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Celebration marks centennial of revitalized Seminole Heights community

SEMINOLE HEIGHTS

They would eat fruit from backyard trees and watch movies at the Seminole Theatre.

They would swing from a rope tied to a tree along the Hillsborough River, dropping into the murky water where alligators lurked. And once, a roguish teenage band called the River Rats brought in a 12-footer.

They would visit the gypsies, who camped along that river every year, singing and dancing around fires.

They were among the first children to grow up in Seminole Heights.

A century ago the subdivision was the newest neighborhood to push the rural fringe of Tampa. Today people move here for reasons similar to those back in the day: affordable bungalows, the river, the parks and the sense of community.

Neighbors will gather Saturday to celebrate Seminole Heights' 100th birthday. The party is a collaboration of four neighborhood associations that represent the nearly 5-square-mile community. The people will span generations and, no doubt, talk about a variety of experiences in one of the area's oldest neighborhoods.

Margaret McAlister, 87, was born in a bungalow built by her father at the corner of Miami and Henry avenues.

She will come with her childhood friend, Peggy Doll, 86.

Marisa and Chance Langford moved in seven years ago, when she was pregnant with their first and looking for a neighborhood fit to raise a family.

They will bring their three kids, among Seminole Heights' newest crop.

• • •

A hundred years ago, the city of Tampa was growing and a streetcar line had recently stretched from the city core 6 miles north to Sulphur Springs, where tourists flocked to soak in "healing waters."

Meanwhile, yellow fever epidemics spurred those living in lower lying areas to move to land on higher ground, known then as the heights.

Real estate developer T. Roy Young saw an opportunity. He bought 40 acres 3 miles north of the city, along the new streetcar route. He divided it into lots and named it Seminole Heights.

Ernest Paul Smith bought one in 1922. His wife had died four years earlier from yellow fever.

He built his bungalow and moved in with his second wife, Bethel Lane. McAlister, their daughter, was born there the next year.

She remembers her parents and grandparents discussing the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression, but never remembers being hungry. Her father was a hunter and a fisherman with six types of fruit growing in the back yard. He shared his bounty with neighbors.

Peggy Doll lived a block away. They begged ice chips from the iceman, ringing a bell as he drove his horse and wagon through back alleys, delivering 25-pound blocks of ice.

McAlister got her first job at 14 playing an organ during church services. She went to Hillsborough High School, built in 1927, and helped her father in his florist shop on weekends.

She counts at least 32 relatives that graduated from the school. "There might be more," she says.

One was her younger brother, Ernest Paul Jr., a violinist who, at 20, was drafted into World War II. He died when his truck ran over an explosive. Her parents never got over his death, McAlister said.

Another alum was her cousin, Julian Lane, who served as Tampa's mayor from 1959 to '63.

McAlister never left the neighborhood, raising six children in a house that she and her husband bought. Today, she plays the organ at First Presbyterian Church on Zack Street, a job she started in 1947.

In the 1960s the construction of what is now Interstate 275 sliced through Seminole Heights, rending the fabric of the community. Her parents still lived in the home they built, a block from the highway.

Some say the I-275 project stole the neighborhood's sense of community. Property values dived and people moved out.

In 1988, as the city planned to widen Hillsborough Avenue, neighbors banded together to form the area's first association, Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association. This time, they wanted a say in the roadways that impact their neighborhood.

"It was the beginning of the uniting of the neighborhoods," said Evan St. Ives, OSHNA president. St. Ives bought and restored a house about to be condemned in 1983.

Today, three other groups have joined OSHNA in representing the area: South Seminole Heights, Southeast Seminole Heights and Hampton Terrace.

• • •

Before hip restaurants moved into the area, like the Refinery and Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe, a real estate agent told the Langfords the neighborhood was up and coming.

It was 2004. They were drawn to the historic homes with wraparound porches and concrete columns, and the details: fireplaces that they would rarely use and heartwood pine floors.

Unlike the cookie-cutter beige suburbs, the homes come with histories that span generations of babies learning to walk on those floors and families watching sunsets from porch swings.

The Langfords wanted to raise their children near parks, a library and other young couples. They found a two-story house built in 1928 with a nice front yard.

It's easy to get anywhere in Tampa in 15 minutes, said Marisa, 32. She likes going to concerts in local parks and the neighborhood Sunday Morning Market at Hillsborough High School.

"We all love living in Seminole Heights for a number of reasons," said Marisa. "We take pride in restoring the historic homes, in bringing back life to a neighborhood that is so great."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

Seminole Heights:

100 Years

The Seminole Heights Centennial Celebration will be from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Seminole Heights Garden Center, 5800 N Central Ave.

There will be storytelling, a pinata, animal balloons, face painting, music by Genghis Flan and birthday cake. Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe and the Taco Bus will provide food at minimal cost. Everything else will be free.

Celebration marks centennial of revitalized Seminole Heights community 09/15/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 15, 2011 5:31am]

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