Merchants hanging on until day when West Main Street lives up to its name

Published April 16 2018

TAMPA — Life still happens outdoors on Main Street.

Jay Smith details a black SUV on the side of the road using a portable generator for his vacuum and power-washer. An older man in a folding chair gets a haircut in the sun. The open door of a store with no name or cash register reveals a heated game of dominoes inside.

But it’s harder now to see the traces of the once eclectic and vibrant neighborhood that for decades was the heart of West Tampa’s black community.

More than 2,300 people moved away in the past two years after the demolition of two aging public housing complexes — Tampa Presbyterian Village and North Boulevard Homes. Main Street lost its only bus route in November and the number of children at the local elementary school has dwindled.

Some business owners say it’s now like a ghost town, in danger of losing its soul.

Long-standing businesses like Fourth of July Cafe have closed their doors while others struggle to adjust to the loss of foot traffic as sales have dropped by as much as 50 percent.

New homes and stores will come eventually. The $350 million West River urban renewal project promises a walkable, mixed-income neighborhood of apartment blocks and neighborhood parks.

But residents fear that what emerges won’t be a place where you pull up a chair on the side of the street, where you can always find a neighbor willing to lend you a dollar.

And they fear they will be priced out.

"This is our community and they’re pushing us away," said Bernadine Anthony, who works on Main Street and lived in Tampa Presbyterian Village until it was torn down in 2016.

The loss of so many residents from a community will inevitably affect businesses, said Leroy Moore, the Tampa Housing Authority’s chief financial officer. But when new construction starts in May, hundreds of workers will come to the area every day and spend money there, Moore said.

And he bristles at the suggestion that West River is a plan to gentrify the area.

There will be 820 homes for low-income families, the same number lost in the demolition of North Boulevard Homes. They will be accompanied by hundreds of market-priced homes to avoid creating a pocket of poverty, Moore said.

"You want a diverse community but you don’t want to replace working or low-income families with a higher income or different ethnic population," he said. "That has never been the aim or result of any of our projects."

Still, Ricardo Castro, who opened upscale "artisan bakery" Piquant on the corner of Main and North Howard Avenue about a year ago, sees a neighborhood on the cusp of change.

Customers for his croissants, pastries and sandwiches are treated to piped-in French pop music. Castro notes the "promising sign" of Bentleys and Teslas in the bakery’s parking lot.

"A lot more people from the south side of Kennedy (Boulevard) are moving here."

• • •

Pictures of Malcolm X and James Bond hang in Foster’s Barber Shop, where owner Ben Wright is sweeping hair off the floor.

He is too young to remember West Tampa’s cigar-factory heyday in the early 20th Century.

At that time, West Tampa was Florida’s fifth largest city. It was annexed by the city of Tampa in 1925 and then hit by the Great Depression and the closure of the cigar factories.

But Wright does remember many of the mom-and-pop barber shops, bodegas, meat markets and diners that sprang up to cater to black and Hispanic families who snapped up affordable homes in the area after World War II.

Some became neighborhood mainstays like Bar-B-Que King, which opened on Main Street in the 1960s.

Foster’s Barber Shop was another.

Owner Nathaniel Foster used to give free haircuts to poor kids. The community repaid him with free labor and materials when he was denied a loan for a new shop, Wright said.

After roughly 50 years in business, Foster died in November and Wright took over the shop. He has seen his trade go down by about 20 percent, mostly from the loss of walk-in customers, he said.

Wright remains confident Foster’s will survive. His customers are comfortable with its classic 1970s barbershop feel, he said. But if he senses that his clientele is changing, he plans to remodel and modernize.

"You’ve got to be able to embrace it and blend in," he said. "I’m a chameleon."

Other business and institutions are also trying to figure out the new landscape of Main Street.

Thang Nguyen, part owner of Crab Master, has seen a decline in sales of Dungeness crabs, lobster, mullet, red snapper and other seafood. The store is now concentrating more on wholesale customers.

Business at Levelz, a unisex hairdresser, has plummeted by 50 percent, mostly from the loss of walk-in customers, said owner Terraine Wright.

Nestled into the north side of North Boulevard, Just Elementary School taught generations of the neighborhood’s children.

Its enrollment has fallen from 627 children in 2013 to 342 this year.

That has been a mixed blessing, said Ire Carolina, principal since 2014.

Smaller classes mean students get more one-on-one time. The school’s grade has risen from a D to a B in the past two years.

But two classrooms are permanently empty and, this year, the district cut three of the school’s instructional coaches. District officials say there are no plans to close or consolidate the school, but that has not stopped rumors.

"When North Boulevard Homes was closing, people were very apprehensive," Carolina said. "A lot of people want their kids to come here."

On the north side of Main Street, Shalonda Roberts gets ready for the lunch crowd at her 813 Salads & Seafood diner.

Roberts started selling her lobster and shrimp concoctions just over three years ago because she loves to cook. To stay afloat, she has focused more on deliveries. Uber Eats has been a godsend. She offers discounts through online service Groupon to draw more customers from outside the neighborhood.

"I’m trying to stick it out until everything comes back," Roberts said.

Her family has lived around Main Street for two generations. Her grandfather used to play chess and checkers on park benches. Now, Main Street is eerily quiet, she said. There’s fewer people. The No. 7 bus no longer trundles down the street.

"It doesn’t feel the same. It’s bland, like a ghost town."

• • •

Few would argue that the area around Main Street needed redevelopment.

Built in the 1940s, the barrack-style structures of North Boulevard Homes were dilapidated. Many had no air-conditioning.

And there had been little investment in the surrounding neighborhood over the past 40 years.

In 2015, when the city created a West Tampa redevelopment zone, it was one of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods. The crime rate was 1 1/2 times higher than the city average and more than twice as many structures than average rated "fair’’ or ‘’poor." Large areas lacked sidewalks and decent street lighting. The median annual income of people here — two-thirds of them African-American, 20 percent Hispanic — was less than $19,000.

The redevelopment designation means new property taxes collected from within the area can be funneled to sidewalks and street lighting.

So far, the taxes have brought in about $1 million in two years. But that money has largely remained unspent while a citizens advisory committee draws up a five-year plan for how to improve the area. The group is chaired by Joe Robinson, a local engineer and businessman who has lived in West Tampa since he was a child.

Robinson said West River will help provide needed affordable housing but points out that the project goes no farther west than Rome Avenue.

More investment will be needed in what he describes as the "rough" stretch of Main between Albany and Howard avenues.

"You’ve got loitering, you’ve got drug sales going on and open container drinking," Robinson said. "You can’t get new people to come in and start businesses with all that at your front door."

The revenue the district has raised could be used to improve store facades and other street improvements on Main Street. The district should start producing more property taxes in the next few years with construction and other investment, said Bob McDonaugh, Tampa’s economic development chief.

Groundbreaking is scheduled for May on a seven-story apartment block for seniors with ground floor retail. Soon to follow is rehabilitation of the eight-story Mary McLeod Bethune senior housing tower. A third apartment block with 118 units at Willow Avenue and Main Street could also break ground this year.

Private-sector homes also have sprung up, including town homes built by Lennar on the south side of Interstate 275.

And the area will benefit from the city’s $35.5 million outlay on remaking Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, scheduled for a grand opening May 12.

"That’s a recreational facility that shows that we’re serious about investment in that community," McDonaugh said.

New customers can’t come soon enough for Bar-B-Que King.

Amelia Howard’s great-grandfather, James Bloomfield, started the takeout-only business on Main Street about 60 years ago in a tiny storefront where it still operates today.

Ribs and chicken are wood smoked in a brick pit in one corner of the shop. A pile of hickory logs are piled outside.

Until a few years ago, it would be open until 4 or 5 a.m. weekends to feed people coming out of nearby nightclubs. Now it closes by about 1 a.m.

Howard said Bar-B-Que King has seen nearby businesses come and go.

"We’re like the last ones standing."

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times