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The price for the Heights

With property values soaring and crime dropping, Tampa Heights is booming. But some say the success comes at the expense of diversity - and of black families who have lived there for years.

By RON MATUS, DENISE WATSON BATTS and CATHY WOS
Published June 11, 2004

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[Times photo: Ken Helle]
A look down E. Amelia Avenue shows some of the newly renovated homes in the Tampa Heights area. More renovations and new projects are pending.

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[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Dakota Christian, left, 15, plays basketball with his brother Sky, 16, in the driveway of their house in Tampa Heights on Friday. Their parents, Brenda and Jim Christian, bought the 1928 house four years ago. More and more white, middle-class families are moving into the area.
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[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
From atop a ladder, Wellington Hinds, of Hinds’ Painting in Tampa, works on the exterior of a house on Frances Avenue in Tampa Heights on Monday. Hinds said he is excited about the neighborhood’s rebirth; he has already worked on five houses in the area, and has five more lined up.
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[Times photo: Ken Helle]
The lake at Robles Park is a longtime fixture in the Tampa Heights area.

TAMPA HEIGHTS - The faces of Tampa Heights are changing again.

A white neighborhood when it was founded in the late 1800s, Tampa's original suburb became predominantly black over the course of decades.

Early on, it offered the good life for African-Americans who prospered near bustling Central Avenue. Eventually, it declined amid integration, the construction of Interstate 275 and lure of new subdivisions outside the city.

But today, white families are moving back in. In the past several years, private investors and nonprofit agencies have poured tens of millions of dollars into the south end of the neighborhood. Lured by sweet deals and city-backed loans, hundreds of urban pioneers refurbished Victorian mansions, chased away drug dealers and cleaned up trashy lots.

Tampa Heights is a success story.

But it comes with footnotes.

Progress doesn't extend to every corner of the neighborhood, especially the area north of Columbus Drive. And it's unclear how broad a spectrum of people will benefit in the long run.

Many oldtimers refuse to pull up roots. Why should just newcomers reap from the renaissance?

"I want to enjoy what they're going to bring," said Julia Jackson, a longtime black resident of Highland Avenue. "I'm not ready to go."

Yet Jackson says she feels pressure from developers who want to buy her property and fears newer residents will sic city officials on her aging wood-frame home.

For now, Tampa Heights is arguably the most diverse neighborhood in the city.

Just beyond streets lined with freshly painted bungalows, the Palm Avenue Baptist Tower caters to elderly residents of modest means and the newer Mobley Park apartments accommodate a range of income levels. Chipper thirty-somethings walk their dogs outside Sanctuary Lofts, a converted church, while homeless men roam between hot meals at the Salvation Army.

Everywhere, the faces are black and white.

Will it stay that way?

One expert is doubtful.

As cities nationwide pave the way for white suburbanites to return downtown, poorer residents - most often, poor black residents - are nudged out, said John McIlwain, senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.

By and large, the new urban dwellers are open-minded, he said. They like diversity. They're attracted to downtown.

They want the buzz and vitality a hodge podge of people bring.

And yet, "by moving into these neighborhoods that are diverse, they're turning them into upper, middle-class enclaves," McIlwain said.

White, middle-class enclaves.

* * *

On a map, Tampa Heights is one long lean rectangle, stretching from downtown to Seminole Heights.

In reality, it is two neighborhoods in one.

South of Columbus Drive, redevelopment rules.

GTE Federal Credit Union is building a $23-million headquarters, Stetson University recently opened a branch campus for its law school and turn-of-the-century Victorians that were somehow spared the wrecking ball are pricey again.

The change didn't come easy.

A decade ago, crack pipes littered the sidewalk, prostitutes worked the corners and stray bullets lodged themselves next to his mother's front door, said Mike Solomon.

In 1993, Solomon's mother, Eleanor, a music teacher, used a city program for low-income families to buy a then-dilapidated, 2,200-square-foot home - a former drug house - for $25,500, property records show. Last year, she turned down an offer to sell it for $260,000.

"I never imagined it would be this good," Mike Solomon said.

There's more to come: Along the riverfront, Bank of America Community Development Corp. is planning as many as 300 condos and 70 townhomes, and dozens of lots scooped up as part of the massive Civitas proposal remain prime real estate.

"You're going to see dramatic changes in the next few years," said Ralph Schuler, immediate past president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association.

He and other pioneers don't have to squint too hard to see a supermarket and Starbucks in the future.

North of Columbus Drive, residents have more pressing needs.

Drug dealers and prostitutes remain. Code enforcement violations are rampant.

More than the south end, the north side of Tampa Heights seems to suffer from bipolar disorder: It offers fancy bricked streets along Central Avenue and the gritty sand lots of Robles Park Village, a vast public housing complex. Elegant Spanish-style architecture shines next to boarded-up duplexes.

Even its history seems obscured: At Central Avenue and Columbus, no dumping signs sprout near a historic marker about the Buffalo Soldiers, an all-black regiment that stayed in Tampa Heights during the Spanish-American War.

Northern Tampa Heights' residents have long complained that they aren't sharing in the area's revitalization. There has been talk of forming a separate neighborhood association, but so far, it hasn't happened.

At Keys Avenue and Tampa Street, Michelle Smiley-Wells won't let her kids out to play unless she's with them. She worries about drug dealers. Her car has been vandalized.

The closer to downtown you get, "the more progress you see," Smiley-Wells says.

She and her family are many blocks removed.

* * *

The national back-to-downtown movement began 10 to 15 years ago, pushed by a wave of big-city mayors more concerned with growing tax bases than social equity, said McIlwain with the Urban Land Institute. They improved basic services, reduced crime and revived downtowns.

Sick of commutes and stifled by suburbs, middle-class families returned.

In Tampa, former Mayor Dick Greco pounded his pulpit to tout Tampa Heights' potential. The city worked with nonprofits to buy hundreds of vacant lots and find pioneers willing to stand firm until the neighborhood turned a corner.

In the beginning, working-class and middle-class families responded, black and white. And the city encouraged more of the same by backing projects such as Mobley Park, which opened in 2001.

Anna Rowell rode the first wave.

A firefighter who grew up in Lutz, Rowell, 35, said she experienced "culture shock" when she arrived in Tampa Heights a decade ago. Even prostitutes and the homeless, she learned, can be good neighbors.

"I've learned not to judge people," she said.

Rowell said Tampa Heights will continue to be a diverse place, but as property values rise, wealthier residents are turning on to its charms.

More and more, those residents are white.

For many cities, such trends are only modestly reflected in the 2000 census, but by 2010 will become more pronounced, McIlwain said.

The same is true for Tampa.

Census numbers from 2000 show generally, but not dramatically, that neighborhoods around downtown are drawing white residents, while black residents are replacing whites in neighborhoods just beyond.

Between 1970 and 2000, the population dropped in Ybor City, Tampa Heights and parts of West Tampa, for reasons that include aging families and federal programs that eliminated blighted housing. But while the number of black residents fell by several thousand, the number of whites declined by a few hundred.

Ybor and Tampa Heights remain predominantly black, but complexions change dramatically from street to street and block to block.

In Tampa Heights, census figures show parallel trends.

South of Columbus Drive, the number of blacks has dropped from about 2,500 in 1980 to 1,600 in 2000 - a 36 percent decrease - while the number of whites has stayed about the same. In the census tract that includes Julia Jackson's home, the number of whites has grown slowly but steadily since 1980.

North of Columbus Drive, blacks were less than 5 percent of the population in 1970. Now they are the majority. The same pattern has unfolded in portions of neighborhoods just beyond downtown, including MacFarlane Park, Riverside Heights, Ybor Heights and V.M. Ybor.

* * *

Tampa Heights is often compared to Hyde Park.

If its evolution follows that model, its future is predominantly white.

For decades, Dobyville was a thriving black enclave in Hyde Park, roughly bordered by Azeele and Cass streets and Willow and Albany avenues. But when urban pioneers swept in 20 years ago to take advantage of depressed land values, the homes of former black residents were replaced by upscale offices, apartments and townhomes.

Now, only a handful of black residents remain.

Irene McGriff is one of them. She knows why newcomers flooded the area.

"They got tired of those long drives back into town," McGriff, who owns two houses on Dakota Avenue, said with a chuckle.

Where black residents once raised families on a quiet street, Mediterranean-style law offices dominate. A sign next to one of McGriff's houses promises six new townhomes, starting at $219,000.

McGriff could cash in but doesn't want to. She knows that by staying, she's making developers fume.

* * *

In 1999 and 2000, a string of more than 40 suspicious house fires in Tampa Heights fueled a racially based conspiracy theory. Some black residents wondered if white developers were sparking blazes to hasten the neighborhood's transformation.

Eventually, a homeless black man was arrested and convicted for a related crime. But the fact that such a far-fetched theory would sprout speaks volumes about underlying tensions.

Neighborhood leaders, such as former association president Schuler, say race isn't an issue. The market is.

"I don't see anyone forcing anyone out," he said. "If they choose to go somewhere else, those are life decisions that people make on a case-by-case basis."

Even with wealthier residents moving in, Tampa Heights won't go the way of Hyde Park, he said. The housing stock is more diverse; the land prices, more reasonable.

Beyond that, the neighborhood views racial diversity as a strength and made it a theme in its master plan passed a few years ago.

"We're a true melting pot," Schuler said.

Time will tell what gets thrown in the mix.

[Last modified June 10, 2004, 13:29:16]

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