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Who we are

South Tampa residents are a diverse lot - from Bayshore Boulevard homeowners to renters in Port Tampa.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2002

Johnny Primus, 37, firefighter, Bayshore
Johnny Primus knows South Tampa. He knows it well.

He knows the lush lawns that roll out like bolts of green velvet. He's familiar with the trees that canopy like cathedrals over certain shady streets.

There are the sounds. The laughter of Asian children at a playground where mothers speak quietly in a lyrical language. The whoosh of a golf ball, sweet off the tee, at the country club.

There is bread baking at the Wonder Bread plant.

Johnny Primus knows these things. There are big houses. Small houses.

As a firefighter, he knows the people best of all. When the call sounds at Station 15 on South Himes Avenue, Primus knows what's ahead.

"I go to million dollar mansions," said Primus. "I go to the projects. I see it all."

What he sees in South Tampa is diversity. He looks beyond the shimmering reputation of affluence, beneath the glossy label affixed to those who live between Kennedy Boulevard and MacDill Air Force Base. He sees only individuals.

"There are all types," he said. "When someone says South Tampa you think Palma Ceia, Beach Park, Culbreath Isles, Culbreath Bayou. There's more to South Tampa than those areas."

Virginia Faultz, 67, retired from sales, Palma Ceia
Much more.

There is a paradox to South Tampa. It is an ornate pirate ship fashioned from a barge. Historic bricks pave some streets. Other streets -- in Port Tampa, for instance -- lack sewer lines.

This community cherishes tradition, yet fine old homes have been ripped down for shiny new ones.

The residents of South Tampa cannot be defined by a drive down postcard perfect Bayshore Boulevard.

The core of South Tampa is predominantly white, but neighborhoods south of Gandy Boulevard are home to African Americans, Asians and Hispanics in established numbers.

"We have been naturally integrated from the beginning," said Jill Buford, president of the Civic Association of Port Tampa City. "We are a real working class neighborhood. That's never changed."

Census Tract 70 tells the tale of South Tampa's diversity. It's a large swath bounded by Gandy Boulevard to the north and MacDill Air Force Base to the south, home to 6,142 people.

Hanh Truong, 52, factory worker, Interbay
The median age is 33, according to recent census figures. About half of the residents own their homes; the others rent. Of the total population, 14.3 percent are African American, 9.2 percent are Asian, 4.9 percent are Vietnamese and 15.2 percent are Hispanic or Latino of any race.

The tract has South Tampa's largest concentration of Asians.

Hanh Truong, 52, lives there with her husband and son in an apartment on Rembrandt Street. She makes sure that the front walk is swept clean and the windows shine. Inside her home, she has carefully posted a verse from the Bible. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."

Truong, a native of Vietnam who works in a mat factory, welcomed a visitor with a warm smile. Her son interpreted for her.

"This is my home," she said, as she gestured both to the apartment and to her neighborhood.

Such diversity doesn't surprise Hillsborough County Commission chairwoman Pat Frank. "South Tampa has always been a blend," said Frank, a resident of Golfview. "In a lot of areas, it's a hodgepodge. I remember on Davis Islands we had a retired railroad worker living a block a way from the president of Tampa Electric."

Today, the median age for a South Tampa resident hovers around 40, the census found.

Rollerblade over to the new apartments on Bayshore and the median age drops by almost a decade. Hop into the minivan and head down to MacDill Air Force Base, where young families are the norm. The median age is 21, the youngest in the area.

What about income? Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla invades every year to lay claim on the city's treasure. What treasure is to be had?

The median income is $42,800, which puts South Tampa neck-in-neck with the rest of the county, according to a two-year study by Scarborough Research.

Scarborough surveyed 133 South Tampa residents and 1,047 Hillsborough County residents. The findings offered a snapshot of life in some of Tampa's southernmost neighborhoods. The margin for error ranged from 3 to 8 percent.

Almost 40 percent of South Tampa residents said they earn between $25,000 and $49,000. Another 23 percent earn less than $25,000. But 19 percent said they earn $100,000 or more, compared with 8 percent outside South Tampa.

It's a community of homeowners. In 15 of 22 South Tampa census tracts, owners outnumber renters, according to the census. More than half, 65 percent, told Scarborough they lived in a house, condo or townhome, while 29 percent said they lived in an apartment.

South Tampa residents may be loathe to venture north of Kennedy, but the survey suggests some don't hesitate to travel the world: 1 in 5 leave the country an average of once a year.

If they do venture beyond that imaginary Maginot line of Route 60, it is often to party and play in Ybor City, or to shop and spend in International Plaza.

Residents vote early and vote often.

Stop by Bayshore Baptist Church on MacDill Avenue on any election day to see long lines at the polls.

South Tampa has the highest concentration of registered voters in the city. What's more, South Tampa residents vote more than others in the city, said Chuck Smith of the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office.

"I think they are much more informed voters," said Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, who represents District 4, which comprises South Tampa.

They also live elbow to elbow with the people they elect.

The mayor lives on Harbour Island. He tried to live in New Tampa but came home, where three former mayors were waiting to assist, if needed. Four of the seven county commissioners could have a South Tampa house party quorum. Special invitations might go to the county administrator and the former county administrator.

Three of the seven City Council members could have a small, but festive, wine tasting.

The Glazer brothers could invite pals to screen Buccaneer game films at their Harbour Island pad.

And if all those humans weren't enough, South Tampa is teeming with wildlife -- possums, raccoons and dogs, of course, but most all, cats.

Never mind the proud procession of canines on Bayshore or the dog park on Davis Islands. Research shows that South Tampa residents seem to prefer cats. Thirty-six percent said they owned a cat while 27 percent said they owned a dog. In the county, dogs were more popular.

"I don't know what to make of it," said Bill Armstrong, director of Hillsborough County Animal Services.

More residents said they owned cats than dogs. “I don’t know what to make of it.”

Bill Armstrong,
director of Hillsborough County Animal Services

He pledged to research the feline phenomenon.

There's one point in this insular community that needs little or no research.

"We all know one another," said "Dr. Dan" McPeters, service manager at Gillett's Auto Center, S MacDill Avenue.

"It's like a small city within itself."

That is not to say that residents of New Suburb Beautiful know the folks from Virginia Park. Or that Port Tampa people grill steaks with chums from Culbreath Bayou. But south Tampa residents are creatures of habits and haunts. They trod a well-worn path to the Old Meeting House for ice cream, to Wright's Gourmet House for Hummingbird cake, to the Interbay Meat Market for the best sirloin, to Bella's for the perfect martini. They go to Bayshore and Gandy Friendship Trail to run and bike, and to Ballast Point Pier to fish or watch the sunset. Day in and day out.

Also equally clear is the heady, giddy rush for development in south Tampa.

"Gandy is like the railroad track area," said David Dillingham, a violinist who lives in Interbay. "Anything on the other side of Gandy was considered the other side of the tracks, but that's changing."

He sees development in his neighborhood as newcomers scramble to buy and build homes.

It's happening all over South Tampa.

"People are buying houses and tearing them down and building new ones," said Virginia Fultz, who lives in Palma Ceia.

Some people "just want to live in South Tampa," said Tampa City Council member Rose Ferlita.

"There are trade-offs," she said. "You can get a larger house in New Tampa . . . but they want to live in South Tampa because it's so wonderful."

Prime land is so scarce that people are willing to live on traffic medians. Witness the new lofts built and quickly sold in SoHo on the tiny parcel of land at Armenia Avenue and Azeele Street.

The eclectic landscape creates a more diverse community, said county commissioner Frank. "Most northern communities are bracketed by income," she said. Those neighborhoods may take on a "cookie-cutter" appearance and mentality, isolating people.

Back at Station 15, firefighter Johnny Primus is about halfway through his 24-hour shift. "The south end is booming right now," he said, with a little amusement. "When we first came down here, they were talking about closing the base."

He's lived in the area for a decade, long enough to get philosophical about the people around him and what makes their community distinct.

"It's important to know the area you live in," he said.

He talks about "the people with blinders on" who see only the image of a South Tampa that dances and sways.

Johnny Primus knows what's real.

He knows South Tampa.

He knows it well.

- Times Researcher John Martin contributed to this story.

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