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Carlton: Keep Tampa, if not weird, at least Tampa

Graffiti on the sea wall near Kiley Gardens, photographed from the University of Tampa campus on Monday, is set to be removed later this month to make way for a permanent art installation along the Kennedy underpass segment of the Tampa Riverwalk as part of Lights on Tampa 2015.
Graffiti on the sea wall near Kiley Gardens, photographed from the University of Tampa campus on Monday, is set to be removed later this month to make way for a permanent art installation along the Kennedy underpass segment of the Tampa Riverwalk as part of Lights on Tampa 2015.
Published Aug. 5, 2014

The trick to being a City On The Move — by now, practically downtown Tampa's official slogan — is balancing the best of the old with all of the shiny new.

A historic courthouse remade into a fancy hotel, a seedy hotel restored to its former chandeliered glory, graceful old bridges lighted up in arty colors at night — we can do that.

So here is where I get whimsical about graffiti.

One of the best things on the Hillsborough River — now that you can actually see it in a downtown remake that opened up water views long hidden behind buildings — are the rowers. Many mornings they slice across the glassy surface as the city wakes up and the sun colors the river. For the better part of a century, in fact, rowing teams from colleges in regrettably colder places have come here for our warm waters. And for decades, they have left colorful postcards on our sea walls.

If not exactly pretty, they are at least interesting — even charming, depending on your sensibilities. Kids from Prince­ton, Loyola, prep schools and points between traditionally paint blocks of school colors and go-us slogans along the walls in the dark of night. You see your Berkshire Bears, your Hoyas, your Lady Saints, with the occasional artful embellishments of crossed paddles or animal paws. Fraternities have made their marks, too.

Though technically illegal, says a display about river, rowing and tradition at the Tampa Bay History Center, the graffiti is allowed as long as teams focus on school and rowing-related themes and avoid objectionable content. Generally, they do.

Now a prime piece of this history on the east bank across from the University of Tampa may go. An important part of the winding Riverwalk is to open soon, and that section of graffiti is slated to be pressure-washed into oblivion where there is to be new lighted public art.

Again and with gusto: Love the Riverwalk. Love the lighted public art. Which doesn't mean a river's history has to be history.

No one can accuse Mayor Bob Buckhorn of lacking the vision or determination to make a once-sad downtown into all it can be. The man's hands must cramp from cutting all those ribbons. Of the graffiti there, he says: "Everything must run its course."

But we're getting pretty good at this old and new stuff, too. A sleek city-center park on one side of the river with fountains and views from the art museum can surely co-exist with a fisherman on the opposite bank dipping his net into the water.

In an officially cool town in Texas, bumper stickers say: Keep Austin Weird. You get this if you have ever lamented changes that made parts of Key West or Coconut Grove look like pretty much everywhere else.

Another Tampa tradition is that we rarely do things the easy way. (Think of the park to properly honor the city's black history, at odds with a beloved 1970s skateboard bowl in its midst.) Thursday, the City Council considers what was supposed to be a mundane yes-or-no on giving access to that part of the Riverwalk to get rid of "staining and defacement." (Ouch.) But council member Yvonne Yolie Capin says given that such graffiti is a point of interest in cities like Boston, and the buzz from constituents already, a discussion is warranted.

So we can find more ways to keep Tampa — if not weird — at least, Tampa.

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