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It's still Tampa, but better

Alongside its closed crab shacks, Palmetto Beach is a mix of families that have been here for generations.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times (2007)

Alongside its closed crab shacks, Palmetto Beach is a mix of families that have been here for generations.

"So, I recently moved."

"Where?"

"Palmetto Beach."

"Where?"

This short exchange has become part of my daily routine since I swapped my sunny one-bedroom apartment in Hyde Park North for a gloomy attic in one of Tampa's hidden and lesser-known neighborhoods.

It's just 3 miles away from my old digs, but nobody seems to know where Palmetto Beach is.

Let me educate you:

Surrounded by the Port of Tampa, Adamo Drive and McKay Bay, this mostly blue-collar community is both a picturesque and somber enclave.

It doesn't feel like Tampa to me. Or at least, the Tampa I've known so far.

My neighbors in Hyde Park North over the past three years included a young male possible prostitute, a 40-year-old grad student, a muscular aspiring firefighter, a skinny drunkard, a Venezuelan sports cameraman, and a bipolar writer who lives off grants.

Besides the cameraman, they all had one thing in common: They were white and spoke only English.

My neighbors in Palmetto Beach include a Cuban male nurse, a Mexican family whose members take turns sitting on the porch couch, a tug boat captain from the Honduran island of Roatan, and a couple of guys from Guatemala who pretend not to speak English ever since they learned I worked for a newspaper.

They all have one thing in common: speaking Spanish.

Me? I'm a native Italian who became a United States citizen earlier this year. Palmetto Beach has the feel of my hometown in Italy, with people walking down the street, to the corner store and waving as they walk by.

Alongside its waterfront DeSoto Park, imposing cigar factories, closed crab shacks and more churches than bars, Palmetto Beach is a mix of families that have been here for generations and know one another.

They remember the old times, when the neighborhood preserved its anonymity as a paradise for fishers. More recently, big investors have tried to push their way in.

An Ikea store is scheduled to open next year. A developer bought out a crab shack that had been around nearly three decades to make room for a waterfront condominium complex. Some residents fear that Palmetto Beach will turn into the next Harbour Island, losing its unique history and the stories that go along with it.

DeSoto Park, for instance, was where President Teddy Roosevelt camped with his Rough Riders before going to battle in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, according to records from the Tampa Bay History Center.

Stoney's Bar, a tavern patronized by sailors and news anchors was once the place to go look for a job because all the big bosses hung out there, residents say.

Some stories are more sordid. The Crab Hut on Bermuda Boulevard, for instance, was once managed by Willie Crain, a crab fisherman who is now awaiting execution for the 1998 slaying of 7-year-old Amanda Brown. Crain is believed to have disposed of the girl's body in one of his crab traps.

Now, for me, Bermuda Boulevard has taken the place of beautiful Bayshore.

Instead of health nuts jogging and listening to their iPods, I'm surrounded by folks fishing blue crabs and having a laugh after work — people actually interacting with each other instead of speeding by one another.

I always thought the distant sight of the TECO plant from the elegant Bayshore mansions to be hideous. Now I can see the McKay Bay Waste-to-Energy Facility's fumes from my deck.

The 24-hour Walgreens has been replaced by Los Amigos, a family-owned grocery store open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Dominican owner sits behind the counter. A big jar of pig feet in an orange liquid sits next to the register.

"Five pesos," he says after ringing me up. (He gladly accepted my dollars instead.)

In Palmetto Beach, I see fewer gas-hungry SUVs and more intimidating tanker trucks flying like bullets on S 22nd Street. I always feel like I'm under attack when I pull into the road.

The heart of the neighborhood is patrolled by cars whose sound systems are more expensive than the cars themselves. Occasionally, I hear the cheerful music of the ice cream truck, which always seems to go too fast for anybody to hail it down.

Here, some kids party harder than I do. One Saturday night, I heard children screaming during a house party way past 2 a.m. Reggaeton blasted louder than on Latin night at Hyde Park Cafe.

I didn't want to be humiliated and hit the sack before those kids did, so I poured myself another glass of wine. It wasn't long before I swallowed my pride and turned the lights off.

I've never been able to fall in love with Tampa; I've always thought it to be a pretentious town. But now that I have discovered Palmetto Beach, I might reconsider.

It's still Tampa, but better 09/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 4:32am]
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