"Don't walk too far away from here. It gets seedy as hell."
— A not-so-kind assessment overheard at the Marriott Waterside in downtown Tampa last week from a Republican National Committee member here planning next year's gig.
Ouch. Is that really the impression we've already made on one of the up to 50,000 visitors expected to descend on Tampa next August for a political party akin to several Super Bowls? Seedy?
"Are you sure they didn't mean 'scenic?' " Tampa police Chief Jane Castor wanted to know, pointing out museums, parks, the Riverwalk and other perfectly respectable downtown offerings. "That comment must have come from a Salt Lake or Phoenix delegate still sore over not landing the RNC."
Now, we surely do not want to question the sensibilities of our guests, even the type who show up at a party to nose through the medicine cabinet and poke under the dust ruffles, but seedy?
We prefer "gritty."
We hope, Mr. RNC Guy, next time you're here you venture out for a glimpse of some pockets of pretty-nice. You can do this with one hand clamped on your wallet and the other around the beefy bicep of a fellow delegate, if it helps, though in fact, crime in Tampa was down 12.4 percent last year and 61.5 percent over the last eight. But, yes, we deal with the same crushing economy, unemployment and homelessness as other towns. Maybe even your own.
But, no, those are not extras hired to stroll along the river at Curtis Hixon Park, not leashed show dogs parading past our Thai, Spanish, French, American and you-name-it restaurants, not child actors cavorting in those interactive fountains on Ashley Drive. But, boy, it took time to get this far. Only a few years back, you'd sooner see a tumbleweed after hours than a real live downtown resident.
We are still a downtown where you regularly hear the lonesome whistle of a train passing through, though not a sleek, modern commuter train carrying people to and from work. (Not that town just yet.) At Channelside, you can look beyond the great glass aquarium, the bars and bright white cruise ships to see a working port with tugs and freighters moving busily in the channel.
Ybor City to your east is the best place for, yes, partying, but also historic grit served with a cafe con leche or a Cuban. The old bricks and iron that house the hot clubs and restaurants also say something about our roots. Few cities boast the blend of Cuban, Spanish, Italian and other immigrants who came and worked and settled, who lived in tiny casitas and rolled cigars or opened businesses, families whose names live on in our prominent doctors, lawyers and politicians.
From your hotel, you might have looked over to Harbour Island, home to the well-heeled, and so close to downtown where President Gerald Ford once hit a golf ball across the channel. (With a 7 iron. I know you political types like your golf.) Not bad for an island formerly home to rattlesnakes and wild pigs.
Should you want more pretty than gritty, cross the bridge to St. Petersburg, where downtown also means green space, boats and its own particular artiness, and where, truth be told, they have long known how to live downtown.
Dissing Visitor, we hope you'll come back to see what makes Tampa Tampa. Grit and all.