Grown-up fan resurrecting Safety Village, a tiny version of Tampa once beloved by kids

Across three decades starting in the 1960s, local children visited the site at Lowry Park on North Boulevard to ride go-carts through a miniature city while learning about pedestrian, traffic and fire safety.
Published December 17 2018

TAMPA — Ryan Martin has big plans to resurrect a Lilliputian version of Tampa that once was a part of growing up in the city.

Across three decades starting in the 1960s, local children knew it as Safety Village — a 1.6-acre site at Lowry Park on North Boulevard where they rode go-carts through a miniature city while learning about pedestrian, traffic and fire safety.

After 1990, it morphed into Kid City, a precursor to the Glazer Children's Museum, where children walked or rode their bikes and played inside slightly larger miniature versions of City Hall and a Publix supermarket.

It shut down 10 years ago and some of its parts were moved to the Glazer Children's Museum. Martin, a Tampa native, wants to recreate the village under a new name — Safety City.

He aims to do the construction piece by piece in Orlando, where he now lives, and display them at a site to be determined in Hillsborough County. He is chronicling the effort on his Facebook page, titled Rebuild Safety Village/Kid City as Safety City.

"Some of my favorite childhood memories revolve around that little town," said Martin, 25, who works as a caricature artist at Universal Studios. "I felt like I had all the freedom of an adult. I want today's kids to have the same experience."

Martin's favorite feature was a smiling, blue-and-yellow locomotive towing a red train car — all told, just seven feet long and three feet high. This is how he’s starting his nostalgiac journey.

Using what he learned while earning an animation degree from the University of Central Florida, Martin designed a mock-up of the train and commissioned metal workers to create the parts. The wheels, side rods and smokestack are complete and the body is under construction.

Martin estimates he'll spend a few thousand dollars on the train by the time it’s all welded together, sometime in January.

Then, he’ll look for a Tampa home — somewhere to display the train as a way of encouraging others to help in his cause.

"I know it's a long shot to remake the entire village by myself," Martin said. "I hope someone wants to help me. I hope others will agree that this is worth it."

Martin was inspired, in part, by the work of Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, who restored the tossed-aside remnants of another bygone Tampa icon — Fairyland park. Razed in 1996, Fairyland also was part of Lowry Park and featured life-sized concrete and fiberglass nursery rhyme figures. Those statues now adorn the exterior of Gonzmart's Ulele Restaurant on the Tampa Riverwalk.

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"I love the passion Richard Gonzmart had to bring back something he loved," Martin said. "Bringing Safety Village back is my dream."

Sponsored by the city of Tampa, Safety Village opened in December 1965.

With its four- to five-foot-high replicas of buildings like a bank, grocery store, fire station and City Hall, it taught children safety concepts they could use in their everyday lives, such as crossing the street and crime prevention.

In 1989, the city leased Safety Village to the Children's Museum of Tampa at the Floriland Mall on North Florida Avenue. The museum expanded the size of the buildings so children could walk inside. The attraction was renamed Kid City.

Kid City shut down Dec. 5, 2008, after the Children’s Museum acquired the land near the Hillsborough River downtown where it is located today.

Martin, then a high school student, joined a group of people who lobbied the city unsuccessfully to save the tiny buildings.

"We didn't chain ourselves to a fence to block the bulldozers," Martin said. "But we did our best."

Many of the structures remained on the site after it closed. Homeless people used them as shelter. In 2010, a shed-size replica of a police station caught fire. Soon afterward, everything was bulldozed.

The Glazer Children's Museum has paid homage to the history of Safety Village with the installation of benches and light posts on the second floor that once were part of the attraction.

"It's our nod to the old Safety Village," museum spokeswoman Kate White said. "The staff casually calls that area Safety Village."

Today, the former site of Safety Village is a parking lot for employees of ZooTampa at Lowry Park.

Whenever he visits family in the Tampa area, Martin said, he has to fight the urge to sneak into the parking lot for a stroll down memory lane.

"I bet I could still see it as it was. But that's why I want to do this. I want kids to be able to walk Safety Village for real."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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