When Ed Ross first moved into this neighborhood, his landlord asked him to sign a one-year lease. Ross was reluctant because he figured his stay in the declining neighborhood would be a brief one.
"I said I didn't want a lease because I wasn't going to be here that long," Ross said. "That was 35 years ago and I'm still here."
Ross is the founder and artistic director of Community Stepping Stones, a 7-year-old nonprofit that is slowly transforming one of Tampa's most maligned neighborhoods into an artistic haven.
Largely because of Community Stepping Stones, Sulphur Springs residents can't drive more than a few blocks without encountering an artistic mural. The organization's faculty and students have created murals at Rowlett Park, on the wall of the Springs Theatre, and at Layla's House, a center on the community's northern end that offers parenting training.
The students involved — about 15 participate at any one time — take free classes in an ongoing curriculum that Stepping Stones offers to neighborhood youth.
The classes, in the organization's facility at 1101 E River Cove St., not far from Nebraska Avenue, are intended to introduce youth to the arts, to broaden their perspective on the world, and teach them basic life skills.
Classes include painting, pottery and basketry. This week, students worked on a mosaic project that will involve trash previously collected from area beaches.
Some of the organization's money comes from grants, including a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts that helped pay for the Springs Theatre mural, which depicts the history of an old African-American neighborhood that is now part of Sulphur Springs.
That kind of funding, however, is getting harder to come by, Ross said.
These days, organizers have had to find other ways to generate income, including payment for those murals as well as money from adult classes offered by some of the area's best-known artists.
"We have a bunch of artists, some here and some at their own studios around town, who teach classes in everything from photography to metal sculpture to screenwriting," said former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, who is chairwoman for Community Stepping Stones' board.
"The adult classes are offered at market rate. The artists keep half the money and donate half to Community Stepping Stones," she said. "That's how we pay for the classes for the kids, which are free."
The more advanced Community Stepping Stones students serve as teaching assistants in those adult art classes and receive a stipend for their work. That gives them experience in the arts and in the workplace before they go off to college, Ross said.
Such experience is essential for kids in an area like Sulphur Springs, he said. He has noticed that a lot of the neighborhood teenagers, many of whom come from low-income, transient families, have never learned that a tough demeanor, poor grammar and profanity are inappropriate in the workplace or on a job interview.
"Different situations call for different behaviors," Ross said. "The one example they all get is church. You dress and talk one way among your friends, but you can't dress and talk that way in church."
Some Community Stepping Stones alumni have gone on to study the arts in college, and at least one has become a paid instructor at Community Stepping Stones.
And through its murals and its classes, Community Stepping Stones has helped engender a sense of pride in an neighborhood.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected]