Tampa is a city with an inferiority complex.
This has been clear to me since I first moved there, when I was just twelve years old. For one thing, for as long as I’ve lived in the Tampa Bay area, there’s been something going on with Orlando. Those Mickey Mouse punks have always thought they’re so great … well, if it weren’t for that giant rat, you’d still be living in orange groves. (Yeah! So there!)
But it goes deeper than that. There’s really a lot of actual inferiority to be found in Tampa, at least if we’re talking about the quality of life in the city itself. Will Doig at Salon unloaded on Tampa just in time for the Republican National Convention and while it ain’t pretty, it’s also not wrong:
Tampa is a hot urban mess, equal parts Reagan ’80s and Paul Ryan 2010s. Urban renewal projects decimated the city in the ’60s, but its current persona was forged in earnest starting three decades ago, when finance and insurance companies started moving their back-office operations there, attracted by the sunshine and low-cost labor. The 1988 bestseller “Megatrends” declared Tampa “America’s next great city.” Real estate joined the service economy as a major economic pillar, and the city embarked on a building spree, sprouting large glass towers disconnected from the city itself, a development pattern that offered little incentive to invest in things like parks, transit or walkable spaces. This left little of the quality urbanism people now pay a premium for. And while other cities made similar mistakes, Tampa has been slow to correct theirs, stymied by tight-fisted Tea Party politics.
Tampa, like so much of Florida, built its economy on two pillars: real estate and tourism. Growth was the only real goal of policy decisions. Bring more people, because we need their money. Keep ‘em coming, because we can’t generate enough revenue to meet the state’s basic needs without them – there’s no state income tax here, and there likely won’t be for a good long while, since our state constitution explicitly prohibits the enactment of one.
(I don’t remember, exactly, when we voted on that amendment, but I have no doubt that the “pro” argument was that it would induce people living in northern, high-tax states to move here and bring their money. I’m sure people who voted for this amendment did so with the idea that it would also keep their own taxes from skyrocketing overnight – which is understandable. But what they may not have realized is that when the growth engine peters out, there’s no more money.)
But Doig’s column – and Michael Kruse‘s, in the St. Pete Times – seemed familiar, somehow. Then I remembered: I recently read Bird on Fire: Lessons from America’s Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross, and I was struck by some of the parallels between Tampa and Phoenix (which is apparently America’s least sustainable city): Overreliance on growth to bring prosperity (in one passage, Ross quotes a longtime Phoenix resident who ridicules the idea that real growth can be achieved in an economy based on building homes … for other people who will then build even more homes). Severe aversion to regulation, taxes and government in general. Downtowns that are cavernous and desolate after 5 pm. A near-complete failure to kick-start a solar energy industry in a state with endless sunshine. It’s almost as if Tampa wants to be Phoenix’s little brother.
Should that be the goal to which Tampa aspires? Sure, Phoenix is a much larger city than Tampa – 1.5 million to 330,000 – and we hold the mantra “Growth is Good” to be virtually sacred here, so just getting to be that large may be an end unto itself for some people. But Phoenix cemented its future as a major city back in the 1940s, when Motorola headlined a wave of defense contractors relocating to the area. That provided a baseline for the development of a knowledge sector (and hyperconservative politics) that Tampa has never had, and which is why every effort to turn Tampa into some kind of powerhouse in the high tech economy is doomed to failure before it even begins. There’s nothing to build on here, and so every overly-ambitious Silicon Bay (or whatever)
pipe dream proposal fails to launch, and instead slowly sinks to the bottom of the swamp.
Phoenix does seem to have realized that it cannot keep doing what its always done if it wants to survive and thrive in an era without the real estate growth machine. The city has bought into the “meds and eds” (medical facilities and universities) template for urban revitalization. Its local university, Arizona State, has thrown itself into the development of green technology so fully and completely that it may be in danger of losing its reputation as a party school. And the city’s downtown is finding itself, slowly but surely.
Hell, Phoenix even has a light rail system. Think about that for a moment: even in the home of Barry Goldwater, in perhaps the craziest state (politically speaking) in the country – even there, Tea Party lunatics weren’t able to scotch the construction of a light rail system.
But they were in Tampa – or, more specifically, in outlying areas of Hillsborough County, where there’s no shortage of Tea Party voters. Our right wing loonies out-crazied Phoenix’s. Finally, something to be proud of.
As in Phoenix, there are people living in downtown Tampa, which is a definite change from when I first moved here – but they are mostly in condo towers perched atop parking garages, which do little to generate the kind of street-level energy needed to sustain a vibrant downtown. And yes, the University of South Florida is a perfectly fine institution, a respected center for medical research, and has recently built a new facility downtown – which fits well with the “meds and eds” approach.
But harnessing the power of medical research centers and institutions of higher education won’t get a city very far when the state refuses to adequately fund higher education in the first place. Doig got at the meat of it when he pointed out that the city has had such a distaste for investment in itself for so long that the entire place is on the verge of falling apart. It’s almost as if these grand visions to reinvent Tampa’s economy – whether we’re talking about high-tech or “meds and eds” – are offered mainly as schemes to lure people into moving here again, so we can finally restart the real estate-fueled growth machine and get rich quick, just like we did in the good old days.
The sad truth is that Tampa is a “quick fix” kind of place. It always has been, and probably always will be – and I believe that this is a symptom of the city’s inferiority complex: We’ll try anything – anything – to show everyone that we’re no third-tier backwater. We’re smart. We can do things. And inevitably, in this process of publicly flailing about for an identity, Tampa becomes exactly what it’s trying so hard not to be.
The idea of Tampa as “America’s Next Great City” reflected a very 1980s frame of mind: that the combination of great weather, low wages and low taxes would somehow magically create a prosperous tropical paradise. But as it turned out, a lot of people don’t consider 97 degrees with 88 percent humidity to be “great weather.” And low wages plus low taxes often adds up to being unable to provide for basic needs today, or to invest in the prerequisites for real growth tomorrow.
But could Tampa be Phoenix’s little brother? Maybe. Honestly, I don’t want to stick around long enough to find out.