee? (Café Nola, behind the UPS store off Platt.)

Who knew there was a unique little pocket of cracker houses called Dobyville? And who knew there were people with such deep roots here as Kathryn Wallace, who joined us on the tour? She's lived in her house at S. Delaware since 1930, and her father worked in the former Seybold Bakery at Horatio and Dakota that's now the site of a future lofts/condo development. Her granddaughter attends the same school, Gorrie Elementary, as her children did.

Who knew? Well, of course, lots of people knew. But it's the kind of thing you don't find out till you start exploring, and meeting people like Aiello and Wallace. Till you start connecting.

E.M. Forster had a point.

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