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Settling for the dust of torn-down landmarks

I was sipping coffee in the Einstein Bros. Bagels shop on Dale Mabry Highway in South Tampa when a young man behind me spoke up. He was talking to a group of older regulars. Had they seen the paper, the kid asked. The Old Meeting House in Hyde Park was closing.

The kid had the wounded sound of a native in his voice. He talked with the emotion of somebody whose local landmarks were being stolen out from under him. Soon, he said, there would be an out-of-town bank branch or drugstore on every corner, he said.

He had good reason for grieving. The Old Meeting House, which closes today, has sat on Howard Avenue a few blocks north of Bayshore Boulevard for 50 years.

Everyone who has eaten there has a favorite memory. For me, it is the frosty homemade ice cream and the cool waitress whose eyebrows were nothing more than a solid line of Maybelline.

There were days when you paid no more for your burger than the dollars and cents that equaled your weight. The children's dishes came in paper cutouts of '50s cars, low-riding convertibles colored turquoise or pink.

If you aren't of the subset that cruises Hyde Park, if you don't frequent the coffee bars, Bern's or Joe Redner's gym, or if you don't jog streetside with your dog, the loss of the Old Meeting House might be meaningless to you. But I don't think so.

Put in its place your once-favorite sports bar, bait shop, mom and pop motel, hardware store, RV park _ anywhere in the bay area. Remember how it was bulldozed for a fast food restaurant, an expressway cut, another chain motel or women's discount clothing outlet, or the afore-mentioned bank branch or drugstore. Remember how disconnected you felt when the place you loved was gone.

I know redevelopment is unrelenting, that growth is supposed to be good, and talking otherwise is as productive as baying at the moon. But I have to talk about it. As the kid in the bagel shop suggested, this deconstruction and reconstruction is a fundamental part of living in Tampa Bay.

I even know cases of chains trumping chains. Some blocks north of the bagel shop, a gas station and a Krystal fast food restaurant are closed and look ready for demolition. Another CVS drugstore is going up in their place. A few blocks south, a Checkers came down for a bank branch.

Wasn't that also the case with the Einstein? It, too, is part of a chain. The restaurant opened in December 1996 where a chicken and rib restaurant had been. It, too, might have been part of a chain, although nobody I talked to at Einstein last week could remember.

This forgetfulness also is part of the peculiar process at work. You live with a landmark, you drive by it a thousand times, you visit it a hundred times. Then the place disappears, and after a while, you forget it was ever there. You grow accustomed to the brand-name colors on the landmark's replacement, the plastic sign out front that could be standing in any other city.

As with the rest of life, you eventually move on from what you lose and become accustomed to what remains _ in this case, the chains that have overtaken Tampa Bay.

Ron Dent and his friend Rick Pierola, whom I met last week at Einstein, have lived in Tampa long enough to recite the names of hangouts dead and gone, such as Palios Bros., a long-standing fried chicken place that closed last month. The restaurant building will be used for a bank.

Dent and Pierola have had coffee and bagels at Einstein every morning for the past four or five years. It is their daily refuge. They read the newspaper here, needle each other here.

That the shop is owned by a corporation, that general manager Steve Weintraub is an extension of the corporation makes no difference. He's a friend. Yes, they miss the old places. Yes, the landmarks are disappearing. But who are they to fight it? What else can they do now, but make this small bagel shop their place?

_ Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelonesptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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