Bums, beer bottles, boarded up buildings — the vista on Seventh Avenue hasn't changed much since Marcie Hoffman Porges opened her art gallery in November 1989.
So why is she such an optimist? What makes her a winner in a reality show that might be called Survivor: Ybor City?
"Common sense, natural stamina, patience," said Hoffman Porges, 55.
The attributes keep her offering museum-quality archival framing and art exhibitions at her two-story showroom at 1907 E Seventh Ave. Her permanent collection includes antique engravings, 1940s-50s American "cheesecake" pinups, botanicals and zoological art.
"And good instincts — or dumb luck. I've never taken a business course in my life."
She adamantly defends the historic area's retail viability, and it's brand: "authentic hip," she calls it.
"It's not a mall,'' she said, "but people come to town and say, 'Where's that artsy place?' "
Hoffman Porges founded and was the first president of Ybor Entertainment and Arts Association. She also organized and sold cement pavers for the Ybor Chamber of Commerce. The octagonal blocks engraved with donors' names dot the sidewalks from Third to 20th streets.
"Marcie was ahead of the curve,'' said Tom Keating, director of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, calling her a visionary of retail creative arts.
These days, Hoffman Porges said, her contribution to Ybor's economy is just keeping her doors open.
"People don't know what they have here,'' she said. "Ybor's like a pie, and all you see is crust. You have to cut it open, look at all the great ingredients and take a taste."
Of course, she would have liked city officials to have capitalized on the small-gallery culture instead of alcohol-based businesses. "But they didn't understand the value to nurturing mixed-use development," she said.
She doesn't dwell on missed opportunities.
Instead, she's gratified to associate with a buzzing base of creative workers making a living in Ybor City as photographers, architects, urban planners, Web developers, graphic artists and public relations writers.
"I believe things happen for the best reasons,'' she said. "Maybe a bunch of junky T-shirt places would not have been for the best."
Hoffman Porges lived in Chicago until her parents divorced. After that, she split her time between high schools in Los Angeles and Miami. From 1972 to 1976, she studied printmaking, painting and sculpture preparation at Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
"Then I came back and hung out at a bunch of different university art departments. No degrees,'' she said, "lots of germinating.''
She worked as a portrait artist in California for a while, but says self-absorbed clients drove her to a job at a frame-it-yourself franchise. In four months, she learned the trade, then moved to Miami and opened the Upstairs Gallery in 1978.
She met Ron Porges, then vice president of a liqueur distributor in Tampa, at a club in Coconut Grove. They married in 1985, sold the gallery and moved to Harbour Island. They built their home in Ballast Point a decade ago.
From January 1991 until 2003, Hoffman Porges also owned Ovo Cafe, next door to the gallery, despite having no restaurant experience.
"I won a state lottery for a liquor license and found out I couldn't sell it until it had been active for three years," she said.
She's only half-kidding when she says she chose the name Ovo to save on signs because it reads the same whether you're inside or outside the restaurant. The pun potential was great, too, she said, "like Ovo board and Ovo dose.''
Following her nose at a restaurant trade show in Orlando led to Ovo's signature dish, hot Belgian waffles.
"I smelled something wonderful, and it turned out to be waffles,'' she recalled.
"The waffle iron was free if you bought their batter.'' The idea to add a scoop of ice cream and a splash of liqueur on top came to her while driving home.
"Opening a restaurant with no experience, that's so totally Marcie,'' said Mary Kelley Hoppe, a friend and client. "She's the consummate entrepreneur."
The Porgeses opened and later sold two more Ovo Cafes, in St. Petersburg and Sarasota. She still keeps a yellowed news clipping taped inside a drawer, lauding her venture as Tampa's bet for the 1990s. Ybor City's gosh posh cheeky chic place to be seen … exclusive salads and the best pierogies this side of Poland.
"I've seen so many small businesses come and go, much to my chagrin," Hoffman Porges said.
One of these days, it will be her turn. The gallery is for sale, and she plans to head west, to build a studio on property they own near Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks in southern Utah. She wants to paint, consult and curate.
"Ybor is an anomaly,'' she said, "and that's as true as the first time I set foot on these sidewalks to this moment.
"I'm also an anomaly. Maybe that's why I fit so well down here."
Amy Scherzer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3332.