tbo: Tampa Bay Online.
Friday, Jul 21, 2017

Dozens celebrate 22nd Street improvements

EAST TAMPA - Artist James Vann reflected on the six grey walls - "like tombstones out there" - where he painted neo-cubist murals that captured the community's history. "It shows the power of the brush," he said. Community activist Evangeline Best looked at the newly paved and landscaped 22nd Street, running past Vann's murals, and recalled her childhood in East Tampa. "It was like I was a little girl again walking down 22nd Street," she said. "This was a safe place for us to walk up and down the street. I'm happy today."
Former Negro League Baseball player Walter "Dirk" Gibbons, 82, held a plaque honoring the league and the glory of the Belmont Heights Little League fields, one block away at 22nd Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. "That's where we started," Gibbons said. About 100 people including Mayor Pam Iorio recently gathered outside the Tampa Police District III headquarters, at 3802 N. 22nd St., to celebrate three events: the unveiling of Vann's murals; the completion of a $1.8 million redesign of 22nd from Martin Luther King to East Lake Avenue; and the installation of a historical marker dedicated to the East Tampa children who played at Belmont Heights and went on to professional careers in the Negro Baseball League. Vann's murals, painted in vibrant colors and bold strokes, honor the city's first black patrol officers, the community's rich history of families and churches, its ties to musical giants such as Ray Charles and James Brown, its sports heroes and the historical business district that once thrived on Central Avenue. Vann is a former New York City corrections officer who taught art to inmates at Ryker's Island prison and city jail. He lives now in Valrico with his wife, Jeannette. The murals have given him something special. "I didn't win the lottery. Too bad," he said. "I got something better. I got my own gallery. Martin Luther King; it's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, free admission. Could I ask for anything more?" The 22nd street enhancement is the first of three segments of 22nd to be redesigned. Work on the next two segments entails repaving and landscaping 22nd from East Lake Avenue to 23rd Avenue and includes installation of a roundabout traffic intersection. Total project costs are estimated at $11 million. The historical marker at the Little League fields is the first to recognize the accomplishments of Tampa's young black ball players during segregation and before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball. Gibbons played in the Negro League with the Indianapolis Clowns. Before that he played locally with the Pepsi Cola Giants and the Tampa Rockets. The Rockets were put together by C. Blythe Andrews, then publisher of the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin. Looking down 22nd toward the Belmont Heights' ball fields, Gibbons said, "It was the first ball field that we really had that we didn't really have to clean up, throw away broken glass and trash before we could play.' ksteele@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7652
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