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Sue Carlton: A city's identity in ghosts on the river

It is fair to say Tampa is a town lacking in identity, at least in the eyes of outsiders.

Boring we are not, with our penchant for weird crime, our ability to attract a Republican National Convention, and our pluck in getting into a smack-down with Miami over the proper ingredients in a Cuban sandwich.

But sometimes I think the world sees Tampa as that city in Florida's middle-to-the-left, without Orlando mouse ears or Miami cosmopolitan culture to make it memorable; flat, soulless and dull. This is not so.

We have the same ugly highways and strip malls as everyone else, but also beautiful brick streets and noble old cigar factories. And a history they do not.

When Tampa does catch America's eye — as your town will, when it turns out to be the backdrop for socialites and four-star generals — those national wags don't seem to know us from Jacksonville. Because who are we?

And so in a related note, a quiet piece of Tampa history is soon to rise along the city's nearly finished Riverwalk in the form of statues of the earliest people who helped make this town.

No, this will not stop late night pundits from having their fun with us. It will be interesting still.

Tampa attorney Steve Anderson knows his city's identity crisis. A couple of mayors ago, he brought up immortalizing those who shaped this place. Nominees were winnowed by local historians, created by an artist in clay and bronze and trimmed in the kind of delicately strong wrought iron that graces Ybor City still. The first six are unveiled Tuesday.

It's a lineup from all corners: Clara Frye, a nurse who turned her home into a hospital for the black community. Vicente Martinez-Ybor, and yes, that Ybor. The Mound Builders, here long before Ponce de Leon, to be placed in the Riverwalk park that honors American Indians. James McKay, pioneer cattleman. Henry Plant, who brought the railroad and our most beautiful and recognizable building, the one with the minarets. Ella Chamberlain, fierce pioneer of women's rights.

I'm picturing future packs of school kids holding up their cell phones to the squiggly square QR code on that last one, puzzled. Women's rights? You only hope the concept of having to fight for them will sound that strange.

So call me a field trip nerd, but I like the idea of a quiet walk of history on the river.

Over the years they plan to add statues, paid for by donations and grants to Friends of the Riverwalk. They want historic folk of positive influence, so probably no bronzed Santo Trafficante or county commissioners taken away in handcuffs in the 1980s bribery scandal. Though you could argue they made a mark, too. (A rogue's gallery off to the side, maybe?)

The person has to have been dead at least 15 years — to take potential politics out of it, Anderson says. They might want to soften on that one. Already people are calling for Sam Gibbons, who died in October, our congressman who had something to do with pretty much everything important around here.

Okay, so maybe Jon Stewart won't stroll along perusing our statues next time he's in town on his pre-mocking-us walk. But grade-school kids will wander the river on field trips, and out-of-towners and locals will sit beside statues of long-gone people whose names grace parks, bridges and buildings, maybe knowing a little more about what made the town they're in.

Sue Carlton: A city's identity in ghosts on the river 12/07/12 [Last modified: Friday, December 7, 2012 9:30pm]
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