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The soul of the city is in a handful of dust

A friend of mine snatched a memory the other day. When the wrecking crews went after the Lykes buildings in downtown Tampa, and the bricks began to fly like fur in a cat fight, he grabbed a chunk that had landed on the ground and kept it as a souvenir. It was a blue tile, the same color as the sea on a postcard, but embedded in concrete, and it will be a clever conversation piece in his house.

Until the Lykes Corp. puts a stop to this souvenir-hunting _ and you can bet they will, since they are treating these buildings like a communicable disease that must be stamped out _ pieces of them will be popping up all over the town.

That's what people do when they live in a place that was built yesterday, or its continuous equivalent. They get homesick for what is called character in old houses and try to save some.

But when I saw the first pieces of the building go, to make way probably for a parking lot, another meaning of the word character popped into my mind, the character of Tampa itself as reflected in the empty space at its center.

Downtown will soon contain more rubble than Dresden. Those chunks falling and fallen could stand for Tampa's hopes for itself, its ambitions put on hold.

Across Madison Street and one block north, there is another gaping hole in the street, where an old hotel _ once owned, appropriately, by Lykes Bros. _ was leveled. On the corner of Zack Street and Florida Avenue is a huge empty lot, where the old Y once stood, and somebody once dreamed of building a hotel. But the dream went up in a huge fire. The Y was rubble and eventually an adjacent building, once home to a Lerner dress shop, went down to the wrecker's ball, to sticks and stones.

Now it just so happens Orlando has a law that says if you own a downtown building and decide to demolish it, you cannot just blithely follow the words of that old Joni Mitchell song about paving over paradise _ the law bars the owner from using the resulting empty space as a parking lot. Nobody has ever challenged it in court. This law, designed to encourage owners to rehabilitate their old buildings, was enacted while Bill Frederick was mayor of Orlando _ which leaves me wondering what Tampa's karma was, such that we got Sandy Freedman, and Mickey Mouse got Frederick and his foresight.

It is a measure of Tampa's situation that we would get a snowstorm before we could have a law like that enacted, a law that might have stopped the Lykes from bigfooting their way downtown like a giant that eats Brooklyn in a bad sci-fi movie.

We couldn't get the law because businessmen would be whispering in the mayor's ear why the law is a terrible idea, because it would mean they couldn't do with their piece of dirt just as they pleased. The City Council would be falling over dead trying to catch the prevailing wind. (From this let us exempt Linda Saul-Sena, the only member of the council to actually resist Lykes Bros. with a vote.) And ordinary people of good intentions would be scampering about, saying the right things, but only to each other.

Nothing would get done. To use the word that downtown's alleged establishment loves to croon, nothing positive would happen.

So what else is new? The Aquarium, they tell me, but if you ask anybody who is a nobody, and not in the Chamber of Commerce or the Mayor's Office, they will tell you the Aquarium isn't for them. It's for the tourists. The nobodies will tell you they're waiting for something for them.

And when they say that, they aren't talking about some pile of bricks and stone and glass. They are talking about a city where they have a place, and finally a voice _ which is why, I think, the flap over these buildings has stayed alive so long.

If you ask the nobodies, they wonder aloud why they weren't asked about the Aquarium or about the Whydah or about the Convention Center hotel. They are never asked, but they still have to pay somehow for these things.

It seems a curious thing. Lykes Bros. was outraged that it actually had to ask permission to demolish the buildings. It treated city government as high-handedly as the city often treats the nobodies. That seems to be the way Tampa operates, and all we have to show for it is rubble.