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And we say we are proud of this place

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


A man was walking in the middle of La Setima, the grand boulevard of Ybor City, with a wooden cross as big as he was over his shoulder.

The man's hair was in a buzz cut, not the long, wavy locks of the Jesus he was apparently impersonating.

You see a lot of things weird enough to be taken for apparitions on Seventh Avenue on a Saturday night. What you don't see, the police cameras catch. The only sight stranger than a Jesus hauling a cross while in Dockers would be a man in a three-piece suit taking a poll and expecting sober replies.

I went back to my spaghetti in a small Italian restaurant on Seventh Avenue. This restaurant has a special place on the avenue. It is sane, quiet. People come here for the food.

I had chosen it for a rare night out with my husband.

When you are a parent of a young child, you live in such chaos that lapses in judgment should be forgiven.

I'd forgotten that Ybor was a magic feat in concrete and brick, illustrating the endless possibilities in neighborhood improvement. The possibilities include pure cheesiness.

After dinner, my husband and I walked Seventh Avenue.

Long-legged girls, made up to look older than they are and sadder than I wish their eyes revealed, and boys with a beer glaze in their eyes were moving in groups. Now and then a girl who resembled those in the crowd would pass out two-for-one drink coupons. What? Business is slow?

The Jesus-man also continued his walk. He was utterly ignored until a tall skinny guy with a stiff, unwashed goatee approached. The goatee guy had to have come up from under his house under the Crosstown for this moment. But eventually even he walked away from the Jesus man.

I don't wish to make too much of the tea leaves, but this looks like a sign that Ybor could be beyond redemption.

Next we walked to a coffee shop, where the women's restroom contained that peculiar perfume known only to Porta Potties and the toilet was clogged.

We escaped to Centro Ybor, the shopping arcade that is supposed to be the neighborhood crown. If Steven Spielberg invested in it -- Gameworks is his -- and Republican money man and developer Mel Sembler is among the moving forces, how bad could it be?

We were going to shop.

A couple shops had already closed for the night.

We were going to go to the movies.

The lines were long, and the kids in them looked barely old enough to know that Ronald Reagan had a second term.

We wanted to sit down at one of those outdoor tables.

But we could not have heard each other. The noise from the bands on the decks that play at the restaurants overhead was so jarring we'd have ended up scribbling back and forth on napkins.

So we went home, sorry -- except for the pasta -- that we had come.

Ybor City has had lives like a three-legged cat. Once the cigar factories closed, the neighborhood was nearly flattened. Tampa was ashamed of it. Ybor was left to rot until artists moved in and then were forced out. Next came the men with money for liquor licenses.

Another resurrection is supposedly coming. Ybor has two hotels now, well off the avenue, and an apartment complex on the rise.

The way a community treats its neighborhood speaks in billboard size. Greed and bad government have made Ybor cheap and loud, a penny arcade with an elegant name, La Setima.

- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or at (813) 226-3402.

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