83 Degrees, USF Mass Comm launch East Tampa storytelling project

It is a hot, Sunday afternoon with storm clouds pushed off in the distance for now, and life in East Tampa looks like many other neighborhoods in the Tampa Bay Area.

People are walking to the neighborhood store, sitting on front porches talking with friends, kids are riding motorized scooters on backstreets away from traffic.

It is a long way from just two decades ago when East Tampa -- a collection of neighborhoods that include Belmont Heights, Jackson Heights, and College Hill -- was known solely for poverty, public housing, and negative headlines. Its Wikipedia entry for the neighborhood lists this lone sentence as its history: “The area has been the location of several riots.”

Today East Tampa is so much more than that.

In the past decade alone, its two major north-south corridors, 22nd Street and 34th Street, have been repaved and beautified. The slums that were housing projects called Ponce de Leon Courts and College Hill Homes were torn down as the 20th Century ended, replaced by 825 colorful and suburban-looking apartments and lots of shaded open park space called Belmont Heights Estates, paid for with a $32.5 million federal grant and completed in 2006.

“I think quite a bit of progress has occurred,” says Cedric McCray, the Manager of the East Tampa Community Redevelopment Area with the city of Tampa. But “progress hasn’t come as fast as I think some would like.”

A rich heritage and history

While East Tampa has made strides with public infrastructure and even private investment in affordable housing apartment buildings and small businesses, it remains touched by some tough, intractable problems related to poverty. Crime. Lack of sidewalks. Lack of access to food shopping and retail. Joblessness. Education challenges. Transportation. Health care for the elderly. Money and attention for their aging housing stock.

All this in a neighborhood that has been part of the city since 1911, that is affordable for many lower-income families in a market where housing prices are skyrocketing, that has a rich Black heritage, that produced Major League Baseball superstars such as Derek Bell, Gary Sheffield, and Dwight “Doc” Gooden.

That is why 83 Degrees is partnering with students and professors at the University of South Florida’s Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications over the next six months to write stories focusing on the grassroots efforts of people and organizations in East Tampa who are chipping away at the remaining difficult issues that continue to impact the quality of life in its historic neighborhoods.

The journalism is being supported by a grant from the Walmart Foundation through the Solutions Journalism Fund at the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay.
For 83 Degrees, it is the beginning of what may grow with additional funding into a full On the Ground special Solutions Journalism project created and developed by Issue Media Group (IMG), a new media company based in Detroit, MI, that “publishes weekly digital magazines leveraging the power of solutions-based and narrative journalism,’’ including 83 Degrees.

The On The Ground project strives to help tell the stories of the people, projects, and innovations that are creating what’s new and what’s next for neighborhoods by lifting up solution makers in impoverished communities that otherwise get few and mostly negative headlines.

IMG and 83 Degrees first brought the On The Ground storytelling project to Florida in 2016-17 with a year-long storytelling project in Wimauma in southern Hillsborough County thanks to an underwriting partnership with the Allegany Franciscan Ministries. You can read stories about Wimauma, including the special On The Ground stories, at this link.

Focusing on Solutions Journalism

For the USF students working on the East Tampa stories, it is a chance for them to learn a new way to think about news, called Solutions Journalism. The idea is not to focus on just the problems alone without showing people or organizations who are attempting to fix them. 

The four pillars of this type of newsgathering, according to the Solutions Journalism Network, are:
  1. Features a response to a problem, and how it happened;
  2. Provides available evidence of results, looking at effectiveness -- not just intentions;
  3. Produces insights -- not just inspiration -- that can help others respond;
  4. Discusses limitations and avoids reading like a puff piece.

Defining East Tampa today

So what exactly defines East Tampa? McCray says it is a neighborhood like and unlike others.

“East Tampa is a predominantly residential community, and it's largely African-American. That is changing in certain aspects,” he says. “I was away for a few years and just returned to Tampa, and you can see that the demographic is changing somewhat.”

That means more Latino and even white families moving into a part of the city that was, starting in the 1880s and through most of the 1900s, the only place that Blacks could rent or buy a home in Tampa. Today, its low-cost housing draws people who are priced out of other neighborhoods once accessible to them. It is not all a success story, however. Crime continues to define the area in news reports, as all 21 of Tampa’s shooting deaths in the first half of 2021 occurred in East Tampa.

“But, you know, East Tampa is not just what you necessarily hear on the news,” McCray says.

East Tampa boasts its own weekly newspaper, the Florida Sentinel Bulletin; is home to a radio station, WMNF 88.5 FM community radio; has some of the city’s oldest cemeteries; contains storied Little League fields; nurtures small shops and bodegas; and contains other features that make it unique. More than 16,000 people call East Tampa home, according to the 2010 Census.

“As a community, there are a lot of grassroot folks that actually care and are trying to do the best they can to improve the overall quality of life and aesthetics of East Tampa,” he continues.

Those are the people we hope to find and write about over the next six months. We hope it will help you see the neighborhood in all its parts, as a place where good people thrive and struggle and provide an important part of Tampa Bay’s full experience.

Have a story tip? Send it to us at [email protected].

Want to make a donation or offer a grant to support more storytelling in East Tampa? You can make a donation to the Solutions Journalism Fund at the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay (be sure to write "East Tampa'' in the Comment section) or contact 83 Degrees Publisher Diane Egner at [email protected].

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Read more articles by Wayne Garcia.

Wayne Garcia is a journalism instructor and former director of the Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications at USF Tampa. His background is in political and investigative journalism. He worked for the St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Tribune, Creative Loafing, and Gainesville Sun newspapers. He is the 2009 recipient of the Irene Miller Vigilance in Journalism Award from the Pinellas Chapter of the ACLU.