TAMPA — Wildflowers are blooming on a 28-acre plot between downtown and Ybor City, land first settled by freed slaves after the Civil War.
Growing up there, Keisha Hardy heard the stories from those early settlers.
"To know your history, to know what your people have gone through, is so important," she said. Hardy was born on this land, as were her three children.
Hardy was back this week to see how things were progressing at the site. She was joined by about a dozen other former residents of the housing projects known as Central Park Village.
They met in a church across the street from the land to hear the latest word from the Tampa Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Earlier that day, HUD officials presented a $30 million check to the Tampa Housing Authority toward the development.
Besides flowers, seniors have moved into a building, the first in what will be Encore, a neighborhood with public housing and market-value condominiums.
Hardy and the dozen others who had lived in some of the 483 concrete units until they were demolished in 2007 were promised new homes in Encore.
Since moving out, Hardy has been living in Belmont Heights Estates.
At the meeting, she learned that HUD's Choice Neighborhood Grant will pay for services for residents such as job training, behavioral and mental health, and a wellness center.
Hardy and her children each have disabilities and have to ride buses to doctors appointments and for simple chores such as grocery shopping. Hardy prays for a car. And for her new home in Encore, where these services and better transportation options will make her life easier.
The grant is for a new skate park, playground and multipurpose field at Perry Harvey Park, and an early Head Start program and free after-school care and tutors. It will also pay for a 2.5-acre urban farm next to the future Meacham Middle School.
It will renovate the 1921 St. James Church into a computer lab, and later, an African-American history museum. That is really important to Hardy.
"Our children need to know where they came from," she said.
Construction is planned to start on two more buildings in the coming months. All are certified silver by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. A storm water vault will be covered with 1,600 square feet of solar panels that will run the neighborhood's street lights.
For now, the fields with flowers are bordered by paved streets lined with palm trees, and marked with street signs: Ray Charles Boulevard and Hank Ballard Street, a nod to the musical roots of the area.
"Music tells the story of our lives," Hardy said.
As of December, nearly 300 former residents were still eligible to return.
But most move on, Housing Authority chief executive officer Jerome Ryans said. He expects fewer than 20 percent will return, he said.
"If you have a desire to come back, please come back," he said at the meeting. "But as we told you earlier, there are rules and regulations. We all know what Central Park was like years ago. It was trouble."
It was known for drugs and gangs, but it was also a friendly neighborhood, Hardy said.
"It's what you make of it," she said.
She remembers sitting on the porch of an old woman eating gingerbread cookies and listening to stories as raindrops pinged on a tin roof. The woman rocked on the porch and told of the days when she cooked turtle stew on a stove outside at the end of her house. There were cookouts with barbecue and chitlins, black-eyed peas, collard greens, corn bread and neck bones.
She heard about the bustling black business corridor on Central Avenue, where you could get anything.
Hardy also heard about slavery. Sometimes she wondered if the stories were real.
Today, she keeps these memories close to her heart.
Officials told her the building she can move into will be ready in January.
"We've always lived here," she said. "This land is part of our heritage."
She can't wait to be back.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.