Where have you always wanted to go but figured you wouldn't be able to get in — at least not without a press pass, a VIP invite or a death wish?
That's the question that drove this year's Urban Explorer's Handbook.
In our inaugural edition of the handbook in 2005, we focused on neighborhoods — areas that balance urban complexity with small-town character in ways unique to Tampa Bay. Places, in other words, we hoped you would explore, too, if you hadn't already.
This year it's different. We're taking you places you can't visit.
We started by asking around the office and beyond: What forbidden, locked-up, wonder-what's-in-there sites are on your list?
Landmarks loomed large: the Sulphur Springs water tower, the UT minarets, the top floor of AmSouth. Anything that was way up high or way down under: the top of the Trop, that bomb shelter behind Al Capote Dry Cleaners. Closed doors were a temptation, too: a police evidence locker, the Lightning locker room and the dressing (or un-dressing) room at the 2001 Odyssey strip club.
So we took the hints, strapped on our 3-D Explorer glasses, and went to work.
Anne Arsenault relived childhood fears in a storm drain; Wayne Garcia tested his dread of speeding trucks in the middle of Malfunction Junction. Joe Bardi saw what the public doesn't see at the airport; I saw what's hardly ever seen at the art museum. Wayne and Leilani Polk visited the seats of power, both military (CentCom at MacDill) and electric (Bartow). Eric Snider took a trip to the morgue.
There were a few places, of course, where we couldn't gain access. The security room at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino: "Hahahahahahahahahaha. No," the PR rep responded. The psych ward at Tampa General Hospital: "No way, Jose," a hospital spokesman said. The Pinellas County Medical Examiner's Office (although we did gain access in Hillsborough). The Netflix regional sending/receiving hub: A rep cited concerns about "proprietary technology."
And then there was the destination that proved impossible to access because, well, it doesn't exist anymore: the secret tunnels underneath Ybor City.
Maureen Patrick, president of the Tampa Historical Society, told Anne Arsenault that the tunnels were really just holes in the ground, excavated during Prohibition by the Mob "to hide the booze." The only relatively well-known access point was underneath the Blue Ribbon Supermarket at Seventh Avenue and 15th Street, which burned down in 2000. After the fire, Patrick said, the holes were filled in and covered over by a parking lot.
In telling you this, we're quite sure that some of you won't believe it. In fact, you know exactly where the tunnels are, you've been there and we're wusses for not being able to find them.
Which is exactly what we hope to hear. Because we know that, in exploring off-limits Tampa Bay, we've only just scratched the surface.
Have some suggestions for future urban spelunking? Let me know at [email protected]. Meanwhile, let the Urban Explorer's Handbook be your key — and be sure to check out the list on page 43, "Seven Days in Tampa Bay." It's our guide to fun and inexpensive (or free) events that happen every day of the week — and for these you don't need security clearance.