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No artists in the art district?

NOTHING'S BREWING: What's Brewing columnist Susan Thurston is taking the week off. Her column will resume next week.

Published October 3, 2003

The city has grandiose plans for its new cultural arts district. There's supposed to be an enhanced Tampa Museum of Art with classrooms, a cafe, a museum shop and an auditorium for small concerts and lectures, all adjoining the existing Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Developers have proposed new luxury office buildings and condos in the area.

No one seems to be talking about artists.

It seems almost too obvious to mention that a thriving cultural arts district needs to include places where artists are encouraged to live and work. Downtown Tampa, with its surfeit of empty buildings, could easily be transformed into that kind of arts neighborhood.

Don't expect it to happen, though. Our city has a history of touting arts while discouraging artists.

Over the years, the city has had several opportunities to foster the growth of arts districts that came to life casually and spontaneously and began to surge under the power of their own engines. Each time, government or business or a combination of the two has quashed those districts before they could evolve.

Ybor City is the most obvious example. A little over a decade ago, it was home to a community of artists who lived and worked there, who hung out in its bohemian bookstores, who fomented ideas in little cafes, who read poetry in corner bars and staged original plays in tiny ad hoc theater spaces.

It became successful enough that the city's power brokers finally noticed that Ybor was a pretty amazing place, too good for a bunch of freaky artists. The city subsidized developers and business chains but showed no sympathy for local artists. Within a few years, the artists were gone, and they took their cafes, bookstores and poetry readings with them.

Filmmaker George Bayer owned property in Ybor City back in those days. When he renovated his building, he had to comply with regulations that covered the most minute details. Construction was halted for months while he searched for a specific kind of light fixture that was required.

Not long after he finished complying with details aimed at preserving historical integrity, the garish Centro Ybor shopping mall opened around the corner - with the help of city subsidies - and a movie theater's marquee was virtually outside his door.

Bayer now lives in the Channel District with his wife, Luisa Meshekoff. Their building also houses the Dance Center, where Meshekoff produces educational dance videos and works with injured dancers.

She has been there for more than 10 years and constantly has to deal with city officials who challenge everything from her zoning compliance to her homestead exemption.

"I've been under constant scrutiny by the city," Meshekoff said. "It's not code enforcement. It's not zoning. It's a larger mechanism than that."

The problem, she says, is that nothing in Tampa's codes or ordinances recognizes artists. Artists' spaces often don't fit neatly into such categories as commercial, industrial or residential. So city officials don't know how to deal with artists when they come across them.

The Channel District attracted some arts-oriented residents and business owners, such as Meshekoff, in the early 1990s. But the area is evolving from a residential/industrial neighborhood to a strictly residential one. It's going to be mostly high-end residences, and before long the developers, the property owners and the residents probably will put pressure on the city to get rid of the old warehouses where artists now live and work. And the city will be happy to do so.

Meanwhile, Tampa will spend millions of dollars on a cultural arts district.

Other cities, with downtowns more vibrant than Tampa's, have created arts districts by simply welcoming artists.

In some neighborhoods of New York, artists get tax breaks for living and working in loft spaces. Art becomes an integral part of the community, as vital to the city as museums and Broadway theaters.

Even across the bay in Pinellas County, cities have revitalized themselves by embracing artists. Gulfport offered modest incentives to artists to come in and live and work in its historic vacant buildings. The result is a charming and distinctive town and an enhanced quality of life for artists and nonartists alike.

In the early 1990s, downtown Clearwater got a boost by offering its vacant storefronts rent-free to artists, who opened shops and galleries and generated interest in the area from shoppers and prospective business owners.

Similar approaches would be workable in Tampa, and they would be a lot more cost-effective than the glitzy new cultural arts district.

In fact, Tampa has shown the ability to develop thriving arts districts even without public incentives. Benign neglect may be all that is needed.

It probably won't happen. In Tampa, we support the arts, as long as you keep the artists away.

- Marty Clear, a frequent contributor to City Times, is a freelance writer who lives in Tampa and once owned a book and record store in Ybor City.

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