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Hidden corners show Town 'N Country's diversity

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By MARLENE SOKOL, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2002

TOWN 'N COUNTRY -- The furniture is dark wood, ornately carved, evoking a Caribbean feel. Women chatter in Spanish about kids, the lottery, news from Santo Domingo. They serve the coffee strong, in tiny cups.

They pour at least five conditioners on my hair, leaving it softer than it's felt in years. I would not have sought this place out, had it not been for the sign in a Hanley Road bodega that described it as a "Dominican Beauty Salon."

Dominican? As in the Dominican Republic?

Absolutely, says owner Arelis Gil, whose customers include two Dominican women who live near Hanley and Hillsborough Avenue. "It's a way of styling," says Ruth Cedeno. "It's different. Hairdressing is very big and popular there."

The three-month-old salon at 4714 N Lois Ave. is not exactly thriving. But "people come in and they pay," says Gil.

Think of it as a hidden treasure. We hope to introduce you to many such places as North of Tampa ventures into Town 'N Country zip codes 33615 and 33634.

"Our strength is in our diversity," says Ray Frazier, a stockbroker and financial planner who works out of the Chamber of Commerce building on Paula Avenue.

"I can show you a house that you could buy for $60,000, and another house for $600,000, and they're within just a couple of miles of each other. . . . I could take you along this street and show you businesses that are Indian, Italian and Cuban."

He left out Narky's, a cubbyhole of a restaurant that makes a delicious braised chicken (pollo a la brasa) and seems to earn a living serving dishes from Peru.

Peru, in fact, is just one of 11 Spanish-speaking countries represented at Woodbridge Elementary School, where more than 25 percent of the children take extra classes in English. Overall, the Hispanic population in Town 'N Country has grown by 82 percent in the last 10 years.

These demographics are just one facet of Town 'N Country's history. Frazier, a 40-year resident who graduated from the first class at Leto High School, gave me this brief account:

Town 'N Country was developed for middle managers who were trained by corporations in the 1950s. The area stagnated in the 1970s, when energy prices curbed those corporate relocations. The 1980s brought about a further decline and youth gangs.

Civic organizations kicked into high gear in the early 1990s to try and turn things around.

St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, where Frazier is a pastor, launched a thrift store and a restaurant-style soup kitchen. Groups such as the Town 'N Country Alliance lobbied for senior programs and a YMCA.

They persuaded a reluctant school district to open a high school -- Alonso -- on the old Tampa Police Department pistol range. They set the county's intelligentsia to work on a Town 'N Country Plan.

Looking ahead, they'd like Town 'N Country to elect one of its own to the County Commission. (South Tampans have long held the District 1 seat.) And they'd like to see more young people trained for high-tech jobs, instead of grinding it out in the $8-an-hour service sector.

Frazier, who has taught himself Spanish, recognizes that any progress must be inclusive.

"I don't apologize for who we are and what we are," he says. "We need to respect one another. In the business community, in the faith community, in the educational community, we all must respect each other and we need to work together."

There is, of course, another side to diversity.

Already we received a call from Bayside, where a homeowner does not think his "upscale" neighborhood ought to be seen as part of Town 'N Country. Bayside is every bit as ethnically diverse as Town 'N Country, he said. But its homes sell for more than $200,000..

That kind of thing is bound to happen. It speaks to the phenomenon of expensive neighborhoods within an easy walk of areas where life is more of a struggle.

While we're splitting hairs, Arelis Dominican Beauty Salon is on the eastern fringe of Town 'N Country, an area more accurately described as Drew Park. Again, I went there out of curiosity.

And I'm glad I did.

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