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The South // Alive and well in today's Tampa

(ran TP edition)

There are people who will tell you that Tampa is not the South.

These are the people who look at the strip malls and the cookie-cutter subdivisions and see homogenized America _ nothing that could be called distinctively Southern.

Dixie snobs exclude Tampa _ and most of Florida _ from their ranks, saying the place is so overrun with Yankee tourists and northern transplants that there's no South left here _ if it ever existed in these parts at all.

Those people. Well.

Miss Mattie Royal could straighten those people right out.

Take one step into her steamy kitchen just west of downtown, where the collard greens are bubbling and the catfish is frying, and it sure smells like Dixie. Out in the tiny dining room of the New Soul Sandwich Shop, Miss Mattie brings "sweet tea" to a customer who has asked, simply, for iced tea. That's the way it works at the New Soul: Tea is sweet, as is proper for the ceremonial drink of the South, unless you make a special request for plain.

Now, one restaurant with sweet tea does not a Southern town make. But Miss Mattie's place gives a hint of the distinctive Southern folkways that still run strong in Tampa, if you only know where to look.

You could start downtown, on Franklin Street, where men in seersucker suits say "hey" to one another, and the pace is as slow as molasses. Although it is true that black beans and rice are more readily available in the central business district than are collards and cornbread, it is also true that a Confederate memorial stands in front of our County Courthouse.

"The old Tampa heritage is clearly Southern," says Jack B. Moore, a professor of American Studies at the University of South Florida. "When the Cubans and Italians came here in the last century, they came to a Southern town."

This might explain our mayor, who is fluent in Italian and Spanish and who speaks English with a strong Southern accent.

Mayor Dick Greco isn't afraid to say "y'all" at a press conference, and nobody thinks him backward when he does.

In fact, plenty of folks around here feel that "y'all" is just plain polite and comfortable, and much more pleasing to the ear than "you guys."

"I don't like "you guys,' " says Jim Judy, a Tampa native with a refined drawl as thick as August humidity. "Y'all sounds right and it means, simply, all of you."

Jim Judy (say both names together, as his Southern friends do) reports that he and his wife, Bonnie, are often asked where they're from, as if their manner of speaking precluded a Tampa heritage.

"We're from Tampa," Jim Judy says. "Our grandmothers were good friends here in Tampa."

His three children are now growing up in Tampa, twentysomethings with their parents' genteel manners and their family's old-line names. Twin sisters Reeves and Britton and their brother, James Jr., are part of the Old Tampa social set still redolent of the South. This is a crowd that sends its sons and daughters to the Universities of Virginia and Washington & Lee, and expects them to come home to the tradition-rich balls and parties of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.

This set is also a bastion of the clannishness that keeps Southern towns knit tightly together and well aware of each other's goings-on. While most of modern America shifts and moves and doesn't know who lives next door, in this echelon, people know your momma and your daddy and probably your daddy's momma, too.

"There's a sense of family there," says Nancy Turner, another south Tampa native with a pleasing drawl and a brother named Bubba. (He doesn't drive a pickup, and he's the president of the family business.)

"There's just a comfort level there that you don't get anywhere else. You're all singing out of the same hymnal."

Of course, the same Southern atmosphere that makes some people feel at home makes other people think of discrimination and violence. Some minority groups still feel unsafe traveling south of the Mason-Dixon Line, as did a delegate of this summer's Gay and Lesbian Chorus Festival who nervously asked on his first day in Tampa, "Do you think the South will ever change?"

African-American writer David Nicholson had the same sense of trepidation when he came south in 1994 to visit relatives in Columbia, S.C.

"To be honest about it, the South has always scared me," Nicholson wrote in the Washington Post.

But just as the GALA delegates ultimately found Tampa a "warm and friendly" place, Nicholson was surprised to feel thoroughly welcome in Dixie.

"Everywhere I went, people were far more open and congenial than in the North, even in the most casual interactions," he reported. "And everywhere, in cities and in small towns, I saw blacks and whites working together, walking down the street, talking together."

This is not to gloss over the racial violence and discrimination that have peppered the South's _ and Tampa's _ history.

In 1860, the 900 residents of Tampa were pro-Confederate, but the town was never the plantation south. It was a rough-and-tumble port town populated by entrepreneurs and tradesmen. (That is why, today, you won't see any expansive manor houses around here, only fine homes built on suburban lots by successful businessmen.) The influx of Latin immigrants after 1880 meant that more cosmopolitan influences mixed with the Southern ones.

But cosmopolitan or no, minorities still suffered here. There were lynchings, and black men and women were kept out of the political process until federal legislation forced changes in the 1950s and '60s. It wasn't until 1983 that an African-American was elected to city council.

Exclusive and slow-to-integrate social groups like the Krewe and the Palma Ceia Country Club have been called vestiges of the "The Bad Old South," retrograde even as they make concessions to the more egalitarian tendencies of the late 20th century.

But some observers believe that the best aspects of Southern culture can, increasingly, be appreciated without assuming that racism is implied by every graceful gesture. The Summer Olympics in Atlanta tried to do just that _ proudly featuring Gladys Knight alongside chrome pickups and mummers of patrician antebellum figures.

"I think the climate has somewhat changed," says Moore, the USF professor. "It (racism) no longer goes with the territory, automatically. It's a small advancement."

Nancy Turner says that "the more people in the South learn about the Civil War, the more they are appalled by what happened. I would certainly not be inclined to fly a Confederate flag."

Although much has changed, what has remained constant and revered in the South are friendliness and good manners.

Jack B. Moore thinks Southern culture still offers "a pleasant, less business-oriented alternative to the American Way. There's a slower pace and it's more socially intimate."

"There's a certain feeling of gentility, an element of respect and politeness that I think is very much in evidence today," adds Taylor Ikin, a Tampa artist who was born in Virginia. "The companionship and closeness, the small-town feeling remains even as the city gets bigger."

The influence of African-American culture on Southern ways is also a constant thread. In fact, much of the culture of the South is black culture, from cuisine to music.

Even Elvis, the icon of white Southern rock 'n' roll, was quick to point out: "The colored folk been singin' it and playin' it just the way I'm doin' it now, man, for more years than I know. Nobody paid it no mind 'till I goosed it up."

So what else is Southern? Well, the book 1,001 Things Everyone Should Know About the South catalogs everything from mobile homes (Lord knows we've got plenty of those) to a Southern predilection for Camaros, Mustangs and Firebirds (same goes for those).

Southern Protestantism is alive and well in Tampa, as is the Dixiecrat tradition. Democratic registration in Hillsborough County slipped below 50 percent of all voters for the first time last year, but Republicans are still outnumbered by about 5 to 3.

And you can't ignore the area's natural features, big parts of what makes the South southern, including alligators and possums, palmettos and mockingbirds and, of course, the heat.

To see what we mean, sit on a porch in Tampa Heights, the city's oldest neighborhood, and wait for a breeze. You can't help but feel you're in the South. The crickets buzz, the huge oaks drip Spanish moss, and the magnolias and sprawling azalea bushes look like they haven't been tended since Southern belle Tallulah Bankhead conquered Hollywood.

People really visit in this neighborhood of old brick streets and tin-roofed bungalows. They really share iced tea and conversation and relish the slow pace brought on by the weather. Billy Watts' wraparound porch on Tampa Street is full of visitors most every evening and is also the site of impromptu neighborhood barbecues.

"If you have enough chairs, people will come and set," Billy Watts said one recent Friday evening as the sky turned pink behind a towering oak in his yard. "People come just to talk. It gives people strength when they tell stories and laugh.

"Everything's not sweet as cream. But we're friends."