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Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014
Steve Otto Columns

Otto: No identity crisis in the Big Guava

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Cheap shots are nothing new, especially when your town lets loose once a year with something like Gasparilla. We can live with those, even laugh along with them.

But when Newsweek, which used to be a powerful newsmagazine before it disappeared into digital outer space, published a story last week that was hardly a valentine about our town, it’s time to take notice.

The author, Victoria Bekiempis, actually spent some time here. She was at the University of South Florida, studying French, Spanish and philosophy. She even worked for awhile at a paper in St. Petersburg.

Anyhow, her piece is allegedly about how we hold this drunken festival every year called Gasparilla.

But it quickly slips into a general pounding of just about everything Tampa. “What do you think of when you think of Tampa?” she writes. “Probably nothing. At worst, it’s thought of as a town of strip clubs, shopping centers and suburban sprawl, as well as every stripe of sex scandal ... At best it’s thought of as a town that can handle big-ticket events like the 2012 Republican Convention.”

OK, I can live with that as well. I mean, shades of Bollywood.

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Unfortunately she doesn’t know when to quit.

“Perhaps Tampa hasn’t shed its seedier rep because it lacks an identity,” she goes on. “Such is the fate of many small and mid-sized cities without a cohesive geographic center and is a common complaint among transplants from what they think are bigger, better places. To ask what it means to be from Phoenix or Boca Raton or, well, Tampa is to question whether it means anything.”

She spends the rest of the piece pointing out the sleaziness of Gasparilla as our only chance to find an identity.

You know, if you happen to be from Tampa, or have spent any time here, you’ve heard all of that. But after awhile it gets old.

I don’t have time and don’t want to post a list of reasons why this is such a special place.

But as for an identity crisis, I’m afraid she is full of it.

The only identity crisis we have around here are the marketing people who believe we have to be known as Tampa Bay instead of the special cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and dozens of other communities around Tampa Bay.

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I don’t know of any other city this size where people are more comfortable with each other. Some of that goes back to the cigar days of Ybor City and the social clubs. We know our politicians. You see them in small Cuban restaurants in West Tampa or judging strawberry queens in Plant City. They are accessible.

The mayor likes to color the Hillsborough River green on St. Patrick’s Day. Mention to him you’re Irish and he’ll buy you a Guinness. Just tell him I said you would.

All of us, should we choose, can sit at a restaurant at Ballast Point and take in the sweep of the bay for free.

If you think Gasparilla is run by a bunch of rich boys from Palma Ceia, you can put together your own krewe. Now there are dozens of krewes that spend much of the year doing good things in our community.

An identity crisis? Give me a break. I know where I live. Tampa is not some artificial town. It’s blue collar and at the same time has one of the largest public universities in the country and a booming private university under minarets downtown.

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It also has a rich diversity of cultures that anyone can enjoy. Two weeks ago we went to hear Itzhak Perlman at the Straz and a few days later heard bluegrass at the fair. Fiesta Day is coming up in Ybor. Have you seen the magnificent Sykes chapel on the University of Tampa campus? Have you ever walked inside Hillsborough High School? Have you ever gone canoeing on the Hillsborough on a winter afternoon; driven over to the Dalí for a few hours, stopped in at Brocatos for a Cuban and a crab; got a window seat at the Colonnade; cruised down Armenia and stopped at one of the dozens of ethnic cafes; taken in a spring training game in March at Steinbrenner Field; meandered down the St. Petersburg waterfront; gone for a bike ride in the flatwoods or a jog down Bayshore?

I know I said I wouldn’t start a list, but when people say we have an identity crisis, they don’t have sand in their shoes.

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