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POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE

Acting on a tip, we are here in Ybor City on a Saturday night. We are bound for truth, in search of the answer. We are wearing blue jeans and sensible shoes. Rumor has it that there is life after dark in this historic district, and we are here to get to the bottom of things. Rumor has it that at midnight, there is a hip cafe where people sit cheekbone to cheekbone at a granite bar and sip cappuccino or a brandy Alexander.

Rumor has it there is a discotheque and show bar where Brandy Alexander is the name of a performer.

Rumor has it there is a shop that looks like Bam Bam Flintstone's bedroom and sells kitsch collectibles, such as 1959 Hiawatha bicycles and Peter Max-style bell bottoms.

Rumor has it that there is a bookstore where you can buy the best in subversive literature and enjoy a slice of homemade cheesecake.

Something is stirring in Ybor City.

There have been nights in the not-too-distant past when it felt like a ghost town. Shops were either boarded up or closed. Those wonderful Cuban sandwiches and $3 plates of black beans and rice that brought tourists for lunch were hard to find after sundown. The brick streets and old cigar factories with wrought iron balconies _ so charming by day _ made for a lonely, hollow canyon in the dark.

But in recent months, a diverse collection of galleries, cafes and shops has opened along Seventh Avenue, the main boulevard in Ybor's historic district. Live music, from acoustic to ragtime jazz, can be heard at a handful of bars and restaurants.

And people _ the most crucial ingredient of all _ are being lured in droves by events such as gallery night or the series of free jazz concerts this

summer in Centennial Park, just off Seventh Avenue. (The next one is scheduled for June 14.)

Weeknights are still relatively quiet, but weekends are starting to cook.

"Even six months ago, it was a totally different crowd," says Dan Rubin, co-owner of Decades Ago-Go, a shop that sells kitsch collectibles. "People are pulling up in Acuras instead of VW's."

Marcie Hoffman Porges, owner of Hoffman Porges Gallery, deeply believes in the bohemian and urban spirit of Ybor City. "We spend our lives in air-conditioned offices," says Porges. "We shelter ourselves a lot in modern society. But we still have the instinct to be on the street, to be of the street. Ybor City offers that atmosphere."

On this muggy Saturday night, we enter the new world of the old world. Armed with curiosity and a small amount of cash, we arrive along

Seventh Avenue at dusk. We are greeted by the strangest phenomenon _ not a Circle K or Wal-Mart for miles. No Wendys. No Jiffy Lubes. No Texacos.

Our first encounter is with the law. Two Tampa Police Department officers on night foot patrol, added to Ybor City several months ago, twirl their nightsticks and nod hello.

"Crime here is more a perception than a reality," says Officer Sam Montijo, who has patrolled Ybor City for more than five years. "There is more crime at Tampa Bay Center."

Each block of the historical district reveals a different subculture _ hippie kids in tie-dye, young professionals, hard-core music vampires, polished elders in Jaguars and unshaven artists with pottery clay on their hands.

Ybor City has become a magnet for young people at night. For a generation who grew up in tract homes and brightly lit shopping malls, Ybor City must seem like an ancient theme park of brick factories and street lamps that cast a yellowish glow.

"I like the way it's old," says Robyn Mill, a 19-year-old student from the University of South Florida who often comes to Ybor. "It's not redone, the way everything else is."

On Friday and Saturday nights, many of the stores are open until 10 p.m., and some even later. But be forewarned: Ybor City merchants are the type to close early if the crowds are thin or the mood strikes them.

We venture first to Three Birds Bookstore and Coffee Room, 1518 E Seventh Ave. The Birds _ Val Day, Cindy Wheeler and Melisse Cunningham _ took a chance on Ybor City when they opened in 1989 and are now seasoned Seventh Avenue veterans. Their left-wing selection of paperbacks and periodicals, slim but deliciously offbeat, can be lingered over with coffee or dessert served on mismatched Fiestaware.

We ponder the purchase of a Zora Neale Hurston novel, but decide to read it free for a while. The Birds don't mind, although action at the cash register is always welcome. We enjoy a raspberry tea while relaxing on a chair from a pink dinette set.

A sudden urge for Cuban food arises, so we walk down to Carmine's, 1802 E Seventh Ave. We slip in before 9 p.m., when a band starts playing and a cover charge of $3 is required. We order a small plate of black beans and rice ($2.25), a deviled crab (89 cents) and a large cafe con leche (95 cents). For eight years, Carmine's has packed in the lunch crowds. Last year, Carmine Iavarone moved from his small corner shop to a cavernous space across the street. By day, it is a bustling lunch spot, but on weekend nights, it is a hopping, gymnasium-sized bar with an outdoor courtyard. Lots of Bass Weejuns and sorority alumni. A Michelob commercial come to life.

Fortified, we decide to check out the music at The Star Club, 1708 E Seventh Ave. Half gallery, half performance space, the Star Club tonight features a menu of death metal and thrash acts _ Raped Ape, Meat Locker and Prophecy. Not our cup of tea, but in the adventurous spirit of Ybor, we give it a try. The cost is $5 and no alcohol or smoking is permitted. Soft drinks are sold from a folding table. Everyone wears black. One man, his face hidden by a curtain of stringy hair, boasts a T-shirt that says "No for an answer." The music is loud enough to untie a pair of combat boots.

About 50 hard-core fans hang out in front of the Star Club, including some band members. Hard-core types are drawn to Ybor. "It's cool, man," says J.P., a member of Raped Ape. "It's all old and s---. The brick roads are, like, nifty."

We need air, a place where our ears can stop ringing, so we head to Decades Ago-Go, 1514 E Seventh Ave. As colorful and cluttered as a child's playpen, the store is stocked with kidney-shaped tables with boomerang legs, George Jetson lounge chairs and Star Trek lunch boxes. Dan Rubin and main squeeze Laura Pastroff have assembled an eclectic collection of furniture and trinkets from the '40s, '50s and '60s. We admire the costume jewelry, which is displayed in a Double K Nut Shop case, formerly home to hundreds of hot cashews.

We push on.

We walk two blocks off Seventh Avenue to check out the Blue Funk, 1901 15th St. N, a trendy boutique in a former hardware store. We are amazed at some of the names the Blue Funk carries: Patricia Field, Betsey Johnson, John Fluevog and Urban Outfitters. We pinch ourselves, but it's true: You can buy a velvet newsboy cap in the Tampa Bay area. Unfortunately, quantities on most items are limited. Says 22-year-old owner Angie Hall, who opened the Blue Funk in May: "You don't want to see everyone else in the same pair of shoes, do you?" Good point.

We walk a block over to Cafe Creole and Oyster Bar, 1330 E Ninth Ave. This New Orleans-style restaurant, which opened in 1988 in the landmark El Pasaje building, once a gathering cite for cigar workers in the late 1800s. Now it's the liveliest restaurant and bar in Ybor, with the occasional zydeco band playing in the courtyard or a jazz combo inside. We stand at the curved brass bar, while a man next to us in a starched button-down orders a round of oyster shooters (Absolut pepper vodka, an oyster and spicy cocktail sauce in a shot glass.) Getting a spot at the bar is impossible at the moment, so we move on, but not before almost colliding with a waitress carrying several plates full of sullen crawfish.

Back on Seventh Avenue, a violet light beckons us inside Dog Eat Dog, 1531 E Seventh Ave. The tiny shop specializes in air-brushed and silk-screened T-shirts by owner Ken Echezabal and other area artists. "I do a lot of classic variations," says Echezabal, holding up a T-shirt. "Here's Venus with dreadlocks."

We suddenly desire a calm surrounding and a place to quench our thirst. We amble down to Speedy Brown's American Bar and Grill, 1833 E Seventh Ave. In 1947, Angelo Cacciatore opened the Silver Ring Cafe on Seventh Avenue. Cacciatore's nickname was "Speedy Brown." So when Mike and Tim Booth, who now own the Silver Ring in Ybor City, decided to open a neighborhood bar next door, they had their name.

A 12-string acoustic guitarist plays in the front window of the bar, decorated with antique beer and cola signs and other American memorabilia. We sit at the bar, a fine varnished mahogany piece of work that could rival the best of neighborhood bars in Boston or Philadelphia.

Rested, we forge on to Baby Doll Art, 1702 E Seventh Ave., an adult toy store that stocks globe earrings, frog barrettes, faux jewel tiaras and dinosaur ray guns. We are desperately trying to locate a gun that shoots potato pellets, and we have come to the right place. We are lured into Baby Doll Art, one of the most magnificent buildings on Seventh Avenue, by the shiny Yamaha chopper parked inside the store. The ultra-funky jewelry _ broaches, sunglasses, earrings _ are made by artists Meridith Haze and Glenn Hopkins. Baby Doll Art is open from 8:30 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday nights.

We buzz into La France, 1612 E Seventh Ave., a vintage clothing store that's been in Ybor since 1975. We are overwhelmed by depth of merchandise _ racks of Hawaiian shirts from the '40s, bowling shirts from the '50s, white bucks, black lace dresses, fedoras, tortoise combs and Rita Hayworth sweaters. Artists with names like Mudd Shark and RockBottom shop here.

It's getting late, and we require music. We head to the Ritz Theater and Manchester, 1503 E Seventh Ave. We enter the dark cave of the Ritz just before midnight. The cashier takes our money and then playfully shoots Silly String on another paying customer. The Ritz, built in 1927, hosts national and local acts. Tonight, there's a benefit for Amnesty International. Almost no one is drinking alcohol, because almost no one is 21. The young women look like debutants-on-the-lam, girls who've tossed away their prom dresses for an evening of velvet hot pants.

We step next door to Manchester, the nightclub under the same roof, and feel as if we are in a Gothic chamber. Only those over 21 are allowed in. Nine Inch Nails plays over the tinny speaker system, and the small dance floor is sparsely populated. Several too-cool-for-school young women lounge on couches near the bar, waiting for a grungy, goateed Johnny Depp-type to arrive with an entourage. It never happens.

At midnight, we move down to the Ovo Cafe, 1901 E Seventh Ave. Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

Cool as an ice cube, the Ovo is the place to spy on and be spied upon. It opened in January and has been gathering steam rapidly. By midnight, Ovo is wall-to-wall cheekbones and bumper-to-bumper bustier until nearly 2 a.m. Some are gathered around the black granite bar, which is dotted with small candles and fresh flowers, while others are perched on high bar stools around black tables. Pony tails galore. Women with wild, unruly hair. One of the Rob Lowe-like bartenders _ sideburns and slicked-back hair _ looks like he walked off the set of a Jonathan Demme movie. We order from him a "Cafe Ybor" _ coffee spiked with Chambord and dark creme de cocoa topped with a dollop of freshly whipped cream, for $4.

"In here is the great marriage of all the different cultures _ the local artists, the young Harry Connick Jr. crowd, the post-gala black tie crowd," says manager Susan Johnson, wearing Italian movie star glasses and cherry lipstick. "The vibe, the precedent, the atmosphere, it's perfect for Ybor."

Walking down Seventh Avenue to our car, we notice a line has formed in front of Tracks, 1430 E Seventh Ave., the sometimes-gay, sometimes-straight, sometimes-in-between giant nightclub and video bar. Tracks features progressive dance music, including classic disco by the likes of Sylvester and Evelyn "Champagne" King. On Saturday nights at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., female impersonators, such as Brandy Alexander, prove that red pumps do come in a size 12-wide.

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