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Grand old community reverses long decline


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 25, 2000

Last Saturday, on a warm spring afternoon, Morgan Park in Tampa Heights looked like a scene from a previous century. Women stood behind a long table of homemade cake slices and brownies while children played under the tall trees. There was even a kissing booth. And, most important for this in-transition neighborhood a minute north of downtown, tickets were being sold lickety-split for $8 to the Tampa Heights Tour of Homes, now in its fifth year.

And in this place that 10 years ago was riddled with crime and drugs and vagrants camping in its vacant lots, curious outsiders wearing shorts and tour stickers on their shirts wandered the streets, in and out of houses, or rode the yellow trolley from the southern to the northern cluster of houses.

What they saw was a neighborhood of striking contrasts.

A smashing paint job of pea green, salmon and gold on a house that could fit in a historic district anywhere.

A squat concrete block duplex with police postings on the windows.

A shiny green Miata parked under a canvas cabana inside a lushly landscaped yard.

Tampa Heights was a grand residential neighborhood built around the turn of the 20th century that fell victim to the suburban exodus. Finally, in the 1960s, Interstate275 sliced right through it. Yet by the late 1980s, there was already talk, and some action, to turn Tampa Heights into the next Hyde Park.

Gail Holly, who on Saturday welcomed guests into her bright pink and turquoise Key West home, was one of the early urban pioneers here.

"The neighborhood has moved how we expected, neither slower nor faster," she said. And in another 10 years? "I think we'll be a comfortable community. We're not going to be another Hyde Park. We're our own neighborhood."

And that is a close-knit, inclusive community.

Fran Roy stood in the front hallway of a rambling 100-year-old house on an acre of land at the northeast end of the historic district. The stairs to the second floor were roped off as unreliable, just one sign of the staggering amount of work to be done, but he was undaunted and delighted to be here. Until he and architect David Foster bought the house, it had been in the same family for a century. The grandson of the original owner lives across the street and insisted on meeting the young men's parents before they sold -- and brought down his sister to meet them. "They didn't want just neighbors, they wanted family across the street," he said.

David Foster is past president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association and executive director of its community development group. "There's no other neighborhood like it," he says. "We take care of each other." But he readily admits to the same problems apparent in every other inner-city neighborhood: drugs, vagrants, petty crime.

To live here, he says, you have to be brave and hopeful.

There appear to be plenty of reasons for hope: The Mayor's Heights Project has sold all but six properties on its list, with only one house left. There's the major new development in the southeast along the Hillsborough River, and to the west, exploding development in Ybor City. Activist residents are working to bring into the neighborhood the necessities it lacks: supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations, banks.

At 5 o'clock the tour was officially over. In a beautiful yellow Victorian with a graceful wrap-around porch, the owners and friends gathered in the sleek, renovated-to-the-minute kitchen, pouring wine, setting out platters of hors d'oeuvres.

Several blocks away, in the sparse dirt lawn in front of a small duplex, another party was starting. A woman carried a tinfoil pan to a makeshift grill, a few men stood in the doorway, and in the tiny strip of concrete in front of the house, were gathered 13 small children -- no older than toddlers -- and two children around 9 or 10 watching over them.

-- Sandra Thompson is a writer who lives in Tampa.

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