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In West Tampa, a church tries to reclaim park for play

A young couple were killed nearby in 2019, but on Saturday, residents took Fremont Linear Park back.
Demar Dotson, 37, of Tampa helps kids JJ and Leah put syrup into their free shaved ices from Kona Ice during Party in the Park at Fremont Linear Park on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022 in Tampa.
Demar Dotson, 37, of Tampa helps kids JJ and Leah put syrup into their free shaved ices from Kona Ice during Party in the Park at Fremont Linear Park on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022 in Tampa. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]
Published Aug. 7|Updated Aug. 7

TAMPA — The Rev. Rahman Gathers began the day he hoped to reclaim Fremont Linear Park like any other: with prayer. He rose before the sun in a community the cigar industry built, his wife sleeping next to him, and prayed for you, me, everyone.

It was the first Saturday in August and his church, REVIVE Tampa, was hosting “Party in the Park”, where volunteers were to dole out free food and school supplies at the West Tampa park, a little patch of green along N Fremont Avenue more synonymous with drug deals than childhood games.

From his bedroom, Gathers prayed the event would remind West Tampa of its promise.

Pastor Rahman Gathers, 40, of REVIVE Church of Tampa, swings a handkerchief during Party in the Park at Fremont Linear Park on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022 in Tampa.
Pastor Rahman Gathers, 40, of REVIVE Church of Tampa, swings a handkerchief during Party in the Park at Fremont Linear Park on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022 in Tampa. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

“I want to rebuild West Tampa back into the family friendly place that I remember,” said Gathers, 40, of the place he was born and raised.

Outside Fremont Linear Park sprawls a neighborhood — one of the city’s oldest and, some say, most forgotten. The signature clock tower of a former cigar factory rises above buildings that are well kept and buildings that are vacant, windows boarded up or windows smashed like empty eye sockets.

Among the last times the area made headlines, other than for redevelopment, was when a young couple was gunned down outside their yellow duplex.

Stanley Peck, born in Haiti the third of seven siblings, was working as a carpenter and had gone to elementary school with Gathers. Tia Pittman, who had a storied career as a stylist, had helped found a civic engagement nonprofit in her home state of Michigan. Both were 38. Their 2-year-old son and 3-week-old daughter were inside the home at the time. The man convicted of their murder sits in a state prison some 400 miles away.

But Saturday was not about him.

The day was about Mason Telfair, 9, who beamed with pride as he announced he won the morning bean bag toss. It was about his 10-year-old brother, Marcus, who sat beside him wearing an identical pair of lime green shorts, shoveling shaved ice into his mouth.

Kennedy Mann, 6, of Tampa plays with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleader during Party in the Park at Fremont Linear Park on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022 in Tampa.
Kennedy Mann, 6, of Tampa plays with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleader during Party in the Park at Fremont Linear Park on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022 in Tampa. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

It was about Sharon Peterson, a 64-year-old grandmother of two, who stood in a shady corner, a tote bag filled with free school supplies she had been given slung over her shoulder. She lived just around the corner, she said, but has learned to avoid the park. “It’s a dope area,” she said.

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As the sun crawled higher in the sky, Peterson surveyed the scene: children played tag in one corner, tables were laden with bouncy balls in another. A line grew for the food truck dishing out chicken and mac and cheese. “This is a beautiful thing,” she said.

Under a tent, girls took turns braiding each others’ hair. The multicolor balloon arches swayed in the breeze. The city sign warning that the park closed at sunset was covered with a church banner that said: Welcome.

Attendees listen for their raffle numbers for prizes, including Tampa Tarpons backpacks and tickets and gift cards, during Party in the Park at Fremont Linear Park on Saturday.
Attendees listen for their raffle numbers for prizes, including Tampa Tarpons backpacks and tickets and gift cards, during Party in the Park at Fremont Linear Park on Saturday. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

Doug and Erica Pyle founded REVIVE Tampa in their living room 11 years ago. The couple moved to Tampa from New York in 2011, wanting to be closer to family.

The church has operated out of a blue-tiled building on N Howard Avenue, half a mile from the park, since 2017.

“We couldn’t just commute in,” Pastor Doug Pyle said. They wanted to be a local church, so their congregation could also be neighbors.

When members of the church were cleaning up the park a few days before the event, they found broken glass, bullet casings and used condoms and sanitary products.

Captain Fear and Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders talk to children during Party in the Park at Fremont Linear Park on Saturday in Tampa.
Captain Fear and Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders talk to children during Party in the Park at Fremont Linear Park on Saturday in Tampa. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

“Hello everyone” Sherisha Hills, the director of Tampa’s Parks and Recreation Department told the crowd. “I have never seen this many people in the park.”

A joint effort between the city, the Tampa Housing Authority and Related Urban Development Group, the West River project, 500 yards away, already has welcomed residents into two housing developments with more homes and businesses on the way in the next few years. Just north of the West River project is the projected site of the recently unveiled Rome Yard project. And a new Publix, Florida’s go-to grocery, is rumored for this area, long hailed a food desert.

On Saturday’s balmy afternoon, here were city staffers who promised action, and Captain Fear, mascot of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a representative for a local IT company offering career guidance.

And here, of course, was Pastor Gathers, selecting the next song in his party playlist and giving thanks for this celebration that would not, could not, be denied.

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