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She wants to make Sulphur Springs better. But where to even start?

Pastor Carolyn Riggins, a longtime resident, wants the city and community to make the neighborhood better. She’s willing to do her part.
 
Her family has begged her to move from Sulphur Springs. But Pastor Carolyn Riggins, pictured in front of her home, wants to be part of its renaissance instead.
Her family has begged her to move from Sulphur Springs. But Pastor Carolyn Riggins, pictured in front of her home, wants to be part of its renaissance instead. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]
Published Nov. 22, 2023

Carolyn Riggins’ family desperately wants her to move out of the home in Sulphur Springs where she has lived alone since her husband died in 2008.

Her daughter, Kashante Nunn, says her own pleas started nearly a decade ago upon returning to Florida. She was staying the weekend with Riggins in 2014 when a party across the street turned violent.

“A kid got shot,” said Nunn. “It was our first weekend back, and someone got shot across the street from her. That’s when we knew she needed to move.”

But Riggins, 70, a pastor, refuses.

She isn’t oblivious to the problems that plague this community, which takes its name from the waters that once drew some of Tampa’s earliest tourists. Its historic water tower is getting a fresh coat of paint, but the tourists have long departed. The central Tampa community may be best known for the poker room inside the shuttered dog racing track, concentrations of poverty in surrounding neighborhoods and high violent crime.

Little has changed in Sulphur Springs in the more than two decades Riggins has lived here, even as Tampa and the broader region have witnessed explosive growth and investment. People who had hope for Sulphur Springs have come and gone, the community’s troubles stubbornly entrenched while Seminole Heights just south has seen a rebirth.

Still, Riggins believes change can happen.

She emerged from her COVID-era Zoom sermons believing Sulphur Springs is due for its own rediscovery. And she has gone looking for her own ways to hasten its arrival. Most days, she admits, she’s not sure where to begin. The challenges seem too vast.

“I’m going to do anything that I can that will bring some positive energy to the community,” Riggins said. “Because I want people to know they have people here who care about where they live and what goes on in this community, even if they don’t.”

Absentee landlords

Riggins maintains her home in a way that makes her feel good when she returns to it every day.

It’s painted in vibrant shades. Large bronze-colored stars adorn either side of the wooden front door. She mows the lawn religiously.

Inside, the living room wall is covered with palm-tree-shaped mirrors and framed Bible verses, and there are glass angels everywhere.

She says she’s on a rare block because a few of her neighbors own their homes and take care of them. Next to her, there’s a brand-new single-family residence with a garage and a neat lawn.

To Riggins, Sulphur Springs’ struggles begin and end with its many absentee landlords who don’t take care of their property. They rent to poor people who can’t afford better. It breeds a culture of not looking after yourself or your surroundings, she said.

She offers a tour to make her case. Less than a block away sits a two-story house, its windows boarded.

People often loiter outside it, she said, and even sleep in the yard. She’s talked to the occupants once or twice. They told her it was better than the shelters, and she didn’t know what to say.

“Can you imagine what it feels like living there?” she asked as she walked by. “That’s not a home.”

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Sulphur Springs served as one of the region’s main draws outside the beaches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its waters were believed to have healing properties.

An alligator farm and toboggan slide sprung up nearby to hold visitors’ attention. A flood in 1933 damaged the attractions, and construction of Interstate 275 through the 1960s bisected the neighborhood and park. The springs themselves closed in 1986 when they became polluted.

To City Council member Gwendolyn Henderson, who represents the neighborhood, Sulphur Springs “needs some love.”

Housing conditions there have gotten worse in recent decades, said professor Elizabeth Strom, who teaches anthropology at the University of South Florida and has studied the neighborhood. As rent has increased citywide, and developers have chosen to invest in other areas, more people have gone to Sulphur Springs in search of affordable housing.

“A lot of people are living there because they don’t have a lot of choices,” Strom said.

Riggins says she’s witnessed the influx, particularly as public housing complexes closer to downtown were replaced by mixed-income neighborhoods.

“What they did was push these people from downtown, so when the tourists come and the other people come, they don’t see them,” said Riggins. “But what those new people don’t see is that they got shoved right into our neighborhoods.”

The return home

Riggins first moved to Sulphur Springs in 1979 and, like many, renting was her only option. She was nine years out of high school, recently separated from her first husband but still caring for two daughters alone. She worked at the St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital, a good job, she said. But it was still hard.

“Now, I don’t say that I did it alone because I’ve realized that God has been looking out for me the whole time,” she said. “But at the time, it felt like I was doing it alone.”

She didn’t have a car. Each day, she left her daughters by themselves to get ready for elementary school. And she walked the dark streets with no sidewalks in the early morning so she could catch a bus in time for her 7 a.m. shift.

She moved out while her children completed school, to a home in Temple Terrace. She said it was a financial sacrifice but “a step up” for her daughters. When they left home, she returned to Sulphur Springs, moving in with Charlie Riggins, her boyfriend, whom she would later marry.

Charlie Riggins’ neighbors called him the mayor because of how involved he was. He was almost nosy, his wife laughed, always checking in on people, making sure they behaved. Soon after moving in with him, she started doing the same.

That continued after his death.

“Standing my ground”

She started working with Feeding America, and was ordained in 2007. She joined a number of community groups, started participating in programs at the YMCA and attending community meetings. She founded her own church, Bethany Tabernacle.

Pastor Carolyn Riggins takes notes during a financial literacy presentation by Lake Michigan Credit Union Aug. 4 at College Hill Church of God in Sulphur Springs.
Pastor Carolyn Riggins takes notes during a financial literacy presentation by Lake Michigan Credit Union Aug. 4 at College Hill Church of God in Sulphur Springs. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]

Riggins wanted to make her community better, but nothing seemed to lead anywhere.

Recently, though, she’s found herself searching for more. During the lockdown, she was cautious, making her church entirely virtual and avoiding unnecessary gatherings. This summer, she found herself attending more meetings, including one organized by the city in early July focused on transportation fixes.

“I left halfway through,” she said. “They came here, with all these ideas of what we need. No! You need to listen, you need to work with the people that are here, the people who need the help.”

She did follow up after the meeting, though, volunteering to host a “front-porch roll call,” in which police introduce themselves to residents in the neighborhoods they patrol. She said they didn’t tell her anything she didn’t know.

“My mother thinks she’s a giant,” said Nunn. “And while she is, this is a new breed of problems she can’t fix.”

Nunn says she knows her mother loves her community, “and I know it makes her sad that others don’t care for it the way she does.”

But no matter how many times her daughter and son-in-law, who occasionally help her with household tasks, tell her to leave, she says she won’t.

She called the person who helped her organize the front-porch meeting with police and let her know that it didn’t give the community anything they could act on. These days, she said, she talks with her neighbors, and is thinking of ways to report the nearby housing conditions to the city in another way, in a way that will make them listen.

“I’m standing my ground,” said Riggins. “This house is mine, this community is mine. I’m not going anywhere.”