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Sulphur Springs entices

It's time to shed some light on Sulphur Springs.

This weekend, if all goes according to plan, the Sulphur Springs Tower, a major local landmark that has been getting an extreme makeover in recent months, will become even more visible, at least at night. Lights are being added as a preliminary step in the creation of a large riverfront park.

Okay, so those of you who live south of Kennedy Boulevard probably have never heard of the Sulphur Springs Tower. FYI, it's that big, white Gothic looking thing just west of Interstate 275 near Bird Street. You probably drive past it all the time and think, "I wonder what that is."

YOU PROBABLY don't stop to investigate, though. After all, this is Sulphur Springs. Nasty, dirty, scary, ugly, crime-ridden Sulphur Springs, right?

Okay, well, I live here. And I have to tell you, I love it here. All my neighbors love it here. We think it's an interesting, vibrant and amazingly convenient part of town.

Sure, there are drawbacks. Absentee landlords, transient residents, Nebraska Avenue. Front yards that are more dirt than grass. Lots of room for improvement, no doubt about that.

But Sulphur Springs also has a lot going for it. The richest history of any section of Tampa except maybe _ maybe _ Ybor City. Winding streets under oak canopies. The old wooden Harbor Club is one of the coolest-looking buildings in Tampa.

We've got the dog track, with parimutuel wagering. Not something I care about, but still, it's a unique thing; we have it and others don't.

We have the Springs Theater, a former movie house that's now a recording studio. The Florida Orchestra rehearses there.

We have by far the city's best swimming pool, built around the springs themselves. People used to come to Sulphur Springs from all over the country to bathe in the mineral-rich waters of the springs. The water was supposed to have medicinal, even miraculous, properties. There are stories _ granted, they're probably not true _ of people coming here from the North in wheelchairs, spending a few weeks in Sulphur Springs and leaving their wheelchairs behind.

BEST OF ALL, literally within a five-minute drive from downtown, we have the river. You can take your canoe to visit friends, to the Harbor Club for some good cheap soul food, or to the monthly riverside art shows that feature great neighborhood artists.

"The Hillsborough River is beautiful," said my friend and neighbor Bill Tait, who has lived along the river in Sulphur Springs for about 15 years. "I can sit in my back yard, 4 miles from downtown Tampa, and I don't hear any traffic noise and I don't see any other people. I see manatee, otters, alligators, anhingas and cormorants. There's an osprey family I talk to almost every evening."

We also have a lot of community pride. Really, we do. It's not the kind of community pride that you find in the subdivisions of New Tampa or some parts of South Tampa, where officious people form committees that mandate what color people can paint porch swings or what they can park in their driveways.

No, it's not like that in the Springs. If your yard looks like a jungle, if you don't bring your garbage can in from the curb, no one here is going to bust you.

Here it's more laissez-faire. The community spirit comes from the quality of the people, not from the quality of the lawns. Clustered on streets that dead-end at the river we have little enclaves of artists and craftsmen who have lived together as long as anyone can remember. For years, and until recently when one of the organizers got sick, there were these really cool outdoor Sunday brunches that anyone could attend. Sometimes there would be 100 people there. You'd just chip in a few bucks if you could. I can't imagine that happening in any other part of town except Sulphur Springs.

"It's always been a place where artists and writers have ended up," said another friend, Sue Komater. She's an artist and massage therapist who lives and works in South Tampa, but she used to live in the Springs and still has a fondness for it. "It's also a place that people who love Florida, the real, exotic Florida, have always appreciated."

People blame a lot of the problems in today's Sulphur Springs on Dick Greco. During his first term as mayor, in the 1970s, he allowed the demolition of the Sulphur Springs Arcade, a gorgeous shopping area that really dressed up Nebraska Avenue. It was built in the 1920s, by the same guy who built the tower, as part of a major tourist attraction. It was torn down to make way for a huge parking lot that is always almost empty. People are still angry about it.

Also in that term, Greco championed the development of the duplexes that cover the Springs. Zoning laws were changed to encourage duplexes, which of course brought the absentee landlords and the transient residents. Transient residents brought more crime _ mostly small-time burglaries, nothing anyone worries much about.

The duplexes are disappearing slowly. New ordinances say that if even half of a duplex is vacant for six months, the owner loses the duplex-friendly zoning.

In the 1990s, Greco's administration reduced the river's flow through the Rowlett Park dam, lowering the water level. He ignored pleas and scientific advice to install sediment traps that would have reduced pollution. (They're now in place, thanks to Mayor Pam Iorio.)

Greco's actions actually helped solidify the neighborhood's spirit. Opposition was strong, and a renewed sense of activism, most noticeable in an effective grass roots group called Friends of the River, helped galvanize the area.

Partly because of that spirit, Sulphur Springs is going to get a gorgeous new park, over there by the tower. Some big evil chain store was going to go onto that property, but activists in the Springs and in Seminole Heights convinced the company and city officials that it wasn't a good use of riverfront land.

It's cool that the city is paying some attention to this area, but some of us who care about the Springs are a little worried. We'd be grateful for a little help, but we've seen what happens when the city takes too much interest in an arts-oriented neighborhood and tries to make it more commercial.

"Look what happened to Ybor City," Komater said. "It totally lost its character, its soul, to the big corporations."