Tampa’s history easy to miss from campus

Driving down Fowler Avenue, the only thing that reminds travelers of their geographical location are the few scattered “Bulls Country” signs. Everything else, including the fast food joints, the AMSCOT locations, the gas stations, even the mall, is as nondescript as any other part of Florida.

But travel only a few miles south and you enter Tampa: a city laden with history, bursting with stories and alien to those who stick only to campus.

The area around the University, although booming with business, is nothing more than an attempt to capitalize on the community reach of a university as large as USF. Located in a place as diverse as the Bay area, University students have a chance to experience a town that belongs to middle-class laborers, artists and immigrants. The soul of the city has been shaped by these people and although much of their sentiments have been erased by chains and corporations, search southern Tampa and you can still find pockets of culture and diversity nestled tightly between bling, liquor and yuppy hangouts.

Blatantly past its prime, Tampa used to be a hopping spot. There was a time when Ybor City, before becoming what many now refer to as a hub of sex, crime, drunkenness or all three, was a bohemian district attracting artists, musicians and writers. Even before then, during the cigar boom at the turn of the 20th century, more than 140 cigar factories hired Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants to churn out as many as 700 million cigars a year, some estimates say (check out Tampa’s Cigar Heritage Festival on Nov. 19).

Today, the tendency toward the artistic is still keeping some creative minds in this historic Latin quarter of the city, but most are driven out by clubs and bars that focus on money rather than ambiance.

Probably most associated with the Tampa look are the Moorish domes and minarets of the University of Tampa, a former luxury winter resort built and operated by Henry B. Plant, one of the greatest early financial contributors to the Bay area. The Tampa Bay Hotel, which dates back to 1891, was transformed into the university in the 1930s, but a residue of its once-royal atmosphere still lingers. The building now houses UT’s classrooms and offices but is still accessible to the public. Perched on the bank of the Hillsborough River, its astounding view of downtown is one of the best in the city.

Downtown, Tampa Theatre is one of the city’s most renowned landmarks. The newly renovated marquee, the traditional seating arrangement inside (forget stadium seating), the overly ornate architectural elements all bring back the glamour of days long gone – days when the heart of the city was actually filled with shops and people.

On the outskirts of downtown, the Tampa Union Station serves as the launch platform for Amtrak trains and local artists. The old train station was, at one point, the heart of the city. Located in between downtown, Ybor City and the Port of Tampa, it was the way supplies and people got to the Cigar Capital of the World in the city’s heyday. Today, the west pavilion has been transformed into an art gallery, hosting exhibitions from local artists (such as USF faculty) and internationally recognized stars (Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh). Coincidentally, at the height of Tampa Bay Hotel’s popularity, Plant had a private train line running from the station to the front entrance of his hotel.

Pushing to the outskirts of Ybor, the artists and workers ultimately migrated a few miles north, settling in Seminole Heights, an area stretching to just north of Sligh Avenue. Seminole Heights, one of the last remaining Tampa neighborhoods where you can actually see people walk down the streets, is also where you can get the best grub in town. The second- and third-generation immigrants and the new arrivals have solidified their place in Tampa through the most universal aspect of life: food. Cuban restaurants (Casanova’s on Yukon, La Pelota on Waters, La Teresita on Columbus), Dominican restaurants (Los Hermanos on Florida), old-school diners (Nicko’s and Palm Grove Restaurant on Florida) are nearly on every corner, and at an early enough hour, almost any establishment serves true cafe con leche, a staple of Cuban life.

The artists are there, too. Galleries such as Covivant, Viva la Frida and Kama regularly host local artists’ exhibitions and plays.

But you won’t know any of this living on campus. Perhaps it’s the lack of fast and dependable public transportation – although with free rides for students the economy factor should be a substantial help in getting downtown – or perhaps it’s the fact that the University doesn’t encourage learning about your community. Either way, living in Tampa means learning about Tampa, and that can only be done in one way: exploring.

Olga Robak is a senior majoring in humanities and is The Oracle’s executive editor.