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Ambling in a place of many monikers

Published April 30, 2004

This is a place where people walk.

Some of us romanticize walking. We pine for street life.

Street life is here, in the shadows of a giant university, on the fringes of suburbia, on the outskirts of a city.

Women walk with shopping bags. Men walk with shopping bags. Middle-aged women wait by bus stops for schoolchildren, who will walk home with them, stopping to examine a stray toy here and there.

They walk, they ride bikes, they take the bus.

Like them, I took a walk here on a recent afternoon, with a peculiar purpose. I wanted to know what this neighborhood was called.

What do people call you? I asked about 20 people at random. What do you call yourselves?

I started at the University Area Community Center, a showcase of glass and brightly colored wall tiles. The center speaks of what this place could be: family focused, performance driven, forward looking.

I passed a ground-level shrine. Neighbors had left flowers, toys and Mylar balloons in a heap along 22nd Street. Yellowed newspaper clippings were taped to a bus shelter. Handmade signs were everywhere, remembering hit-and-run victims Bryant Wilkins and Durontae Caldwell.

Someday, officials say, 22nd Street will be a fully functioning Main Street.

On this day it served as a linear reminder of what could go wrong.

What is this place? "Suitcase City," the tired nickname that sticks in the craw of civic boosters? Or the bland and cumbersome "University North" that we force into the newspaper?

Some residents, when asked, glared back with a telling "no comment."

Others called the area "north Tampa" or "Tampa" or "the university area." One man called it "Fletcher"; another, "my neighborhood."

A woman who declined to give her name insisted that everybody calls this place "Suitcase City."

Where does that name come from?

It might have been a media invention, used to convey how transient the apartment dwellers are. Or law enforcement officers might have coined the phrase. Some years back, they led a very public search for "the Suitcase City rapist."

Another woman, who doesn't like the term "Suitcase City," suggested the name reflects an influx of Mexican families west of 22nd Street.

Three men told me in Spanish, "This is Hillsborough."

"I tell people I live off Bearss Avenue, between Fletcher and 22nd Street," said Cynthia Jones, who was out with her young nephew. "I've heard the name "Suitcase City,' but I don't like it."

Children have other names for the space they occupy.

"I live at "Cross Fletcher,"' said 9-year-old Tyyaam Owens, who was zipping along on a bicycle with a friend.

Do you live across Fletcher Avenue? I asked him.

"No, this is "Cross Fletcher."'

He and his friend also offered "UCC," which I presume stands for University Community Center; also "USF" and "USF Country."

By midweek, news trucks were back in the neighborhood with word of an arrest in the hit-and-run.

It is healthy, perhaps, that at a time of communal grief, a community seeks to see itself in the best possible light.

Public works projects here are steadily seeing fruit. New schools are opening; a clinic and high school career center are planned.

I asked Taneice Watts, 25, if the neighborhood was improving.

"It is," she said. "It's slow, but it is."

Asked for specifics, she pointed to two knee-high safety signs in the middle of 22nd Street, informing motorists to stop for pedestrians.

"They finally put those up," she said.

This is a place where people walk.

Maybe, slowly, they are getting somewhere.

[Last modified April 29, 2004, 11:15:14]

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