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10 things that suck (but are secretly awesome) about life in Tampa Bay

The economy's in the toilet. Our lawns are dirt-brown. The Lightning finished the season with fewest wins in hockey. But you know what? Enough with the kvetching. Sure, there are plenty of things that suck about life in Tampa Bay. But many of those clouds have some sweet silver linings. We'd go so far as to say that a lot of these things that supposedly suck are, in the right light and after a couple of drinks, actually kind of awesome. So this week, we're taking a glass-is-half-full look around Tampa Bay. It's time to take stock of a few of those things everyone hates — the Pier, the Beer Can Building, Buddy Johnson — and explain why they're not all as bad as you think. Just call us defenders of the defenseless. — tbt*


Somewhere along the line, the phrase "I like Nickelback" became code for "I'm a douche." (This is probably an unfair generalization, as we've never actually heard anyone utter the words "I like Nickelback.") Critics blame the chart-topping Canadian grungers for the crunchy monotony of modern rock radio and the death of intelligent music in general. Two things: (1.) Creed put music into an intellectual coma long before Nickelback, and (2.) Nickelback really isn't that bad. Chad Kroeger's scorched-earth groan is secretly the perfect delivery vehicle for Big Dumb Songs about love, lust and Labatt's — which are the three leading reasons any teenage male picks up a guitar in the first place. How You Remind Me was even nominated for a Record of the Year Grammy in 2003. Seriously, give Nickelback's music a second chance, and if you still think they suck, well, the 27 million of us who own their albums will just have to go on rocking without you. The band performs with Seether and Saving Abel at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Ford Amphitheatre, Tampa. $29.50-$75; four-packs available for $22.25 per ticket. (813) 740-2446. — Jay Cridlin

Downtown Clearwater

For years, downtown Tampa has had a rep as being run-down and shady. More recently, Clearwater has become the area's newest ugly downtown. But here's a secret: Clearwater's downtown isn't looking so terrible these days. Sure, plenty of empty storefronts remain. But you might be surprised by the clean, construction-free look of Cleveland Street. The restored Capitol Theater has begun hosting cool concerts (Amos Lee, Paula Cole, William Joseph). The city's new Fourth Fridays ( are bringing out families once a month. Clearwater isn't St. Pete or Tampa yet. It's not even Dunedin. But it's worth keeping an eye on. Don't believe us? Check out tonight's Fourth Friday at 5:30 p.m., or the Japanese Culture and Lantern Festival down the street in Station Square Park. — Jay Cridlin

Tropicana Field

Yes, the Mets and Yankees have opened billion-dollar shrines to the baseball gods in 2009. But the Tampa Bay Rays are doing just fine in their house full of catwalks and cownose rays. Because when the bedomed Minnesota Twins open a new stadium in 2010, the Rays will be the only Major League team with a closed-roof, artificial-turf stadium. You're saying that's not an advantage? The Trop is old school, quirky, befuddling and, yes, endearing. If you don't believe us, just ask Evan Longoria, who homered off the C-ring catwalk during last year's ALDS. Or ask anyone who watched the Rays raise their ALCS pennant (from the catwalk, natch) during a blowout win over the Yankees last week. They Rays don't need a new stadium, and it's not because of taxpayer funds, waterfront ecology or even better attendance through architecture. It's because Tropicana Field is unlike anything else in baseball. No other city has one, because no other city wants one. It's unique — and it's ours. And it's one thing all the money in New York can't buy. — Jay Cridlin

Strip malls

Florida's two most prevalent natural resources: (1) the Everglades, and (2) strip malls. Seriously, the state was practically built atop shopping centers full of mattress stores, beeper shops and nail salons. When Ponce de Leon hit our shores, he probably ate at Blimpie. But while strip malls may be the first architectural eyesores that out-of-towners see when they come here ... is that such a bad thing? Think of all the great restaurants in local strip malls: Yummy House. The Toasted Pheasant (check out that roasted lamb on the left). Cafe Ponte. Savant Fine Dining. Pane Rustica. Jasmine Thai. And the boutiques: If & Only If. World of Beer. Georgette's and Love That! in South Tampa. And the bars: The Pegasus Lounge. Tank's Tap Room. Mr. Dunderbak's. You could build an amazingly cultured city from businesses based in Tampa strip malls. So the next time you head to MasterCuts, explore the rest of the plaza. You might find a treasure. — Jay Cridlin

The Pier

Some argue that it's a tourist trap with overpriced ice cream cones. We don't disagree. But the St. Petersburg icon, which juts a quarter mile into Tampa Bay, is like Mecca for out-of-towners. The inverted pyramid, built in 1973, is a sign to Northerners that they have reached sunny Florida. When they visit you next winter, dazzle them with an outdoor stroll or feeding time with the pelicans. They will consider moving here. For holidays, nothing screams "Hello from the Sunshine State" like a gift from the Pier. Mail a stingray belt to your dad or a "Life is Good" T-shirt to your grandma. And while most of the Pier's food is so-so, even jaded locals know the Columbia Restaurant is nothing to sneeze at. The upscale Spanish eatery offers panoramic views of the sailboats and dolphins below. It's open 365 days a year. — Dalia Colón

Gandy Beach

Any place with Redneck in its name, even its nickname, has got to be suspect. The Redneck Riviera, a.k.a. Gandy Beach, is no exception. The sandy stretch on the Pinellas side of the Gandy Bridge got its name from its reputation as a place where you can pull up your pickup to water's edge, set a cooler on the tailgate and throw back a few brewskis. Regulars once had names like Preacher, Barefoot Jerry, Ranger and Magoo. It's no Clearwater Beach, to be sure — the sand is more like dirt than sugar, and the water more brownish than blue. Sounds of water scooters muffle the waves and seagulls. Hot dog vendors, famous for wearing T-backs, turn heads. But if you're in the mood for the beach without all the hassles, Gandy Beach is just the fix. It's a good choice for Hillsborough residents who dread the long drive to the beach — and longer drive back. — Susan Thurston

John F. Germany Public Library

I'm still baffled by the number of people who cough up money at bookstores and video rental places instead of taking advantage of all the free resources at the downtown Tampa library. The library's range of DVDs, books on CD, magazines and music is superior to what you'll find at community branches. Ever notice how when you check the catalog for, say, a Baby Einstein DVD, you have to special-order it? That's because it's sitting on the shelf at 900 North Ashley Drive. Say what you will about the unsavory vagabonds who loiter in and around the building; I like to think of them as a litmus test to weed out the soft. If it's lattes and overstuffed couches you want, then sorry, this isn't your place. But if you're looking for free, no-frills entertainment, then let me share some DVD titles I found earlier this week on the west wing of the first floor: A Colbert Christmas, 27 Dresses, This American Life: Season 1, Kids in the Hall seasons 1, 2 and 4. — Dalia Colón

The TECO Streetcar

It's certainly not the coolest ride in town. Or the fastest. Or the cheapest. Or the most convenient. But it does serve a purpose. Last year, Tampa's streetcar ferried 440,000 riders between the convention center, Channelside and Ybor City. Not too shabby, given that the city's entire population is about 340,000. If you're amazed at those figures, it's probably because you're one of many locals who have never stepped foot on the streetcar — or even wanted to. Thankfully, out-of-towners keep the streetcar chugging along. Conventioneers, tourists and the fans of all those letter-laden basketball events at the St. Pete Times Forum actually love the little line that could. They don't care that they might have to wait a half an hour and then pay $2.50 — each way — to go 2.4 miles, max. They think it's charming, even fun, and beats renting a car or calling a cab. Besides, what other choices do they have? The trolley fits the bill for any out-of-towner looking for a few hours to kill. Rather than watch some random cousins from Iowa eat through your refrigerator, suggest the streetcar. They'll mistake it for mass transit and tell everybody back home how you live in a big city. — Susan Thurston

Buddy Johnson

If you don't have something nice to say about someone, don't say anything at all. So we'll keep mum about the embattled former Hillsborough supervisor of elections. But we're big fans of Buddy Freddy's, the East Hillsborough homestyle buffet restaurants Johnson owned with his brother Fred. (They still have a hand in the biz, but have taken a back seat.) At breakfast, the spread includes sausage, bacon, fried chicken and waffles, pancakes, French toast and much more. Among the lunch and dinner offerings are baked and fried chicken, vegetables, salads, meatloaf, barbecue ribs, macaroni and cheese, and assorted cobblers for dessert; the same foods are served at lunch and dinner. Save room for the sweet potato casserole, which is billed as a side item but makes an amazing dessert when you top it with vanilla ice cream. (Tip: They keep the ice cream in the back, so you have to ask for it.) Check out the finger-lickin'-good menus at — Dalia Colón

The Beer Can Building

It's kind of sad, really. Over the years, we've reduced one of downtown Tampa's finest buildings to such an uncouth title as the "Beer Can Building.'' Surely, design masters are miffed. But for many locals, there's no disputing: The skyscraper at Ashley and Kennedy, in all its round glory, looks like a beer can. California architect Harry Wolf designed the riverfront building, which opened in 1988. Everything about it was meant to be grand, from the limestone imported from France to the palace-like oversized doors. And the piece de resistance? The unusual circular shape. Admittedly, bank mergers and ownership changes have made it tough to keep up with the highrise's name, currently Rivergate Tower. What has stuck: the "Beer Can Building.'' It's so much part of the local lexicon that during Super Bowl preparations, the owners of Malio's on the ground level considered turning the building into a huge Budweiser ad. Plans never came together, but the idea proves that, call it what you may, in Tampa, it'll always be the Beer Can Building. — Susan Thurston

What else sucks (but also rocks)?

Got a Tampa Bay eyesore or embarrassment you'd like to defend? Tell us about it at [email protected]

10 things that suck (but are secretly awesome) about life in Tampa Bay 04/23/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 23, 2009 10:11pm]
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