Daniel Ruth: City owes Gonzmart and Princess Ulele more than a notice of code violation

A crew removes the bust of Native American Princess Ulele from the north end of the Tampa Riverwalk on Tuesday morning. The city of Tampa said it was installed without permission on city property. [BRONTE WITTPENN   |   Times]
A crew removes the bust of Native American Princess Ulele from the north end of the Tampa Riverwalk on Tuesday morning. The city of Tampa said it was installed without permission on city property. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Published Sept. 19, 2018

This has to be height of bureaucratic pettiness, especially for a city whose track record in promoting quality public art falls somewhere between stick figures and finger puppets.

Richard Gonzmart is a community treasure. As the force behind a number of Tampa Bay eateries, most notably the Columbia Restaurant, Ulele, Goody-Goody and other terrific dining destinations, Gonzmart is also a generous philanthropist and developer.

Last year, Gonzmart paid for the creation and installation of an 1,800-pound, 8-by-8-by-6-foot bust of Ulele, a Native American princess and restaurant namesake just outside the business along Tampa's Riverwalk. It is (or was) a beautiful piece of artwork honoring Tampa's earliest history.

But the city ordered the bust to be removed on the dubious argument Ulele had been placed on public land without official government approval. Ah, the clipboard police have struck again.

Gonzmart told the Tampa Bay Times' Paul Guzzo that Ulele's eviction was the handiwork of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, which hizzoner denied.

If that's the case, Buckhorn could have easily stepped into the fray and ordered Princess Ulele to be put back where she belongs. After all, where's the fun in being mayor if you can't throw your weight around from time to time? Then again, maybe the mayor already has.

It would seem the petulant attack on Gonzmart and his beloved statue is more than a little ridiculous. After all, for decades the city has been played for chumps by all manner of "artistes" who have foisted off some truly horrible, dreadful, bad, really bad so-called artwork from exploding chickens, to giant slinkies, to, well, "What the heck is that thing anyway?"

Princess Ulele is a lovely piece of work, both artistically and historically. You would think the city of Tampa would be overjoyed to have a piece of art honoring the area's Native American contributions prominently displayed along the Riverwalk.

The mayor's flack, Ashley Bauman, told the Times, "Alongside a Riverwalk that we have worked hard to keep free of clutter. The codes apply to everyone and nobody has the liberty of erecting structures on property that does not belong to them."

Oh puleeze. Can Bauman spare us all the ripe phony indignation hooey?

Clutter? Really? A moving piece of art paying tribute to an early and important Tampa historical figure is regarded by City Hall as "clutter"?!?!

Along the Riverwalk on almost any given weekend, the city sponsors all manner of drunk-fests celebrating one form of hooch or another. Let the games and vomiting begin. Talk about clutter.

But there is no room for an educational work of art that harms no one? And the city, whatever the whining of the bureaucrats, couldn't see its way clear to give Richard Gonzmart, who already has given so much back to his hometown, a break?

This isn't as if Gonzmart deserved some slack after shooting someone in the head in the middle of Ybor City. He merely wanted to honor a Tampa figure of historical importance.

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As well, you could make the argument that it was because of Gonzmart, who invested heavily in creating the Ulele restaurant, that his gamble helped pave the way for the economic resurgence along the northern end of the Riverwalk. He deserved a street, or something, named after him, instead of a code enforcement citation.

Adding insult to injury the Ulele bust was consigned to a warehouse. What? No room at the Tampa Museum of History?

Native Americans always have gotten the short end of the stick, treaties dishonored, land stolen, promises failed.

Ulele is said to have saved the life of an early Spanish explorer who had been consigned to death by the princess' father.

In a way, perhaps, the city's treatment of Princess Ulele does serve as a worthy teachable moment. Some things never change.

And now Princess Ulele is gone. A memory put to death by paper-pushing.