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At children’s Gasparilla, families revel in a car-free Bayshore

A week and a half after the boulevard’s latest high-profile traffic death, pedestrians got the whole road to themselves.
Sydney Holton, left, and her friend Jordan Lewis yell for beads along the Gasparilla parade route on Saturday.
Sydney Holton, left, and her friend Jordan Lewis yell for beads along the Gasparilla parade route on Saturday. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jan. 18, 2020
Updated Jan. 19, 2020

TAMPA — Gabriel Sanchez’s neck already gleamed with a dozen strands of sparkling beads, and the main event hadn’t even started. Saturday afternoon, the 4-year-old walked down a car-free Bayshore Boulevard between his grandma, Naida Sanchez of Tampa, and his dad, Mailo Sanchez of Miami, as they killed time before the parade centerpiece at the 2020 Ashley HomeStore Children’s Gasparilla presented by Chick-Fil-A.

Mailo and Naida went to Gasparilla all through his childhood, and he made the trip home for it every year after moving south. It was special, he said, to watch his own son see the pirates take over Bayshore.

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Around them ran a current of wheeled transport, piloted by kids and adults: bikes and rollerblades and scooters and hoverboards, strollers and red Radio Flyer wagons and elaborate pirate-ship buggies. But with the road closed off, attendees could walk long blocks without seeing a car.

The scene Saturday afternoon might have looked ideal to residents who have advocated for change at Bayshore — more safety measures for pedestrians and cyclists, maybe even turning the whole thing into a park. It was just nine days earlier and a mile down the road that a man was killed in the latest deadly crash to darken Bayshore’s reputation.

George Gage, 70, a retired financial trust officer, was walking on the sidewalk near his home when a Ford F-150 struck him and threw him into Hillsborough Bay near the intersection of Bayshore and West Julia Street. Witnesses estimated that the truck’s driver, Benjamin Ehas, was going about twice the speed limit, and investigators said he had a blood-alcohol content level of 0.234, almost three times the level at which state law presumes impairment.

Mailo Sanchez said his mother had mentioned the incident to him earlier in the day.

“I was shocked to learn that,” he said.

“They need to do something about it,” Naida added. Maybe speed bumps were the solution, she suggested. “No matter what condition the driver is in, he’s going to have to slow down.”

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The safety advocacy group Take Back Bayshore distributed a flier at a vigil for Gage last weekend that said, “Bayshore feels like a highway where speeding is expected, not the park and community resource it should be.”

That idea was echoed farther down the parade route by Captain No-Beard and Lady Crimson Rose — Jerry and Rachel Underwood, as the government knows them — who were dressed in full pirate regalia and hawking bottled water and snacks being sold by their son’s Boy Scout troop. The Underwoods lived in Germany and Spain before moving to Florida six months ago, and Rachel said a space like Bayshore would be treated differently in a “very pedestrianized” Europe — there’d be total deference to pedestrians or, at most, a single two-lane road, she thought. That’s how Bayshore should be, too, she said.

“You’d bring more people down here, and it’d be better for the population,” she said.

The afternoon got hotter, the 3:30 p.m. parade got closer and pedestrians kept filling up Bayshore, setting up camp chairs in the median and playing catch on the cool grass. A block away from the Underwoods, a boy — maybe 6 or 7 years old — darted off after a football that had skittered into the southbound lanes.

On any other day, the scene may have had the ingredients of a tragedy. But on Saturday, no cars could come his way. He retrieved the ball and bounded back to the grass.