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USF Students Bring Tampa Downtown History to Life

Apr 16, 2013

From October to May, the Downtown Tampa Partnership's "Do the Local Motion!" program holds theme walks that take people around the heart of the city. Coordinator Vicki Anzalone says at noon, every other Friday, people are encouraged to skip lunch and learn more about Tampa.

“We believe that there’s so much history here in the downtown corridor, and we’ve seen every walk we’ve had, people that have lived here for years have said, ‘Wow, I never knew that!’" said Anzalone.

But this month, they’ve brought in some experts—graduate students from USF Professor Barbara Berglund's “Urban Public History” class.

According to Anzalone, "It just brings so much excitement and value to the program, I think partnering with USF took our program to a whole new level of credibility."

Last Friday, the focus was on shopping on Franklin Street in the 1950s.

“Fifty-five years ago, this was the premier shopping area," said Dave Nauman, one of the student tour guides.  "If not Tampa’s Main Street, USA, shall we say, not to invoke Disney, but this is the most important street in Tampa.”

Nauman was dressed for his hosting role, almost looking like a salesman from a old TV sitcom.

Label on Dave Nauman's 1950s era suit from Maas Brothers Dept. Store
Credit Dave Nauman

“I’m actually wearing a vintage, mid 1950s suit from Maas Brothers," he said. "It’s actually in the label, it’s kind of awesome and cool, along with my Stetson Fedora.”

Meanwhile, fellow student tour guide Melissa Badcock complimented her white sundress with a 50s-era scarf and Jackie Kennedy-style sunglasses.

“I think it just adds to the theme we’re trying to make present here as well and get people to really think about 1950s lifestyle down Franklin Street,” Badcock said.

As we take the half-mile jaunt up the brick covered street from Madison north to Fortune,  what had been home to dozens of stores is now a series of restaurants, luxury apartments and office buildings scattered among vacant storefronts and empty lots.

"This street is literally the journey through post-war America," said Badcock. "You had several themes emphasized through this street—you had civil rights, you had shopping, you have urban renewal, and then you have the most common sight unfortunately downtown is now decaying buildings.”

Tour group in front of parking lot where Maas Brothers Dept. Store once was
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Where the famed Maas Brothers Department Store once stood is now a parking lot. Woolworth’s, Kress, Schwobilt, all are empty—with pictures on the boarded windows showing what the buildings used to look like in their glory days.

In front of one such empty structure, Nauman talks about how many TV sets the store sold in the 50s, thanks in part to a man who was hugely popular in Tampa—Elvis Presley.

“Elvis came to Tampa four times, not just once," Nauman told the group. "Twice in '55 and twice in '56, so he was huge in Tampa.”

One building that’s barely changed is the historic Tampa Theater, which opened in 1926 and still hosts movies and concerts today. It’s here that Nauman brings up how prevalent segregation was in the 1950s and 60s.

“It was a white-only theater, if you were black, I’m sorry, no, you were not allowed to go in there,” Nauman says, somewhat uncomfortably. At this, members of the crowd murmur.

“That’s right,” an older African-American woman says with a slight laugh. When a white woman the same age turns to her and asks if she remembers the ban, the first woman nods vigorously.

Nauman knows that it's tough dredging up memories with stories of segregated theaters and race riots spurred by young minorities trying to sit at department store lunch counters -- but it's an important part of history.

And using these stories, he says, along with references to retro-fashion and shopping and cultural touchstones, helps bring the history of a seemingly dying street to life.

Franklin St. today
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

“You stop talking about dead presidents and things like that and you start talking about Elvis and things that people understand," he said, "all these things that took place culturally in the 50s to try and get people to be able to picture in their mind what it was like 55 years ago.”

For tour participant Donna Van Name, who came to Tampa in 1959, it’s a little sad seeing the places she used to come to shop look like they do now.

“It was a lot of hustle and bustle and exciting to come down, that was a big deal to come down to Tampa to shop," Van Name said. "Haber’s and Maas Brothers were probably my favorite stores.”

But for others, like the youngest participants in the walk, it’s a wake-up call.

Blythe Broecker, 22, was struck by the decrepit state of many of the older buildings.

“I think it’s really important to preserve these sites for future generations to come and learn how this city became what it was,” said Broecker.

Her boyfriend, Joshua Taylor, 27, agreed.

“The biggest thing I’ll take with me is just being able to see these sites and think historically and know that some of the richness that we live in, that surrounds us," Taylor added.

And that's exactly what USF History graduate student Ron Arbisi wants people to take away from the experience.

“There’s a lot more here than office buildings, there’s a million stories of a million people that lived their lives in this area and have a story to tell," Arbisi said. "And though a lot of the people have passed on, the buildings are still here and the stories are still here and the history is still here and it’s a part of our identity that we need to recapture if it’s not going to be lost.”

There are two more walks scheduled with the History students—on Friday, April 19th, In the Line of Duty looks at some of the monuments downtown and the people they honor. Then on April 26th, Frontier Tampa profiles some of the people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds who took part in the city’s development.

The free walks take about an hour, and step off at noon at Lykes Gaslight Square Park in downtown Tampa.
 


USF History graduate student Jessica Wells leads a history walk through some of the downtown sites associated with the illicit activities of Charlie Wall, who ran the Tampa underworld for nearly three decades: