Friday, February 23, 2018
Politics

Downtown residents share streets and airspace with the RNC

TAMPA

On Harbour Island this week, residents fell asleep to the hum of helicopters and awakened to barricades. In the Channel District, pet dogs learned new detours, and a security sweep interrupted gym workouts. In some ways, the Republican National Convention is like an obnoxious neighbor who blocks driveways, carries guns and stays up late. But this neighbor also hands out super-cool Secret Service flag pins to the kids. And residents aren't complaining. It's not all bad, living in the shadows of the convention in the neighborhoods that make up downtown Tampa's waterfront. It's just a little bizarre.

"I would say it's almost post-apocalyptic," said Kyle McDowell, 37, who lives in the Towers of Channelside. "There's certain streets with these big metal walls up and guys with machine guns just hanging there, and you have to talk to them before you go through."

To the south of the convention site, across a channel, is Harbour Island, an enclave of condominiums and gated communities, home to 3,500 people, a yacht club, athletic club, Westin hotel and several small restaurants.

Ann and Denny Cieslak live there on the 17th floor of the 20-story Plaza, with a view, these days, of all things Republican.

For weeks, they watched through binoculars.

"It's kind of like your next-door neighbor is throwing a big party," Ann Cieslak said, "except you're not invited."

Some neighbors left town ahead of the convention, fearful they would be stranded by heavy traffic, checkpoints and the closure of a key bridge to Franklin Street. Only two lanes of the remaining Beneficial Drive bridge would be open.

Barbara Kazem, 68, lives on the Plaza's fifth floor. She and her husband, who enjoy walks to dinner and being part of downtown Tampa, didn't want to miss the excitement.

"The first night we went out, it was a mess," she said. "It took us twice as long to get downtown. We had to go through areas of Tampa I'd never seen before."

Sonya Hawkins, a pharmacist who lives on Harbour Island with her husband, Jay, tried to take their 2-year-old son to Kate Jackson Park.

"It took me an hour," she said.

On a trip to the dentist, they got stuck in a protest march.

"What can you do about it?" she said. "It's an inconvenience for a week, but it's really cool to see how things have changed and everybody that's here. One of the Secret Service guys gave our little guy a pin with an American flag. That's really nice."

Residents expected worse.

Much worse.

"As far as the traffic goes, the city did a tremendous job," Ann Cieslak said.

Harbour Island didn't get occupied by protesters. And the delegates, as a group, make less noise than hockey fans.

"We have nothing to complain about," said Ismail Kazem, 81, Barbara's husband.

He's a registered Republican. She once campaigned for Barry Goldwater, a conservative, but became a Democrat to back Barack Obama.

The Kazems see benefits to the convention that outweigh any inconvenience.

Back in the Channel District, a short trip over the Beneficial Bridge, others said the same.

"The daily lives are turned upside down, but that was expected," said Mark Maxwell, a 48-year-old business analyst. "Fortunately, I can work at home all week."

It's a crazy week, he said, but just one week.

"We treated it like a hurricane," said Jim Irwin, 51, a software developer. "Which, we almost had one of those as well."

The only complaint most had was the lack of access. Without credentials, people couldn't get near the convention.

How will they know it's over?

When the helicopters go away.

"One flew by at 300 feet, about shook me off the balcony," said Ken Safreed, 55, who lives in the Towers of Channelside.

"Ever see the movie Airplane, where you just hear that mmmmm the whole time?" said Jay Hawkins of Harbour Island.

"That's like us at home."

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