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Messages in Ybor pavers are heartfelt, humorous
TAMPA - When John Campbell wanted to surprise his girlfriend, Kortney Gentry, with a special marriage proposal he bought a sidewalk paver in Ybor City. "I got one near the Italian Club where we had gone to church meetings on Sunday mornings," says Campbell, 27, who posed the question in concrete two years ago. He says he cut it very close, getting the "will you marry" installed just in time for the big date one steamy August night. Kortney recalls that they were going to the Columbia Restaurant because she had never been there. "But he parked way up the street, blocks away, and it was raining," she says. "I kept wondering why we were walking all that way."Campbell says he had not seen the paver but knew it was in front of the La Creperia Café. He had friends and relatives ready to record it for a YouTube post. "I was totally surprised; it was really sweet," says 26-year-old Campbell who is expecting their first child in October. "We can come back to see it and remember that day," she says. "It's something that will last as long as the sidewalks are here." Nearly 2,400 pavers have been engraved on the sidewalks of Ybor since the program began in 1990 and more are added each month. It's known as the "Walk of Fame" for people who don't have to be famous. "We have a little bit of everything, marriage proposals, birthday wishes, and memorials for loved ones, anniversary markers, wedding markers, graduation salutes and some that are just amusing," says Vince Pardo, urban development manager for the Ybor City Development Corporation. Pardo says interest in the pavers has increased since the development offices moved into a storefront near the Columbia. "People can walk in and get an application," he says. "We're now getting tourists who stop and want to buy a paver." Paver spaces are available on Seventh Avenue from Nick Nuccio Parkway to 23rd Street and in front of the Ybor City State Museum on Ninth Avenue between Angel Oliva Street and 19th Street. "The museum location is getting popular now because we have a lot of weddings and receptions in the courtyard," Pardo says. Other popular locales for pavers include the Italian Club and at Centro Ybor near the statue of Roland Mantegia, founder of Ybor's newspaper, La Gaceta. Pardo notes that Mantegia's son, Patrick, who now runs La Gaceta, has the only inscription on an Ybor sidewalk that is not on a paver. It's on Seventh Avenue at the doorway of The Dirty Shame tavern celebrating the wedding of Mantegia's daughter. Some pavers recall long gone Ybor stores while others honor a person who played a role in the area's history such as record store owner and civic leader Mollie Ferrera who was Alcadesa of Ybor in the 1950s. "Her relatives recently put in one of the largest collection of pavers to honor her achievements," Pardo says. The cost is $80 per paver. The money goes to the charitable work of the Development Corporation. Each paver has room for three lines – 14 spaces per line. "They have to be short. This is Ybor City's version of haiku," says Don Barco, owner of King Corona Cigars, one of the popular spots for pavers. One of the pavers outside King Corona remembers former Tampa Tribune events editor and area musician Mike O'Neill, who took his own life in 2006 by jumping off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. "There's a story behind every paver," says Richard Gonzmart, president of the Columbia Restaurant Group. "I find it fascinating to walk down the street and read them. Some are touching and others are a mystery." Generations of the Gonzmart family are remembered in pavers outside the restaurant, the most-popular stretch of sidewalk for memorials. "We've got a lot of customers who have pavers outside the restaurant," Gonzmart says. One paver honors Joe Roman who has worked at the Columbia for 58 years. A favorite with customers, Roman is best known as "The Singing Waiter," because he would break into "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" and other ballads. Gonzmart says another paver, which was paid for by the wait staff, honors 87-year-old Elmer Singletary as Columbia's No. 1 customer. Tampa business woman KrisTina Muia says one of her favorite things is to give Ybor pavers as gifts to friends and family, "I have one for my mother, Connie, proclaiming her 'Queen of the Universe' and right under it is 'What's it to ya?' for my father," she says. She her dad, Jack, is an Italian who likes to say "My name is Jack Muia. What's it to ya?" because few can pronounce his last name which rhymes with "to ya." Muia's pavers are near Bernini's restaurant on Seventh Avenue where owner Jason Fernandez is immortalized as "Captain Ybor." Fernandez says that employees of his restaurant gave him the paver after he helped thwart a robbery. "One night a homeless man came in the back of the restaurant and robbed two of my employees," he recalls. "I was younger, more foolish and bolder, I guess. I chased after him and helped the police corner him. We got the money back and my staff grabbed a table cloth and tied it around my neck like a cape. I became 'Captain Ybor' and the name stuck with me." All of the pavers have been engraved by Cecil Murray of Murray's Monument Co. in Plant City. "I usually come down early in the morning on Sundays when there is no traffic and not many people around," he says. He uses a computer program to create the message and imprint it on a rubber mat that is laid over a bare paver like a stencil. He then sandblasts away the concrete. "I've seen just about every kind of message," says Murray who also does tombstones, memorials and other walks of fame through the area. "There was a couple that pledged their love in stone and then later they broke up and one of them came down and chipped off the names."