Friday, November 18, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities: A short conversation on the 600 block

While making the rounds during the 2nd Saturday Art Walk in St. Pete, I ran into an artist, who like many of us, rarely crosses the Bay. We ran into each other outside Blue Lucy, and she was a little bewildered with all the arts-centered action and street life on the 600 block that evening. "Why doesn't Tampa have anything like this?", she asked.

It is a good question. Tampa has around one-third more people, but St. Pete clearly has more arts venues and events. As an arts blogger, I spend a majority of my time reporting from there, though I live in Tampa. The 600 block renaissance was a collaborative community effort that has brought life to a section of the city that was lifeless, derelict, boarded-up shops turning it into an arts district. I do not want to give the false impression that it has been a complete success. It has had growing pains, and a fairly high rate of turnover as it grows and evolves, but the change in the area has been positive and considerable, on both sides of the street.

It is not hard to envision the art and artists of the 600 block repeatedly attracting people to the area eventually resulting in more businesses moving in, perhaps eventually including residential development more retail, etc. It happened in South Beach, Soho (NYC), and yes, in Ybor, sort of.

Tampa could do this. It happened naturally, no thanks to anyone save the artists, in Ybor, and the City's response, incredibly, was to issue a huge number of liquor licenses and the landlords drove out the very artists who made this possible. What happened was an arts debacle. So many of our best and brightest left, not just Ybor, but the city. What made the area attractive was ripped out and discarded. Momentum brought development in afterward, but the spark was largely gone. One of the last bastions of that era resides in HCC's Ybor Campus. The efforts of the Old Guard, people like David Audet and others have kept that flame alive. On the public side, the Ybor Artists' Association under Moira Shiver, its member artists and galleries have brought in new blood, and are doing a great job and gaining ground forging alliances with businesses and institutions that understand the values of the arts. It's happening also in Seminole Heights, where Tempus Projects and several arts & antique stores have established a growing presence, and along with a few restaurants, are bringing people to the area.  

We have community builders in our midst, who are working miracles with next to nothing, but the question is why nothing? St Pete stepped in, and so can Tampa.

Why doesn't Tampa do this? It is no secret that companies looking to move, bringing jobs with them, consider the arts as a primary factor, along with other aspects of the quality of life. The city surely knows its citizen's lives would be enhanced by increasing the profile of the arts, and the commerce they bring.

I know, the economy's floundering. Revenues are down, people out of work, cutbacks abound, everyone is clutching their piece of the pie and in denial over lowered expectations, but it is precisely at times like this that visionaries do not fold up, but launch. Tampa needs a coalition of Politicians, artists, activists for the arts, developers and lay people to show love for its people and their future. We can do this.

--- Luis

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