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Wednesday, Oct 18, 2017
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O'Neill: Tampa big enough to laugh at itself

As I was paging through the New York Times' Sunday Review section recently, I happened upon an opinion piece by comedian Bill Maher. He was reflecting on 2012 as the year of "meh." Not so bad, but not so great either. "Like being a socialite, but in Tampa." Bada-bingo. I'm told I'm oversensitive to such laugh lines at Tampa's expense. Loosen up, I hear. Put some chill-out salve on those civic-pride raw nerves and get over it. Try having a sense of humor and conceding that media meisters who matter are at least talking about Tampa. Nobody makes fun of places nobody cares about.
Several points. Yes, I do have a sense of humor--and I still have a stack of business cards and a certain holiday costume harkening back to a previous incarnation as "Sardonic Santa." Gag Christmas gifts for audiences that seemed approving. But back to Maher. Not unlike Jon Stewart, he is smart, quick, well-informed and often very funny, albeit through that all-pervasive, ideological lens. But when he's not funny--to me--is when he abuses the HBO right to liberally sprinkle in conversational F-bombs and to wax scatologically hip. He also, as noted above, can traffic in cheap shots, many borne of hackneyed, often dated, stereotypes. But I know why it happens--beyond a comic's assurance of laugh-line response. First, Tampa is an uber-vulnerable, big small city. Intriguingly so. Big enough to be noticed nationally because we've hosted four Super Bowls and a national political convention. Big enough to have one of the world's premier airports, a major deep water port, CentCom headquarters and the 9th largest university in the country. Big enough to have multiple sports franchises and to be the hub of the 14th largest TV market, one with an effective buying income--nearly $100 billion--that tops any other Florida metro market. And Tampa is part of Hillsborough County, which is the 8th largest school district in the country. Such chamber of commerce bullet points, however, imply a certain level of sophistication. Surprise. For too long night life and downtown Tampa have been an oxymoronic embarrassment. Mass transit, alas, means buses. And we still have more than our share of strip bars, although Miami, as we keep pointing out, actually has more. No matter. I was in Las Vegas once and saw a sign advertising "Tampa Style Lap Dances." Ouch. Then throw in heat, insects and too many major arteries and intersections dominated by signage for personal injury lawyers. Entirely too tempting for the Mahers and Stewarts, who are, we should remind ourselves, entertainers--not anthropologists. Anyhow, you don't distance yourself from an image, whether fetching or forlorn, overnight. Riverwalk, new museums, the Straz, a wavelet of hotels, Encore renaissance, Ybor City, a minaretted university, a magnet-like waterfront park, Bayshore Boulevard and urban planning by Jeff Vinik are part of an overall landscape--and ambience--still unfolding. Second, Tampa is in "Flori-duh," the home of hanging chads, thinly-veiled voter suppression, NRA deification, Cuban outliers, alligators galore and assorted odd balls from the Midwest and Northeast. Call it guilt by association. But call it reality. But call us often. No news is not good news. And, frankly, I wouldn't want to live somewhere that lived down to a true "socialite"-strata reputation. So, no, I'm no longer taking umbrage at wise cracks about our insects, humidity and strip clubs. You never know when an epiphany will strike. "Sardonic Santa" once trafficked in cheap laughs--and nobody wanted to be ignored. Here in Tampa we're also big enough to laugh at ourselves. Bring it. *** I'm an urban-synergy sort. I love, for example, what the University of Tampa means to downtown Tampa, not just to the west bank of the Hillsborough River. UT, in seeming perpetual expansion mode these days, has become a key catalyst in the ongoing resurgence. Part of that expansion fronts Kennedy Boulevard and provides a major upgrade to that historic downtown entrance. Nobody misses, for example, the aesthetically-challenged Olin Mott auto repair center that was razed to make way for UT's new, Vince Naimoli-funded, 1,500-seat lacrosse stadium. It's sandwiched between Delaware and Willow Avenues. The brick facade is attractive. Just one problem. A permanent, 60-foot-high net has been erected along Kennedy to prevent lacrosse balls from flying into traffic. It's functional, but it's also really cheesy looking. The ironic result, amid all the gentrification: a net loss. No Bull Plant High football coach Robert Weiner is staying put. I get it. Being part of revitalizing the USF program under Willie Taggart was tempting and challenging. But Weiner is unique beyond phenomenal success on the football field. He's still an educator--AP English--and he's as much mentor as coach to his players. His emotional flip-flop didn't make him Urban Weiner. It merely underscored how truly torn he was. Ultimately, he couldn't leave what he loved for what he would have liked.
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