Wednesday, August 29, 2012

RNC Convention Diary Part One: Invisible City

Saturday, August 25th, 10:00 AM, King Corona Cafe/Cigar Bar, Ybor City:

Waiting at King Corona.

It was a little cooler than it should have been. Hurricane Isaac was getting closer, sucking all the heat it could off the water to power itself, creating the gradient we were feeling. A few journalists were hanging around the tables outside the cafe, some with two large cameras dangling on either side, others with iPhones on monopods, tweeting in real time.

The Van
 One was a documentarian wearing a dashing orange scarf speaking with a beautiful British accent.. In an effort to reactivate consciousness, I downed an unusually good cafe con leche before the van for our Keepin it Real Tour showed up. Kelly Benjamin, local community builder and activist arrived and spoke with us briefly, before we packed into the Tour vehicle. It was a white15-passenger van, the kind small churches use to transport believers or hotels use to pick up tourists at the airport.

[Megatrends, a popular book published in 1988 and written by John Naisbitt predicted Tampa as "America's Next Great City", a phrase the city unfortunately adopted as its mantra. As we would find out, this prediction did not come true -- at many levels.]

Connie Burton (center)
Life Malcolm Turner (r.)
We met our two Tour Guides: Connie Burton and Life Malcolm Turner. They took turns providing economic, political and historical narratives to go with the urbanscapes we cruised through and spots we stopped at. This began immediately, while we sere still on La Setima (7th Ave) in Ybor, with ex-mayor Greco's epic failure, Centro Ybor, which went bankrupt and is on its 2nd incarnation. Ms. Burton explained how the funding came from taxes from small businesses and the project ended up driving them out. Taxpayers were left holding the bag.

Journalist in the van

This sleight of hand, followed by displacing those living and doing business, was a repeating story as the tour threaded through various blighted neighborhoods around Tampa. While these areas were left untouched as they sink further into poverty, somehow Tampa managed to find $34 million to spruce up for the RNC Convention, plus $48 million more for security from a state grant. Needless to say, nothing trickled down to any of the places we went.Tampa's lack of urban awareness and concerns for its quality of life are hardly a well-kept secret.

Inside the van, hearing the guides was often difficult. The riders quietly traded shop talk and got to know a little about each other while trying various meditative techniques to stay cool.

We went into Ybor Heights and College Hill. Paradoxically, while car ownership is very low, there's little traffic to be seen. These places eerily look like ghost towns. The nexus created by people being forced into an underground economy (crime) and the ensuing police attention is one source of great human misery in these neighborhoods. A large number of black men are or have been incarcerated. Turner speaks over and over about "over policing", and there's  what seems like a major and somewhat oppressive police presence.

Mural at Police Station depicting the past.

It wasn't an illusion. When we stopped at the police station on 22nd st, one we were told was built with community funds, we were shown murals that had been commissioned to a "Negro from out of town". About 75 feet away, as if on cue, a police cruiser pulled and watched our every move. One of the last panels of the mural ironically depicts a vibrant, idyllic community. Someone asked if this depicted the past or a hopeful future. "The past" was the answer.

Life Malcolm Turner
We stopped at a faded shopping area, with a few people walking or cycling by, cameras clicking, hoovering up the boarded-up houses. People stared at us as if we were aliens poured out from a flying saucer. The Tour narrative was like a broken record.  The same story of diverted funds, broken families, people stripped of their autonomy, and the sad outcome. Burton and Turner were asked what could be done to fix this. There was a long pause. An infusion of money. Life Malcolm Turner is planning on addressing the autonomy issue by running for office.

The van rolls into West Tampa, past Joe Redner's park, stopping at Jeff Hilaire's Main Street Choice store. He's multi-tasking, a small businessman working on community building. Looking toward Howard Ave is a small park with benches where older men sit, talk and play games. Outside the store are benches, where younger men sit slumped as traffic goes by on Main St.

Jeff Hilaire (on left).

At Robles Park, a large green space and lake, young men congregate in the shade of a shelter. Ms. Burton informs us that the city wants $168/wk. for the local girls' teams to be allowed to play kickball, so the park remains empty, unused.

Sulfur Springs is what should be a beautiful neighborhood along the Hillsborough River. Jack Kerouac often stayed there in a friend's house on the river, sleeping in a loft. Now it is a square mile of boarded up houses, gang graffiti, people's belongings rotting at the curb, remnants of evictions. The van turns into street after street, making me a little dizzy. The per cap income here is $13k/yr. less than half of what it is for the rest of the city. I remember it during better days. Almost half of its population are kids under 18. One in ten of the girls will give birth before that age.

Ed, CSS Founder.
Sulfur Springs resident.
In the middle of this, we stop at Community Stepping Stones. I have reported on their projects here before. It is a non-profit that is doing a nearly impossible job of healing and instilling a sense of identity and confidence in the kids there. This I know from talking with them. Kelly Benjamin used to be involved with CSS.

At North Street & Branch Ave. a media event is going on. The front yard is peppered with media covering the the reclamation of a foreclosed house with the help of neighbors for a previously homeless couple, Vashon and Gladys Seabrooke. Activist/performance artist Vermin Supreme energetically mows the lawn, sweating profusely in the heat and humidity.

Vashon Seabrooke

Romneyville Security Chief
Our last stop is at Romneyville, a cluster of tents on leased land behind the Army-Navy Store downtown. A scene is unfolding between a squad of Tampa Police in their new Disneyesque khaki uniforms and camp officials. The police bluff. It peaks with one of the Romneyville men yelling for someone to call a legal advocate group. No one reaches for their cell phone, but the police walk away. A few blocks from these little tents is the thirty-thousand square foot big top Republican tent, a huge, white elephant on Curtis Hixon Park.

Romneyville tents.

We return to the visible parts of the City and our regularly scheduled programming.

--- Luis

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