When Maria Castillo was growing up in West Tampa, her grandparents lived right next door. It wasn’t an unusual arrangement in that era. West Tampa was a close-knit neighborhood of close-knit families who often lived with or near each other through several generations.
Castillo went away to college, and when she and her husband Jorge moved back to Tampa, they chose to settle in Tampa’s northern suburban areas. But the pull of West Tampa proved irresistible. Maria and Jorge Castillo have recently moved back to West Tampa with their two children, 4-year-old Mia and 3-year-old Maite.
Jorge and Maria Castillo drink café con leche and eat Cuban breakfast sandwiches with their two girls at Alessi Bakery.
“I love that there is still a Cuban influence,” she says. “I can still go a couple of blocks and get a cafe con leche, just like I used to, and we still have places like Alessi Bakery that I grew up with.”
Not only has Castillo moved back to West Tampa, but her family will soon be living right next door to the house she grew up in. She and her husband are building a new home on the lot where her grandparents once lived. Her parents still live in the house she grew up in, their grandchildren will be right next door.
Her story is not unique.
West Tampa, one of Tampa’s oldest and most historic neighborhoods, is experiencing a renaissance as a new generation of home buyers are discovering, or re-discovering, the area’s appeal.
Castillo and her family have been living with her parents until their new home is ready. She’s finding that while much of West Tampa is familiar, the neighborhood and the surrounding areas are evolving in exciting ways.
“Yes, I like living in my old neighborhood,” she says. “But I also like that we have Target and Starbucks right nearby now. Every day I see something new. The other day I was coming down, I don’t remember if it was Howard or Armenia, and there was a little pastry shop. We never had anything like that when I was growing up.”
The boomerang effect
Another West Tampa ex-pat who has returned to the neighborhood is Sam Militello, a former New York Yankees pitcher who is now associate head baseball coach at the University of Tampa, his alma mater. Like Castillo, his new West Tampa home is essentially his old West Tampa home. He’s had the home where he grew up torn down and has rebuilt on the same property.
He’s been back for almost two years now.
“We’re loving it,” he says. “I checked with the rest of my siblings before I tore down the family’s house. I made sure I had their blessing.”
Militello's 7-year-old daughter Alyssa is entering second grade at MacFarlane Park Elementary Magnet School. It’s a highly rated IT magnet school that gets exceptional ratings on reviews on several websites, and Alyssa and her parents are thrilled with her experience there.
Castillo’s older daughter Mia is now in VPK at Tampa Bay Elementary, but they hope to enroll her in MacFarlane Park when the time comes. MacFarlane Park is Maria Castillo’s mother’s alma mater, though Maria herself attended Christ the King Catholic School. Mia and Maite experiment with sounds in the children's playground at Macfarlane Park.
Both Militello and Castillo say that, after living in other parts of the Tampa Bay Area, they realize that West Tampa’s location is unsurpassed. Downtown Tampa is just a few minutes away, even during the most hectic rush hour. Interstate 275 makes the West Shore business district and even the Pinellas Country beaches easily accessible, and several major north-south roads that cut through West Tampa make most other areas of Tampa easy to get to.
And they both say they love seeing their old neighbors who have chosen to stay in West Tampa. Their childhood friends also have families of their own now, and all their kids will play together.
Changing for the better
For the moment, West Tampa still maintains the historic charm that has caused families to stay, and younger generations to return. And so far, Castillo and Militello said, the changes in the area have been positive. There are new mom-and-pop businesses, a few welcome chain stores and restaurants, and an exciting ethnic diversity in a neighborhood traditionally dominated by Hispanic, Italian and African-American families.
But the frantic pace of new home development has some people who love West Tampa a bit apprehensive.
Castillo says she’s excited that so many people are discovering West Tampa. “It seems like every day I see another new home getting started,” she says.
The Castillos drink café con leche at Macfarlane Park in West Tampa. "I love that our families are here, that it's centrally located, and that there's a sense of community here," Maria said.
But she hopes that builders and new residents will appreciate what gives West Tampa its soul, and that the influx of younger people will enhance the neighborhood rather than change it. She’s hoping West Tampa will follow a path similar to that of Seminole Heights, which has maintained its character while becoming a prime dining destination.
She says it's disappointing to see a sameness in some of the new homes that are being constructed, and she’s afraid it won’t quite fit well with the architectural richness of the neighborhood she grew up in.
Of course, it’s more than just history and location that are drawing younger home buyers to West Tampa. At least for the moment, West Tampa remains extremely affordable for home buyers.
Claudio Menzerotolo, who works alongside his brother Renzo at Renzo's Argentine Steakhouse on the fringes of West Tampa, lived in South Tampa for many years and thought he’d never leave. But he eventually realized he could get much more home for his money by moving just a couple of miles north into West Tampa.
“I lived in South Tampa, but I wanted a garden,” he says. “So now I live in West Tampa and I have a big (expletive) garden, man.”