SULPHUR SPRINGS — At the beginning of the summer, 16 teenagers set out to learn more about Spring Hill, an African-American neighborhood of Tampa in the days of segregation.
They spoke to people who used to live in Spring Hill, an area now part of Sulphur Springs that ran from Waters Avenue to Busch Boulevard and from Florida Avenue to 12th Street. At first, the stories the teens heard were fairly typical: long-forgotten landmarks, including a school and a community center, and the interstate coming through in the 1960s, dividing and destroying the neighborhood in the name of progress and efficiency.
Then the students went back to those same residents and asked for different kinds of stories, tales not about Spring Hill's buildings and history but about its people and its soul. They learned about a neighborhood that swelled with a strong sense of pride, identity and community.
"It was a utopia," said 18-year-old Yvenel Casseide. "It was a utopia where people worked hard and got paid off big."
With guidance from a professional artist, the teenagers incorporated what they learned into a mural that now adorns the large brick wall on the north side of the Springs Theater, one of the oldest and most recognizable buildings in Sulphur Springs. The finished mural is scheduled to be dedicated in a ceremony on Saturday.
The mural features words including wisdom, honor, family, hope and faith that represent themes and values that kept popping up in the stories the residents told.
The theme that seemed to undergird all the stories, though, was education, both the education Spring Hill's children acquired at the local school, and less formal education residents shared with each other. So at the bottom of the mural are the words "We are your knowledge."
Showing through the letters are scenes of the kind of everyday events that made life in Spring Hill special: a man teaching a child to ride a bike, a neighbor helping a neighbor repair a car and a portrait of Lucious Glymph Sr., who ran the Spring Hill Community Center for many years, coached youth sports teams and served as a mentor to generations the neighborhood's youngsters.
The mural project was coordinated by Community Stepping Stones, a 5-year-old nonprofit that's devoted to improving the neighborhood and giving local young people training in the arts.
Community Stepping Stones used a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help fund the project. They hired 16 teenagers for the job — a few dropped out during the summer-long project — and artist Mike Parker to conduct interviews with Spring Hill residents, design and paint the mural.
The project's most obvious goal, Community Stepping Stones founder and artistic director Ed Ross said, was to enhance the neighborhood with public art. But that was only one purpose.
"We wanted to preserve the history of this neighborhood that most people even in Tampa, even in Sulphur Springs, have never even heard of, and share it with future generations," Ross said. "It was a true community where everybody looked out for each other. Everybody knew everybody else's kids. So if a kid got in trouble, he was in trouble up and down the block. The result was a neighborhood that produced highly educated people."
Other goals were to give the kids training and experience in creating art, to provide some with their first summer jobs and paychecks and to help them acquire employment skills, from showing up on time to working as a team.
"What I learned was that I could do it if I put my mind to it," said 17-year-old Victoria Stata. "And I learned I could work together with other people."
Education, in every sense, was central to both life in Spring Hill and to the art project that celebrates that neighborhood.
"The Spring Hill residents all talked about education, but the school only went up to ninth grade," Parker said. "So the residents taught each other. They taught each other how to fix cars. The adults taught the kids to cook. That was the kind of education that made that community what it was."
Marty Clear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.