Placemaking: Public art creates a sense of place in North Tampa neighborhood

It’s a humid Saturday afternoon and Junior Polo is working three feet deep in the ground at Harvest Hope Park in North Tampa.

Nearby, a block party is going full-steam: children frantically play a pick-up soccer game, while hip-hop music blares over the speakers and a grill stocked with hot dogs and hamburgers chokes out smoke. 

Polo, however, is oblivious to the festivities.  

Slightly bent, he peers closely as volunteer Brad Bradley secures a wire frame in the hole. To the untrained eye, the frame is just a nondescript metal figure erected in a rectangular shape. 
On Sept. 11 starting at 10 a.m., the Gobioff Foundation will host an information session at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County to share changes and additions to the Treasure Tampa Placemaking grant process. Part of this session will be a conversation with the University Area CDC to discuss the successes and challenges they've faced with their placemaking efforts.
But Polo, an artist, knows it’s the beginnings of “Family,” a 14-foot statue that’s part of a beautification project nestled smack in the middle of one of Tampa’s most hardscrabble neighborhoods.

“We put up something that will remind everybody that we need to stay together,” he says. “This represents everybody.” 

Earlier this year, the Tampa-based Gobioff Foundation’s Treasure Tampa (T²) initiative awarded the University Area CommunityDevelopment Corporation a $30,000 grant to be used for Art in the Park, a community-led public art installation.

Other plans for the park include a new community center, sports field, playground, walking trail and tilapia fish pond. A $423,000 Community Development Block Grant -- awarded by Hillsborough County Affordable Housing -- is financing those developments.

Creating a sense of ownership

The statue is one of three public art displays that will dot the area in and around Harvest Hope Park, says Marisol Vasquez, who oversees the project. 

Asking residents to help design the statue -- and not just give their input -- is critical to the project’s success because it gives them a sense of ownership, she says. 

“They’re going to have their voices heard through the art they worked on,” she says. 

That sense of pride will go far in a neighborhood where an estimated 95 percent live in poverty.

“Everybody deserves to have creativity in their life,” Vasquez says. “It shouldn’t be linked to your socio-economic status.”

The project requires neighbors to interact with each other in a way they likely would not otherwise, says Sarah Combs, CEO of the University Area CDC.

“They start understanding each other and they talk to each other,” she says. “Art is a tool to get them engaged and active.” 

The University Area CDC “serves the University Area Community, where high crime, poverty and a lack of basic resources has plagued the area for decades. Of those served, 95 percent are [living with incomes] below poverty level. We work to improve the economic, educational and social levels of the community through youth programs, adult education and resource assistance. Funds provided through grants, private contributions and public appropriations help residents participate in most programs free of charge.’’

Working directly with community residents

Since spring, Polo has directed residents and volunteers
through each step of the project including brainstorming sessions and excavating tons of dirt to form the statue foundation. 

It’s scheduled to be completed and unveiled in November. 

In the meantime, the Haitian-born Polo will transform a model figurine of a family -- a mother, father and two children -- into a larger-than-life-sized sculpture. 

Polo has coordinated other public art projects in the Tampa Bay area, including 2014’s Pianos in Pinellas that consisted of 10 upright, brightly painted pianos set throughout Clearwater. 

The public’s involvement from conception makes the Harvest Hope project special, he says. 

“It’s something that I’m working directly with the community,” he says. “It’s not only my hand. It’s not only my idea.” 

Resident Krystal Williams says the statue will be a nice addition to the park.

The changes taking shape in Harvest Hope Park are exciting, she says.  

“That’s good that they’re bringing good back to the community,” Williams says.

Read more about Harvest Hope Park here

To suggest additional story ideas, email 83 Degrees.

To subscribe to our free weekly e-magazine, follow this link.

Read more articles by Kenya Woodard.

Kenya Woodard is a Hoosier girl who’s called the Sunshine State home for 12 years now. She’s a South Tampa foodie who loves cats, margaritas, and Old School R&B music. A native of Gary, Ind., she and a famous king of music are fourth step-cousins sixth removed. Or something like that. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kenyawoodard.