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City life

A city view through the streetcar window

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times
published February 1, 2003

In search of the streetcar experience, I drove downtown and walked to the new transportation plaza in front of the Marriott Waterside. It's that thing that looks like a giant party hat.

It was 5 p.m. on a weekday, so I didn't expect much, but lo and behold, a streetcar full of passengers, SRO, was ready to leave!

I ran to catch it, and at the door the conductor told me, "We can't board you, ma'am."

This streetcar stop was not officially open until Thursday, the conductor explained. I could board at Morgan Street.

This is a private group, a man behind the conductor sniffed.

Isn't that just like Tampa?

I couldn't find the Morgan Street stop, so I walked on to the stop at Beneficial Drive near Channelside.

In 10 minutes I counted five pedestrians.

At 5:22, a streetcar appeared. $1.25, one way, exact change only, and I was on.

There were three passengers on board, and three more got on after me.

"Well, the bell works," one of them said as we clanged our way up Channelside Drive.

We start and stop all the way to Ybor City. There is only one track, and the streetcar runs two ways, which means one car sits and waits for another coming from the opposite direction to swing around it at various places called "hard meets."

Past the Port Authority's slick new building that looks crowded with the streetcar tracks so close to it. Past a freighter, past the Hess storage tank. Cross the tricky rush-hour traffic on Adamo Drive -- twice -- our historic streetcar up against speeding hordes of commuters. Arrive Cadrecha Plaza Station, and a recorded voice tells us in English and Spanish that we can transfer to buses here -- as if this $53-million addition to our public transportation system is actually going to be used by people who ride the bus. Next stop, Streetcar Society Station, where a young woman with her upper arms covered in tattoos says, "I don't know which way we're going. I've never ridden the trolley before."

On to Centro Ybor past the Valentine's Day lingerie in the windows of Victoria's Secret, past four boarded-up buildings behind a sign that says "Ybor City Rehabilitation Project."

Last stop, Centennial Park Station, 5:41, a cool 19 minutes from Channelside. The conductor flips the seat backs to face in the opposite direction and moves to what is now the front of the car.

I pay another $1.25 for the return trip. Back at the Centro Ybor stop, we sit and wait for the streetcar coming the other way. A woman in jogging pants hops on. "How long do we have to wait here?" she asks.

Five minutes, so she jumps off and returns with a drink from Starbucks.

The wooden seat is vibrating so strenuously, I move to the other side of the car.

The jogger tells me, "My mother says, 'You can't romanticize streetcars. They were always bumpy. They were always noisy."'

They are also very slow, what with the stopping and waiting.

And the seats are hard.

The cars, with their two-tone wood seats, leather hanging straps and red stenciling on the ceiling, are really quite precious, kind of like a large-scale model train you might see in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog. As actual transportation, of course, they're pretty silly.

Off at the Morgan Street station, I navigate the no-man's land between the new downtown -- the convention center and the Marriott Waterside, whose Centro Ybor-bound patrons are the real reason for the streetcar -- and the old downtown, where people who live here work.

It's twilight, and I am the only person on foot in sight.

Except for the guy in the middle of the street, panhandling cars.

-- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at . City Times appears on Saturday.

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