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Column

Walking in Tampa: a journey of fear

By SUE CARLTON, Times Staff Writer
Published December 7, 2007


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So I'm walking along in the Least Walkable City in America when someone comes up behind me fast and yells, "Left!"

In that split second, I do not know whether this means, "Move to your left or risk certain death!" or "Excuse me, but I am coming up on your left and do not wish to startle you."

So I do the sensible thing: I freeze, and a guy on a bike whizzes by a whisker from my elbow. Turns out he meant coming-up-on-your-left, warning me so I wouldn't jump and make him risk certain death via the cars flying by on his left.

Around here, this is what we call a nice walk.

This week we got the bad news that the Tampa Bay area rates last in a Brookings Institution survey of 30 major metropolitan areas for having places to live within walking distance of work, shops, restaurants, movies, that sort of thing. (Anyone but me think St. Petersburg, with its thriving downtown light years ahead of Tampa's, got broad-brushed on this one?)

This got me thinking about our walkability in general. So in the spirit of civic-mindedness, I decided to walk to work downtown starting from trendy Hyde Park, arguably Tampa's most walkable neighborhood.

Walkable? After a mile (or three) in my shoes, I have to say: not so much.

For the record, I have walked in cities before with some success. We are the Town That Does Not Walk. On a pleasant morning, cars jamming the roads into downtown, the only other footbound were iPoded college kids, homeless guys and an errant pit bull.

I walked under the noisy Crosstown Expressway and over the railroad tracks. Yes, Howard Avenue has restaurants from tapas to Thai, bars, Starbucks, shops, a gym - all wonderful if you stay on one side of the street. Crossing Howard is like the video game Frogger, you being the frog.

We are not set up to walk. A friend looks out her office window at a Subway sandwich shop just across Dale Mabry- tuna-on-wheat so close, the trip on foot a potential suicide mission. She gets in her car and executes an elaborate series of U-turns, just to cross the six-lane road.

On my walk, a couple of right-turn drivers were shocked - shocked - to find a human being in the crosswalk. After a while, you find yourself peering anxiously into the faces in the cars, trying to gauge mood and intent.

Sidewalks end abruptly, like in a cartoon or a nightmare. Crosswalks are available on one corner, mysteriously not on another. Trucks rumble by close on narrow streets. I could not find a garbage can to save my life.

Nice, having that Publix at the edge of downtown, close to hotels and the Convention Center. But sending out-of-towners here from there would be like deliberately giving freshmen bad directions to class the first day of school. What fun to watch tourists try to weave and dodge through those crazy-busy intersections!

You know what was weird? Walking into that Publix on foot. What would feel normal in D.C. or New York was off-kilter. Did the cashier know I was Someone Without a Car? Did everyone?

More than one acquaintance motoring by offered a ride. I might as well have explained I was yodeling my way to work.

I got to the office thinking of that old chestnut: You can't get there from here. Well, you can. But in these parts, you better be ready to go left.

[Last modified December 6, 2007, 23:53:05]


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