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A walk on the river worth the price

In anticipation of roughly a zillion Republicans, protesters, counterprotesters and every know-it-all from the Daily Show to Fox News soon pouring onto the streets of my city, I took a walk.

I wanted a look at the state of the city, so a friend and I started down Tampa's Riverwalk at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, a building that's a good illustration of how downtown seemed to grow up without much thought and is currently trying to right itself. And not doing such a bad job, either.

Sure, today the Straz has bright, colorful lights and signs and music when you walk by, but it started as a dull beige box way back on the edge of the Hillsborough River. Not that you had much chance of seeing the river downtown, since it was shrouded by buildings and parks into which you would not venture past dark.

But now we have a Riverwalk, or at least a modest mile of a planned 2.6-mile ribbon of concrete that would wind from neighborhoods north along the water past hotels and skyscrapers to the movies, restaurants and bars of Channelside down near the aquarium and cruise ships.

Boy. Sounds like an actual city there.

At sprawling Curtis Hixon Park, hands down this town's best spot to show itself off, we saw dogs romping, cafe tables set up outside the two museums and workers setting up tents for something fun in the coming weekend. Downtown workers strolled around, but it was still too chilly for the kids who pack the park to run through the fountains in summer, and we had the playground to ourselves. We got mesmerized by this monkey-bar structure in which you run around hitting lights to best an opponent who is attacking lights of a different color — kind of a full-body Whac-A-Mole.

Along the water, we passed gulls and college crews rowing with the crescent-topped University of Tampa minarets behind them. (Days earlier, a homeless man asked me: Who lives in that castle?)

But the Riverwalk is abruptly unfinished at the Kennedy bridge, throwing you into the rumble of downtown. We picked it up behind the convention center and the Marriott Waterside, where you could just picture those conventioneers happy-houring away, boats and villas as their backdrop.

We wound through another nice park, past the history center (three museums, if you're counting) and ended at Channelside. Even with important chunks of the Riverwalk unfinished, we were charmed.

Then we got some gritty city reality when we forged on to Ybor City for cafe con leche and Cuban toast, because on the way is no river and very little walk, just many cars and trucks that appear intent on mowing you down. There's another reason a city needs a set-aside for those who dare to walk, run or bike.

Back downtown, we came upon busy food trucks serving lunch. At Hixon Park, kids in school uniforms filled the playground, so no chance for a rematch. It was a nice walk anyway.

Even for something that undeniably makes a city better, funding is a slog in this economy. Mayor Bob Buckhorn went to Washington hoping for a $10 million federal grant to help finish the Riverwalk, but Tampa didn't make the cut. He says he'll be ready for the next round of grants and talks of a push for private money, too. Good. Because like the town that won that big convention come fall, the Riverwalk has real promise.

A walk on the river worth the price 01/20/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 20, 2012 8:41pm]

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