Tampa Bay’s urban champions

These citizens are bringing their best to the Bay.

| September 20, 2013
HERE, READ THIS: Jose Gelats donates to a book box in downtown St. Pete.
HERE, READ THIS: Jose Gelats donates to a book box in downtown St. Pete.
- Mitzi Gordon

When you tally up all the imaginative and generous souls who share their gifts to make Tampa Bay more livable, it’s a long list. Here are some of the standouts — women and men who are free with their time, resources and creativity. Their initiatives reflect their enthusiasms, and our community is much richer for their engagement.

Palm tree benefactor
Joe Toph is passionate about palms. “What makes our area special is its tropical ambiance … oaks can be anywhere, but palms are Florida!” A personal collection of 65-plus trees at his home demonstrates his commitment to palms, but Joe wanted to share. He led his collectors’ club, the Palm Group, on a mission to bring palms to public rights of way.
They rented a huge truck and drove to several nurseries, going down to Ft. Lauderdale to secure outstanding specimens. Packing the truck to the max, they brought back their haul to Tampa Bay and strategized the palms’ placement. North Tampa is just a few degrees too cold for certain species of palms to survive, but downtown Tampa is more temperate.
Joe reviewed the potential locations with Parks Department staff, staked out the locations and hired installers. Then he and his friends watered the newly planted trees to insure their health. The stunning, massive silver palms, Bismarckia, were completely new to Tampa, but after their highly visible appearance across from Tampa’s Convention Center and along Channelside Drive, the community has copied Toph’s lead, planting them throughout downtown.
When questioned about his motives, Toph, a respected architect, explained, “I wanted to do something civic, and landscaping is the gateway to making Tampa more attractive.” What a hero!

Book Boxes
What exactly is a book box? Tampa Bay’s Joanie Appleseed of Literacy, Mitzi Gordon, has been installing these brightly colored wooden rectangles, each of which contains 20 to 30 books, at locations from Studio 620 on Central Avenue in downtown St. Pete to Community Stepping Stones in Sulphur Springs.
Her goal in sprinkling these “mobile libraries” around our area is to take books to where folks are. She has selected the locations and books carefully, placing art books where they would likely be most appreciated and children’s books in neighborhoods with younger readers.
Whimzey House, located on Third Street in Safety Harbor, created by artists Kiaralinda and Todd, is a fantasyland of bright colored materials, including 500 painted bowling balls. This local landmark of imagination is another book box location. (See kiaralinda.com for photos of this surprising site.)
Seminole Heights is slated for a Book Box installation on Mon., Sept. 23, kicking off at 4:30 p.m. with a cookout and book donation at 1224 E. Frierson Ave. across from Giddens Park. This addition will bring the total to four locations, with each box having a steward who monitors the book levels, adding new ones and making certain that things run smoothly.
A curator, journalist and arts entrepreneur, Mitzi’s love of reading and creative endeavors inspired her to found Bluebird Books, a “literary-themed mobile project housed in a converted short bus — part bookshop, part art gallery.” The Book Boxes, aka the Open Books Exchange, extend the bus capacity by providing set locations for free exchanges, inspired initially by the Little Free Libraries of Wisconsin.
Gordon promotes her mission, “nurturing a community-wide passion for books as treasures of literature and tangible art,” with action and verve. Stop by a Book Box and take a book, or donate one and be a part of this novel community initiative. Learn more at thebluebirdbus.com.

Greening the Heights
Tampa Heights used to be a raggedy area, full of overgrown lots. But 20 years ago, the residents banded together to make a plan for their neighborhood. One of the plan’s goals was the creation of a community garden. It took years of patient work by Lena Young, leader of the Tampa Heights Civic Association, to convince the Florida Department of Transportation that they should lease the sliver of land adjacent to the I-275 expansion to the neighborhood for a garden.
Fortuitously, Tampa Garden Clubs gardener and advocate, Kitty Wallace, introduced the idea of collaborating with the board of Metropolitan Ministries to establish the Tampa Heights Community Garden. Joining in this stew of talent was Vivian Salaga, architect and developer with her husband, John Tennison, of The Sanctuary, a historic church which they sensitively transformed into work and living spaces.
Each of these dynamic women shared their skill sets and worked with dedicated and energetic neighbors to create, literally, a garden spot where there had been nothing but rubble. The transformation could not have been more dramatic.
Coming into its third year of existence, the Tampa Heights Community Garden functions on a number of levels. It is physically lovely, graced with a sculptural entry, opening to raised beds of vegetables. Visible from the interstate, the garden is a surprising hit of beauty peeking through a sea of pavement. It serves as a yoga site, potluck venue and butterfly attraction.
Kudos to the team of talented Tampa Heights Community Gardeners for their tranformative task — turning dust into a verdant spot for neighbors to gather, grow healthy, inexpensive food, and knit together a community of shared values.

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