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Arson fears hang over other streets

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 2000


Nobody who goes drinking on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City ventures north of I-4. From the perspective of a bar hopper there is nothing to see.

Yet half the buildings that make Ybor City a National Historic Landmark District are on the streets beyond the interstate.

In this part of Ybor, churches overlay their windows with dull plexiglass, so the stained glass won't shatter when somebody hurls a rock. The prosperous homeowners are those who can afford burglar bars on their little wooden houses.

The houses were built by the cigar companies for the immigrants who were paid by the piece to roll cigars a century ago. Some 50 years later, people around here jumped in their cars and drove in an impromptu parade to celebrate Castro's revolution.

You have to shut your eyes to imagine what the neighborhood must have looked like at its best.

When you open them you still see the tin roofs, the little yards where laundry flaps bravely like pennants at a horse race. You can still see the clock on the Cuesta Ray cigar factory. But if you want to know the time, you need your own watch. The clock's numbers and hands are gone. The face is blank, like that of a disinterested stranger.

You wouldn't know it from the news, but this history is going up in smoke. Half the three dozen arsons and unexplained fires that have the Greco administration in understandable fits of worry have taken place here. But none of those in Ybor has occurred in an occupied building. That's the official reason given for why nobody is rushing to demolish anything that could attract an arsonist, as they are in Tampa Heights directly to the west.

It is true that real estate speculators aren't openly going crazy here. It's also true that the fire hazard may be greater. The houses are as close to each other as they would be if they were built in the Bronx, and much closer than in most of Tampa Heights. One spark only has to jump from one roof to another.

A man with a cane named Johnnie Lee Jackson showed me what this means.

He led me down the alley of raked dirt between the 85-year-old rooming house where he lives on the second floor and the condemned bungalow next door. I could not raise both arms straight out between the buildings. There wasn't room.

Following us was Jackson's gray and white cat, Big Head. Thanks to him, Jackson said, "We don't have no rats around here."

Too bad Big Head can't do something about the hookers and the junkies. Day or night, Jackson said, "I can look down and see 'em doing their thing."

Nobody was around when we stuck our heads through the bungalow's broken windows.

The door to one room was filled with furniture turned every which way. Its door was half open, and the words "Room of Pain" were spray painted in black on it. The writer had a long loose hand, as though he couldn't help but trail off in the direction of a destination he would never recognize.

In the back yard, the weeds were in competition with the junk for growing space -- broken bottles, pieces of wood, plastic milk crates, a small refrigerator, filthy clothing, all the debris you would find at the bottom of the world was there.

With your eyes closed or open, you cannot imagine the desperation that would bring somebody to a place like this bungalow. You can imagine how little would be needed to send it up in flames.

And you can sense Johnnie Lee Jackson's fear. It is as real as his metal cane.

"You don't know what you're going to wake up to," he said.

He has asked the city to tear down the building. So has his landlord. They've had no luck. Tampa has so many condemned buildings, getting one torn down can take five years.

But a city official, Steve LaBrake, promised Monday night to go by Johnnie Lee Jackson's neighborhood and take a look.

Even before the arsons began, the city was spending $600,000 a year to demolish condemned buildings. It isn't enough. Like all cities, Tampa relies on miracles for its people to survive. The miracle in Ybor City is that nobody has died from one of the fires so far, or the next one, whenever the arsonist strikes again.

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