Cafe con Tampa stirs up neighborhood conversations

On Friday mornings over steaming cups of cafe con leche and a side of Cuban toast, people gather at Hugo's Spanish Restaurant to listen, ask questions and learn about what's going on in Tampa or just as likely the world at-large.

Want to know about the city’s latest development project? Eager to learn more about historic preservation? Have a question about the political landscape? Want to grill a city council member?

No topic is off limits at Cafe con Tampa whose founders describe the forum as a place "where neighbors meet.”

City Councilman Frank Reddick drops by to update the group on East Tampa and the city's plans to restore the historical Cuscaden Park pool. Col. Derek Harvey, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and now a University of South Florida professor, gives his perspective on terrorism, the Middle East and its on-going wars.

Other quest speakers include Louis C. Masiello of WS Development, the company re-inventing Hyde Park Village; Robert Bendus, state historic preservation officer and director of the Florida Division of Historic Resources; Nick Friedman, founder of the moving company College Hunks Hauling Junk; Joe Lopano, chief executive officer of Tampa International Airport; and former City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena.

Even birds from the Lowry Park Zoo have stopped by to preen and squawk. 

Guest speakers are booked weeks or months in advance.

But don't get the idea Cafe con Tampa is some kind of exclusive membership club.
"It's kind of like porch talk," says Del Acosta, one of the founders of Cafe con Tampa and president of Historic Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. "We come together and talk about a common subject. We just try to get speakers for all the genres you can think of."

Join the conversation, listen and learn

And Cafe con Tampa is unlike neighborhood or civic associations.

"We're different in that we don't do advocacy," says Bill Carlson, President of public relations firm Tucker Hall. "We have community conversations. It's a forum for people  to have conversations. It's fun meeting people and getting to know what issues they are interested in."

Usually about 25 to 30 people show up at 8 a.m. on Fridays at Hugo's at 931 S. Howard Ave. It's free just to sit in. But guests can pay for their own breakfast orders, help buy the speaker’s breakfast and kick in a little to tip the servers. Cafe con Tampa draws people from neighborhoods in Tampa and Hillsborough County, and often from places all around Tampa Bay.

Acosta says all he hopes is that people come with an open mind and leave with new information or a perspective they hadn't considered before. "We want to see Hyde Park, Tampa, the state and the nation a better place to live," he says.

Cafe con Tampa had a humble start a few years ago as a land use committee for the Historic Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, and initially was known as LUC (for land use committee, natch). The committee often met at Hugo's Spanish Restaurant to discuss proposed development projects and wet zoning applications that would impact their South Tampa neighborhood.

Reflecting a city of neighborhoods

The gatherings soon drew residents from surrounding neighborhoods such as Courier City/ Oscawana, and then from farther away, including Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights and New Tampa.

And in January, Cafe con Tampa was born. Carlson worked up a logo that honors the beginnings of Tampa as an immigrant city founded in the streets and cigar factories of Ybor City.

"The idea was to brand it as what it had become, a gathering of people who have activities or issues of all kinds," says Carlson. "Our goal is to not make it huge but to bring in people who are active. Anybody is welcome. It is free. And it had to have cafe con leche and Cuban toast."

For artist and photographer Amy Martz, Cafe con Tampa is the place to be on Friday morning.

"They get people that can really make a difference," she says. "It forges connections. … You don't have to have an invitation. You just come. This is a group of dreamers" and doers.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.  
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