Hitting the Heights

Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights, Riverside Heights.

click to enlarge OLD WORLD: A leafy street in the historic district of Old Seminole Heights. - Eric Snider
Eric Snider
OLD WORLD: A leafy street in the historic district of Old Seminole Heights.

You could call it ironic: In the late 1800s, Tampa Heights was a refuge for downtown dwellers escaping congestion and disease. In the last decade or so, it has become a haven for suburbanites fleeing soulless subdivisions in search of an urban lifestyle.

Urban explorers with ample bank accounts have grabbed up properties — empty lots, tear-downs — and built big, classy homes, often in keeping with the bungalow style that defines these communities. New urbanites willingly share streets with longtime residents and a small but influential bohemian class. Ethnically and socioeconomically, The Heights are very mixed.

New, multi-storied houses may stand next door to a squat blockhouse or rundown bungalow. Except for a few architecturally consistent neighborhoods, Heights streets contain a mish-mash of styles.

While the neighborhoods are contiguous, each has its distinct character. Riverside Heights is almost all residential and boasts the largest homes, some overlooking the Hillsborough River. Tampa Heights was once the roughest area, and has been the latest to gentrify. A major residential/retail redevelopment called The Heights — a 48-acre, $500-million project — has progressed more slowly than hoped, but a large office building should break ground by summer. The residential aspect is on hold.

Seminole Heights, the most gentrified of the neighborhoods, has three separate sectors:

Old Seminole Heights is the largest and most commercial, and includes the picturesque historic district. South Seminole Heights is mostly residential and generally has larger homes and lots. Southeast Seminole Heights has been the most resistant to renewal, and still has blighted areas.

Like just about everywhere else in the country, the Heights have been hit by the real estate slump. The big run on bungalows has tapered off. Efforts to make the Heights a hub of independent businesses have curtailed as well, but there are no big box stores here either. There is, however, a Starbucks, which has become a community meeting ground.

Small stores and restaurants dot the main arteries, wedged among repair shops, storefront churches and cheap motels. In the last few years, a couple of the Heights' cultural focal points have closed: Carrie Mackin's Covivant Galleries and Angelica Diaz's Viva La Frida, a combination Mexican restaurant and small performance venue.

While the Heights may have stalled, they're much improved from their days in the '70s and '80s when crack houses were more prominent in the landscape than refurbished bungalows.

Oh, and there are hills in The Heights, of a sort. (Tampa's first suburban pioneers called the area "the highlands.") Elevations run up to 40 feet above sea level, and if you pay attention, you might find yourself traveling on an incline.

Local notables 

Brendan McLaughlin, ABC Action News anchor since 1994 (Tampa Heights); Paul Wilborn, executive director of the Palladium Theater in St. Pete, former Tampa arts czar, former Times and Trib journalist (Seminole Heights); Scott Kluksdahl, world-traveling cellist and member of the Chamber Music faculty at USF (Seminole Heights); Roy and Mary Hernandez, owners of Traditional Homes by Hernandez — Mary is past president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association (Tampa Heights); Jay Giroux, Brandon Dunlap, well-known Tampa visual artists with studios in the old Covivant building (Seminole Heights); Jane Castor, assistant chief, Tampa Police Department (Riverside Heights); members of Tampa Bay rock bands Red Room Cinema, Genitorturers, Auto!Automatic!, Zillionaire, Elysium, Dukes of Hillsborough, New Bruises, Waterdigger and Guiltmaker all live in the Heights, and punk label Kiss of Death Records is based there.

See also 

From the Seine to the Hillsborough

Dominique LaBauvie is an artist for "the new city."

The don't-miss list

The top 25 draws in The Heights

Local quotable

"I grew up here and left when I was 19 [in 1992]."