MAIN STREET, TAMPA BAY

m 5000 Main Street N, St. Petersburg

Here, where St. Petersburg's pavement turns to dirt road, men measure time in beer. Replacing a carburetor takes about three beers. Welding a damaged chassis ... 13 beers.

Each of their man caves has a stock car or mud truck, all the power tools they need to care for them, and a decade's worth of racing trophies. None have a clock. Every weekday Wayne Whitehead punches out from his nine-to-five job at a local packaging distributor. At that same moment, the others are punching out from their blue-collar jobs: selling used appliances, working on cars, selling car parts. Their brotherhood was forged after the nine-to-five workday in thousands of nights together fixing each other's cars, hearing each other's stories, and picking each other up in hard times. Whitehead takes a drag off a Marlboro light and points out that his perfect Main Street is a dead end. All the guys agree that they feel completely disenfranchised.

"You want to get to a place where you make enough to save a little something, go on a vacation, have some money to put into your car, a little extra for retirement, you know, like you can do the kinds of things your parents did.

"But it seems like we're all just not quite making enough. I make about $50,000 a year, maybe a little less, and I'm not complaining ... but it's like we all just got stuck here," he says, marking a spot in front of his eyes with his hand, "and just can't get here," he says, raising his hand an inch.

Richard Bartolo, from the garage next door, pokes his head around the corner, opens the fridge and asks, "Can I grab one of your beers?"



, 2135 W. Main Street, West Tampa

When baby-faced recent high school graduate Melvin Gouse came to Tampa in 1959 to work with his mother at Morrison's Cafeteria, the lunch counter was still segregated. But West Tampa was another world. Gouse, who is going blind, remembers walking down Main Street for the first time. There were more new faces out on the street that day than he had seen in all his years growing up in rural Haines City. And in a world still ruled by Jim Crow laws, he was surprised how everybody's money seemed to spend the same. It was easy to walk into Jack's Corner Store and join the line to buy one of their famous penny oatmeal cookies or 13-cent hot dogs. Anyone, black, Italian or Cuban, could pick out a live chicken at Raymond's Chicken Shack and watch him wring its neck before cooking it up.

"I really liked it the way it was then. Main Street was bristling with businesses, nice houses with nice picket fences. It was much more alive." Gouse, 72, is a man with no reason to rush. An easy minute of domino clicking goes by as a dozen old, equally unhurried men play their pieces.

"It's not as alive as it was then. There is more of a bar crowd now. I guess it gets alive at night but there's not much to do here in the daytime." He lets another minute drift by. "What did it in was that urban renewal" — the highway that cut through his community half a century ago.

Does he hold any hope that Main Street will come back?

"Maybe if some of these people who are 40 or 50 could get a small business loan then they could open up some businesses here like we use to have. A nice clothing store, a little pharmacy, a nice little restaurant. But who's giving small business loans these days?"

m 325 Main Street, Dunedin

In 1982, Bob Moore put his life on a slow, quiet revolutionary path when he put a sign outside a failing bar he managed in Dayton, Ohio: "We cater to gay clientele. If you do not like it turn around and leave."

"Pretty soon 1470 West became the biggest gay bar in the Midwest."

Fast forward to 1990 and a little Florida downtown lined with empty shops. "There was very little in Dunedin then," he says. "There was a little hamburger place, a florist, a travel agency, and empty lots."

Moore's boss bought out a local bar and opened 1470 in Dunedin. Gay. Loud. Proud. Smack in the middle of Main Street. Moore moved down from Ohio to manage the club, which has since been renamed Blur.

"Back then we got a lot of people yelling faggot, and this and that. Whatever," says Natasha Richards, who has been show director and emcee with the bar for 22 years. "Now it's a wonderful life every day in Dunedin. We are overwhelmed with love."

So how does that happen?

"Meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting," they agree.

City Council meetings, home association meetings, merchants' association meetings. They listened and persevered. Then listened and persevered some more.

"Main Street represents a way, an example, of people working through their differences to reach a common goal," Moore says. "Look at what this city has done. Around the country people are unemployed, factories are closed. How many other Main Streets have collapsed?"

Dunedin has Bluesfest, Second Friday Art Walks, movies in the park, a Sunset Music series, and claims the third largest Mardi Gras in the nation.

Richards sees a difference. She wouldn't feel safe on every Main Street in the country.

"This Main Street isn't Walt Disney World," Richards says. "You go to places like that to forget your troubles. You come to a place like this to deal with your troubles. You can deal with controversy here. This isn't a fantasy here, this is reality. And we're proud of our reality."



⁄ 5901 Main Street, New Port Richey

Dr. Frederick A. Grassin's world view begins with mitochondria, the "power plants" of living cells. If the mitochondria are doing their job, their energy makes the cell healthy. Energy from healthy cells flows together to make a healthy person, and energy from healthy people can flow into a healthy community. Human cells and Main Streets, he notes, are not so far apart, and they follow the same basic rules.

"When we speak of Main Street there is something of value for each person. A sense of 'This is my Main Street. This is what I represent,' " he says.

No one would doubt Dr. Grassin is mitochondria for downtown New Port Richey. The 88-year-old planted his practice on Main Street in 1961. He charged $3 for a visit, $5 for a house call. He has resisted big-box trends in medicine. He favors long-term relationships with patients; he spends between half an hour and an hour with each one. He always asks the same question; "What is the real reason you came to see me today?"

"We're sitting on a volcano every day. 'Where is the next dollar coming from for my kid's education, for retirement?' People are just so worried about the next dollar, about their home, about making it through the month."

When politicians talk about connecting with Main Street, Grassin's diagnosis is that they are talking about an essential ingredient missing from a healthy America. Trust.

"Now a doctor sees patients all day, but treats no one. He's seen 70 patients in a day and he's made a corporation a ton of money. Spend your life like that and you'll look back and realize you never practiced medicine. (So) patients don't trust doctors. See how trust disappears? That's what's bothering me."



m 10 S. Main Street, Brooksville

On Oct. 22, 1998, at 8 a.m., John Callea began to suspect he didn't actually have it all.

He had a wife, a family, a huge house in Denver with picture windows overlooking the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. He was president of his own company. On a good week he made $60,000, betting other people's money.

"I was a legalized bookie. We were gambling. Most of the time we basically guessed. Well, we guessed pretty good," he says, "but I never had peace."

Listening to a fellow fund manager talk about Jesus Christ, "I could see he had it. Taking risk was our job, and I thought, 'What's my downside?' If he's right I get eternal peace. If he's wrong, I'm just another guy who tries religion."

He took the plunge.

"And bam! Damascus Road," he says, referring to the conversion of Paul the apostle. He stopped drinking, stopped cursing, and stopped putting all his energy into investment banking. He lost his edge. By 2000 his company was raided. In 2001 he divorced. In 2005 he declared bankruptcy.

"Looking back, it was the answer to my prayers, because I would have never quit," he says. "Nobody in this country is talking much about the sins of greed and gluttony."

In October 2006 he got involved with a homeless ministry based out of Rising Sun Cafe in Brooksville. He fell in love with Lisa, one of the owners. On Christmas of that same year they married, and have spent most every day since in the cafe offering a hand to anyone who needs help.

"My wife and I don't take any money. We eat, but that's what we get out of it. I make less today than I've ever made as an adult, but I'm richer," he says. "Jesus summarized the whole Bible in one passage. 'Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.' That's what makes a community, and we've lost that."



⁄ 737 Main Street, Safety Harbor

Jessica Faircloth was raised in foster homes because of abuse and has no family in her life. Margaret Gillespie, whose severe aggression can destroy a room in minutes, is estranged from her family. Frankie Fatigate's mother died in a car crash. Marisol Aponte's mother has terminal lupus. They have disabilities and they are alone in the world.

Fortunately, they have Bonnie Jo Hill, a former teacher at Paul B. Stephens Exceptional Student Education Center. Hill, a teacher at the school for 13 years, watched each of them graduate. At that point they age out of the system, and the hardest cases have nowhere to go.

She knows for many of them constancy is key. Without it, years of hard work can disappear in frustration and bad behavior patterns. Hill knew she could be that constant. And if she didn't who would? So in 2004 she retired and opened a group home. Today she has three homes and a day care program on Main Street.

"We're basically Paul B. Stephens graduate school," the 62-year-old jokes.

No one who needs her is turned away, or goes without. For years she and the teachers packed lunches for students at their own expense, waived tuition and dug into their own pockets for art supplies.

Then on March 31, 2011, Gov. Rick Scott used his emergency powers to order the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which was $170 million in debt, to cut payments to group homes and social workers by 15 percent. Facing protests, the governor later restored the cuts, but the agency's budget is still under fire. Hill was faced with cutting staff. She estimates she has lost about $40,000 in operating expenses.

"For liability, the health and safety of the kids you have to keep the staff. Without them we'll have people eloping and running into traffic, tearing up rooms, inflicting harm on themself," she says, "The teaching ratio now for clients in wheelchairs is three clients to one teacher. How does one person push three wheelchairs?"

Since the cuts began Hill says she put in $25,000 of her retirement to meet payroll. It's money she will never get back.

"Somebody has to speak for them. They didn't ask to be born with a condition," Hill reasons. "In the case of the elderly on Social Security, mentally retarded people and children, people have to be able to make decisions for them. I don't think the bad economy should affect them. They haven't made bad decisions … but they take the hardest cuts. That's not right."

This election is about Main Street. But pundits and politicians usually mean that metaphorically. Yet here in Tampa Bay many towns do have an actual Main Street, a place where someone somewhere in time hoped and planned for a community's heart to beat. Here are some reports from Tampa Bay's Main Streets.

MAIN STREET, TAMPA BAY 08/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 25, 2012 5:30am]

    

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