Little Known Tampa: Culturally Diverse and Exciting!

When you come to Tampa, you’ll find examples of good planning, fabulous natural areas, and appealing urban spaces. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Florida and the Tampa Bay area are—or at least were—national leaders in growth management

Beginning in the late 1970s and culminating in the Growth Management Act of 1985, the state of Florida had one of the nation’s most fully articulated statewide planning regimes. Perhaps because Floridians had experienced firsthand the problems of rapid growth without much planning, the state legislature created measures to ensure that each county and municipality engaged in long term planning, that large regional projects were reviewed by regional planning agencies, and that state officials would be charged with upholding plans. Transportation, water resources, and coastal concerns were all taken into account when new developments were proposed. Growth management hardly stopped development – Florida’s population grew from 9.7 million in 1980 to just over 19 million in 2012, with new single family housing accommodating much of that growth. But under the state’s growth management laws, some of the sins of the 1960s and 1970s – houses constructed without attendant municipal services in place, unrestrained draining of wetlands, and inattention to water resource limits – were contained. Unfortunately, important parts of these Growth Management laws were overturned in 2011. The full impact of this retreat has not yet been felt; thanks to the recession, demand for new construction has been limited. But once demand picks up, the flight from comprehensive planning is likely to be felt, especially in the less urban parts of the state.

Tampa Demographics

White or Caucasian (including White Hispanic) 62.9%
(Non-Hispanic White or Caucasian) 46.3%
Black or African-American 26.2%
Hispanic or Latino (of any race) 23.1%
Asian 3.4%
Native American or Native Alaskan 0.4%
Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian 0.1%
Two or more races (Multiracial) 3.2%
Source: US Census Bureau

Tampa has an industrial history

Incorporated in 1849, Tampa, unlike many Sunbelt cities, emerged as an industrial center. Between 1865 and World War II, Tampa was a key center of the cigar industry. The cities (and now neighborhoods within Tampa) of Ybor City and West Tampa both developed around cigar manufacturing, drawing streams of immigrants to work in the factories. Tampa has a tradition of union activism having experienced several general strikes in the early decades of the last century. Its racially and ethnically diverse population has a tradition of immigrant social clubs and mutual benefit societies that provided cultural and material resources to working class residents. The built legacy of these traditions can be found throughout these communities. The Cuban Club, the German-American Club and the Italian Club are a few of the early 20th century establishments whose buildings have been preserved. And the former cigar factories remain distinctive features of the central Tampa built environment. While some of these sit vacant, others have been repurposed for other industrial uses or converted to condos and offices. Those interested in exploring Tampa history can do so in Ybor City, either by taking advantage of the programs of the Ybor City Museum ( ), or by strolling through the neighborhood.

 Tampa has rediscovered its downtown waterfront

Among the most striking characteristics of our area are its water features. Parts of Tampa and all of Pinellas County (location of St. Petersburg) are defined by their rivers, bays and oceans. But until recently, Tampa was largely cut off from its waterfront. In an earlier era, river and bayfront areas were dominated by industrial, port and transportation infrastructure, but as those uses have receded (the Port of Tampa remains quite active, but other waterfront industries are gone), Tampa was slow to recognize the value of its waterfront for recreation and the development of other amenities. One of the major commercial developments in the downtown area, the Channelside shopping/entertainment center, is located directly on the water, next to the Tampa port facilities, and it has been ingeniously designed so that those visiting the development have no contact with the water at all – no access, no vistas. Perhaps that helps explain why the development has gone bankrupt.

But more recent downtown planning has embraced the waterfront location. A “Riverwalk” has been under development now across two mayoral administrations; a recent federal grant will accelerate its completion ( ). Those of you visiting downtown Tampa will have the opportunity to enjoy the water at some new locations. The Tampa Bay History Center opens onto a waterfront plaza ( ). The newly renovated Curtis Hixon Park, at the other end of the downtown peninsula, is a well-designed, inviting urban space flanked by the newly built Tampa Museum of Art ( ). With food kiosks, fountains and children’s play areas, it’s the sort of urban gathering point that this city has lacked for too long. These new spaces signal the success of fledgling coalitions of elected officials, civic activists and business leaders who share an appreciation for appealing design and pedestrian-friendly urban environments.

Ride the TECO trolley

Like too many Sunbelt cities, Tampa once had a dense network of light rail lines, most of which were bought up by bus companies and dismantled by the late 1940s. But a trolley line was resurrected recently; it runs a loop connecting the downtown/Channelside area with Ybor City ( The embattled trolley line has struggled to maintain ridership; critics claim its empty cars are proof that this region will never embrace mass transit while defenders note that its limited route makes it useful mostly to visitors or the rare resident whose home and work happen to be near one if its stops. But those of you staying at one of the conference hotels are well positioned to use the trolley for your explorations.

There’s much in this area that transcends the generic – the newly opened bike and pedestrian bridge that traverses Tampa Bay along the Courtney Campbell Causeway; one of baseball’s best teams (the Tampa Bay Rays) playing in one of baseball’s worst stadiums (Tropicana Field); the annual invasion of the city by sea led by business and civic leaders dressed as pirates (the Gasparilla Festival) and the annual crowning of a “Strawberry Queen” in nearby Plant City. If you want to learn more about what the region offers, you can read all about it the highly regarded Tampa Bay Times (, one of the last independently owned metro area newspapers. We urge you to explore the area and learn that it has a diverse array of historic places, quirky areas, and scenic spots. ♦

Elizabeth Strom
University of South Florida

DOI: 10.14433/2013.0024