A Look at Tampa’s Community Development Storytelling

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September 25, 2012; Source:83 Degrees

An online magazine promoting the economy and culture of the Tampa Bay area of Florida has posted a profile of a community development corporation (CDC) working in the neighborhood adjacent to the University of South Florida (USF) known as Suitcase City (a pejorative name, to be sure, but one that many Tampa Bay residents use to describe the neighborhood of 40,000). The article is a little breathless and promotional, suggesting that the neighborhood known for its transient, low income population is no longer called Suitcase City, that the residents “are working together to stamp out poverty for good by creating the environment and culture that will help move their neighbors in need toward self-sufficiency,” and that the CDC’s latest plans are possibly the “‘next evolution’ for nonprofits…to change the way services are delivered.”

Leaving aside the hyperbole, there really is a story here about what this CDC, the University Area Community Development Corporation (UACDC), is trying to do in the area. Tampa’s Suitcase City offers any CDC a challenge beyond its name and brand. A “student’s guide to North Tampa” describes Suitcase City as the “seediest” of places where “you may want to watch your back at night.” Potentially as much as half of the population of Suitcase City lives below the federal poverty line.

No one, especially a CDC, should be surprised to see a neighborhood description revealing tough socio-economic conditions. That’s where CDCs do what they do for a living. CDCs work with neighborhood residents—usually they are led by the neighborhood residents themselves—to tackle and redress serious problems of neighborhood poverty. They don’t fool themselves into thinking that they, as micro-actors, are somehow magically positioned to “stamp out” macro-level problems such as poverty. However, they know that through concerted community action, they can serve as hotspots for capturing and using municipal, state, and federal resources to help residents deal with these problems and find their ways toward better housing, more stable employment, and better support for families and kids.

UACDC knows that is has an anchor institution like USF next door. Plus, there is County Commissioner Victor Crist’s plan to turn northeast Hillsborough County, including Suitcase City, into a destination area and a “mini-Silicon Valley” (the proposed “innovation destination” economic development district). The plan is noteworthy for the CDC since Crist just recently left as the CDC’s board chair. While the 83 Degrees article might be something of a light touch, the community development sector needs more storytellers and storytelling about what it takes to do community-based development in neighborhoods burdened by poverty.—Rick Cohen