TAMPA — Sitting in a plastic lawn chair in front of his South Tampa bungalow in 2018, Jerry Ohmstede smiled and squinted into the afternoon sun.
Jerry kept his chair next to his wife Betty’s. Together, on the patchy grass, their plastic seats formed a loose semicircle with a third reserved for frequent visitors on narrow West Zelar Street.
Bill the mail carrier stopped every day on his route. He handed Jerry letters and plopped beside him, meaning everyone else’s mail would have to wait. Daughter Mariane checked in at least weekly. Dog-walking neighbors traded news.
On days like today, though, it was just Jerry. And from this vantage point, in his plastic perch, he had watched a neighborhood transform.
Jerry and Betty bought their place for $7,750 in 1957. By late 2018, the couple had been married 64 years and lived in the same spot for 61 of them.
They filled their backyard with exotic plants. Pink, yellow and candy-stripe plumerias bloomed alongside angel trumpets, sending sweet perfume into the dampened air. Betty liked to wear the flowers in her hair.
Their home was one of the few original bungalows left on the block. But for how much longer?
Newly diagnosed with dementia, Betty’s mind had been slipping. Jerry needed a walker to get from his front door to the yard. Builders kept calling, nagging him to sell. Small houses like theirs tended to attract buyers for only one reason: the land.
And bigger homes were rising on both sides of their property. One of them was mine.
In a white-hot real estate market, this scene plays out all over the city, from Beach Park to Tampa Heights. From West Tampa to south of Gandy. Try driving a few blocks in South Tampa without encountering a port-a-potty. New construction has propelled housing prices into the stratosphere. The land alone under houses like Jerry’s is worth nearly 100 times what the first homeowners paid in 1950. And as new homes rise, neighbors are caught in a fierce debate about how these older neighborhoods are changing.
Jerry sat outside with Corki, his old Corgi. The dog, in a fit of territory-marking, kicked grass in my direction with her little hind legs.
“Don’t mind her,” he said. “Is this going to be your house?”
“They sure are moving fast.”
With heavy equipment pounding the earth around him, Jerry had been sandwiched by construction dust and noise. He’d already endured months of back-up sirens, whirring machinery and the staccato of nail guns by the time we met.
I started at the Tampa Bay Times in mid-August 2018 and came across Zelar Street on a bike ride. We bought our lot two weeks later, just as the builder poured the foundation. The previous home, built the same year as Jerry’s, had been wiped out months before.
Coming from Oregon, we wanted to be in an established neighborhood, a newer home, a good school zone. Our son’s elementary school would be about a block away. The middle school was a short walk past the Little League fields and Plant High minutes from home by car. Jerry’s street checked all the boxes.
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The original houses on this street wouldn’t have worked for us. But on this single block, three out of four homes since 2000 had been razed and replaced with open floor plans and spacious kitchens fit for a modern family.
In his prime, Jerry had built his own addition, tiled his own bathroom and sent his three young kids up a ladder to reroof the house. Now in his twilight years, sitting back and watching others build provided a source of endless amusement. He positioned his chair to get the best view.
On weekends, I’d drop by to check the progress, from the framing to the drywalling to the flooring and tiling. Jerry would almost always be outside, watching contractors come and go.
“Looks like we’ll finally be neighbors soon,” he said shortly after New Year’s Day in 2019. The next month, we settled in.
Shaded by mature oaks and featuring streets with haphazard sidewalks, this pocket of South Tampa could be easy to overlook. Zelar spans only four blocks. Ibises, herons and egrets pluck through lawns. Golf carts amble by, hauling kids to school and baseball games. Today, the two-story homes sell for up to $2 million. Tear-downs can cost more than $750,000. That’s nearly twice as expensive as in 2018.
A few blocks north are pricier homes. Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier has been spotted pushing his youngest child in a stroller. A block beyond him, an American flag sways from the sturdy brick facade belonging to University of South Florida president Rhea Law. Kiermaier’s morning walk takes him past the stately house of Bucs general manager Jason Licht.
But that all feels a world apart from Jerry’s orbit, where he acted as the neighborhood guide.
Looking for a good mechanic? Jerry says try McLeod’s Auto Service. The owner’s family lived across the street in a little house, since replaced.
Worried about hurricanes? Jerry says he’d always stood his ground during the worst storms.
The towering oak in his front yard that canopies the street? Jerry says he planted that as an acorn.
Before there were many houses in Tampa’s mid-peninsula, rattlesnakes slithered around pine trees and through orange groves. Home construction took off after World War II in neighborhoods like Sunset Park, Culbreath Heights and Virginia Park.
The first single-story homes built on Zelar Street weren’t going to win a beauty contest. They were squat starter houses for young couples and military personnel, built at a breakneck pace. They included two bedrooms, one bathroom, a space heater and a carport. With 1,000 square feet of living space, the homes were predictable enough that several neighbors likely had the exact same floor plan.
Mel Larsen, owner of Clair-Mel Builders, got approval to build each house for as little as $5,000. The company broke ground on Zelar in January 1950 and put up 28 bungalows in about a year. Prices started at $7,600. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that would be $95,816 today.
Thanks to the G.I. Bill, anyone with military service could own one with a down payment of $85.
As these homes go, so do their histories, and so do the histories of the people who lived there — despite our best efforts to hold on.
Jerry grew up near the airport when it was still Drew Field. He rode a motorized scooter to Plant High, where he served as a technical sergeant in the ROTC.
After high school, he deployed during the Korean War as a fireman on the USS Mountrail, a Naval transport ship. On shore leave in Southern California he met Betty Lou Dolezal. He was 19. She was 16. When the Mountrail came back to San Diego, Jerry hitchhiked to Los Angeles to see Betty, who worked as a telephone operator. In cards and love letters their children kept, he called her his “little pigeon.” They married in Southern California in 1954 and moved to Tampa, within a few blocks of MacDill Air Force Base. The loud planes prompted them to relocate to Zelar Street.
Betty served lunch to the children at nearby Mabry Elementary. Jerry worked for the U.S. Postal Service and taught his kids how to change brake pads and rotate tires. He’d salvage scraps of wood in the neighborhood and find ways to repurpose it. Mariane remembers sitting cross-legged in the street, making pencil drawings of their house. The neighborhood kids spent their afternoons climbing trees.
“We swung from the branches like we were Tarzan,” she said.
Jerry eventually became postmaster. When he retired, the couple traveled.
But not anymore. Mariane says her mom started fading years before her dementia diagnosis in 2018. Jerry took her on slow afternoon strolls, both pushing walkers with Corki puttering beside them. The ritual became more laborious, and less frequent. At home, Betty tripped over Corki a couple of times and broke bones.
She died at 86 in the house where she raised her three children on July 10, 2021.
In the days after, Jerry, now 90, retreated to his bedroom and sobbed, according to Mariane.
You’ve heard stories about couples together as long as Betty and Jerry dying within a few days of each other. Though brokenhearted, Jerry vowed to press on. He had put on a new roof and made plans.
“I’m going to stay in this house 10 more years,” he told our family. No one had lived on the block longer than Jerry.
He booked tickets to visit his son Greg and his family for Thanksgiving in North Carolina and to see a doctor for his ailing back.
But a toothache was the more pressing concern. He needed a root canal, and the procedure went horribly wrong. Jerry got an infection that made his cheek balloon. He was rushed to Tampa General and given antibiotics, but it was too late. He went home. Like Betty, he died there, 95 days after her.
Nearly 5,000 residential demolition permits have been issued in Tampa in the last decade — including 709 in 2021. That’s the most in any single year since at least 2005, according to city data.
“Having all of these homes torn down is a wrinkle we haven’t had before,” says Tampa historian Rodney Kite-Powell, “and the pace is really incredible.”
A blogger has tried to keep up with “The McMansioning of South Tampa.” About 2,700 razed dwellings are pictured. Some of the lost homes are majestic and sad. Many, though, were tired and untended. The sheer volume is beyond what a single blogger could chronicle. Ten of the 14 homes knocked down this century on Jerry’s block aren’t depicted on the site’s map. Even so, the layers upon layers of red pins are striking.
Kite-Powell compares the construction spurt with the building boom following World War II. After the war, the city saw an influx of people moving from all over the country. Now families come to South Tampa because they want to be shaded by tall trees and surrounded by quality schools. Historically low-interest rates fueled the surging market.
Not everyone is happy. Search the local Nextdoor site for the term “McMansions” and you’ll encounter one of the more passionate running discussions in the city. When a one-story home came on the market at the start of the pandemic, neighbors implored the owner to seek a buyer who would maintain it. “I beg you not to sell it to a builder that will level it and build a ridiculously oversized McMansion that ruins the charm of our neighborhood,” wrote Lisa Donaldson. “Please.”
When another home was slated for demolition, scores of neighbors chimed in. “I was born in Tampa in 1952,” said William Webb. “Whoever they are ruining our city with these damn McMansions makes me ill.” And Diana Browning: “Tampa has sold its soul to DEVELOPERS.” She went on to blame the ills of flooding, traffic, crime and higher taxes on the larger houses.
Others counter that the older homes are no longer functional and that the newer ones raise the value of those around them. “The curmudgeons will always complain … until they are ready to cash out,” posted Marc Edelman. “Tampa is progressing for the better.”
To the extent there is a problem, I suppose I’m part of it. Our two-story, 3,692-square foot home replaced a house not even a third its size.
Bill Heilig, who lives in one of the original bungalows on Zelar, likes the way the block has changed. In 1980, before turning 30, he relocated from upstate New York with his wife, Pam. She became a popular art teacher at Mabry and later Jefferson High.
“We were the younger people then,” said Heilig, now 72, and widowed. “Most of the people on the street were Jerry’s age or older. There’s a lot of young families now, and that has added life to the neighborhood.”
With Jerry and Betty gone, it would be only a matter of time before their house became another pin on the map of vanquished Tampa homes.
“It was a great place to grow up and a great neighborhood for mom and dad to raise us,” their eldest son Greg Ohmstede said. “But you have to move on.”
Normally when a home falls, there’s some warning. First a “For Sale” sign, then a permit box posted in the yard. Orange mesh or tarp encircles trees to be spared. None of that had happened when Jerry’s house came crashing down after sunrise on July 11, 2022.
Here was the demolition crew, a year and a day after Betty died. A worker climbed into a thick yellow machine, thrust the joystick forward and plowed through the front of 4313 W. Zelar.
Like an agitated T. rex, steel jaws tore through the wood, glass and metal, mangling the air conditioner, crushing the bathtub, toppling the brand-new roof and burying the leftover belongings no one had wanted. A white plastic lawn chair was flipped upside down.
Underneath the rubble lay the bed that Jerry slept in, and died in.
Only weeks later did orange mesh cordon off Jerry’s tree and a couple of Betty’s tropical plants, bringing some solace to worried neighbors.
Mariane, who is now caring for 14-year-old Corki, finally mustered the courage to drive by Thursday.
“That’s my childhood,” she said, “gone.”
The day after Jerry’s funeral, Greg stood in the front yard watching boisterous kids, who recently had moved across the street, etch colored chalk into the sidewalk.
Greg planned to sell the home to people connected to longtime neighbors on the block. It was one small way to keep the family vibe intact.
The deal went through in April for $600,000. A month later, a home on a smaller lot two blocks east on Zelar closed for $760,000. It’s gone now, too. Another port-a-potty in the yard.
Before heading back to North Carolina with his family, Greg made an offer of another kind.
“My mom loved her plumerias,” he said. “If you’d like any clippings, feel free to get some.”
We spoke for a few more minutes about the neighborhood before Greg returned to Betty’s plants. “Just help yourself. Mom would love that.”
On the anniversary of Betty’s death, I took a pair of shears into her yard, slicing three segments, each about a foot long.
To this day, that plumeria plant remains. But there’s no orange mesh protecting it. Crews haven’t returned to finish clearing the lot. The day will come.
I plucked away the leaves and kept the stalks dry, for about a week, allowing calluses to form, signaling they were ready.
I thought of Jerry and Betty as I gently screwed the three clippings into separate pots of soil, before nudging them into a sunny spot in our side yard, just as the light began to disappear behind Jerry’s tree.