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Riverwalk & Crew Art – The Writing Is On the Wall

August 6, 2014

Because this item involves a City Council decision that will happen before our usual Roundup is posted, we decided to have a special post before the City Council meets.

This week, there was news that the Mayor of Tampa wants to remove some of the crew team painting along the Hillsborough River in downtown:

The graffiti painted along downtown’s Hillsborough River seawalls has become as much a feature of Tampa as the skyline above.

But some of those shout-outs left by visiting college rowing teams and fraternities will become a visual nuisance when the newest segment of the Tampa Riverwalk — the Kennedy Boulevard Plaza — opens in January.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn has decided the growing collection on the garage below Kiley Gardens and Rivergate Tower has to go.

The seawall and the river below it will become a canvas for a different type of art: a new Lights on Tampa installation scheduled to be revealed in February.

Buckhorn has asked Tampa City Council to approve a agreement with Friends of the Riverwalk to hire a contractor to remove the graffiti. The council will consider that request when it meets Thursday.

First, none of the “shout-outs” will become a “visual nuisance” just because an elected official says so.  The “shout outs” (also known as “crew art”) have been there for decades and have not prevented anyone from enjoying the river (that honor belongs solely to the City of Tampa and its decades of poor planning and settling.)  The crew art has long been one of the charms of the riverfront.

Moreover, colored lights and the crew art are not mutually exclusive.  Why is lighting up a big blank wall preferable to having something interesting and changing to look at while you walk (Of course, it is possible that this particular part of the wall will be cut off from the river, so theoretically it is ok to clean, but the devil is in the details – see below).

So what is the extent of the removal?

The city has no plans to scrub the graffiti from other seawalls.

“That’s just one span,” said Donna Chen, director of marketing and communications for the nonprofit Tampa Downtown Partnership. “You still have plenty of other graffiti art that’s still in place and still intact.”

That sounds acceptable until you consider this:

Crews painted over the graffiti on the Kennedy Boulevard, Brorein and Platt street bridges to provide a blank backdrop for “Agua Luces.”

Which was ok because there was still the seawall on which to paint crew art. (And note: we like the lighting on the bridges). But now that is being taken away – at least in part. Who knows how much more will be taken in the future?  And consider this:

“We want the Tampa Riverwalk to be active and engaging and highlight Tampa’s best natural asset, the Hillsborough River,” Buckhorn said in a statement.

* * *

As he did in 2012, Buckhorn promised on Monday to penalize anyone caught defacing the bridges or seawall after it has been cleared for the art project. Defacing public property is a misdemeanor.

That is quite causally dismissive of the crew art. The implication in that the crew art somehow detracts from the enjoyment of the river and focus on the river, which is actually the opposite of the case. No one avoided Curtis Hixon Park because of the crew art.  The Jose Gaspar did not stop landing on the riverfront because of the crew art.  People do stand at the riverfront and read the paintings though.

And then there is this:

Telling rowers to stow the paint brushes is nothing new, either. The nonprofit Stewards Foundation, which coordinates visits by more than 20 college teams a year, is warning the teams that the city will take legal action against anyone caught.

For the past two years, the Stewards Foundation has included a fine in its agreements with visiting teams: Get caught painting graffiti, and your organization will pay $2,500 or the costs of removal, whichever is greater.

Which, despite what the Downtown Partnership says, sure sounds like the City is cracking down on the crew art everywhere.  If not, where is it ok to paint?  Make it clear, and then don’t take that area away. (And there is always the possibility that the City will allow some art to be left but not allow new art. Then the old art will age and start to look bad, and the City will push to remove it all. Part of the cool thing of the tradition is that the art changes over time and gets renewed.)

The painting is a tradition – yes, to those who have not been around here long, a tradition – along the river in Tampa (and, as far as we know, nowhere else.)  In fact, apparently the Riverwalk even says so:

Known as “crew art,” the tradition among visiting rowers is appreciated by many Tampa residents. Some locals have embrace the artwork as part of the city’s heritage after crews began leaving “tags” alongside the waterway in the 1960s, according to a sign on Tampa Riverwalk.

(Funny that the Riverwalk celebrates something that is so detrimental to the Riverwalk. At least it did in 2013.) Even better, the crew art changes over time so there is something new to look at.  It is part of the appeal of Tampa’s riverfront.  And it was here when the first wooden planks of the proto-Riverwalk were installed decades ago. As explained the above quoted article from US Rowing way back in 2013, entitled “Tampa Offers a Lesson in Tradition”:

Over the years, the seawalls and several bridges in Tampa have been covered with the artwork of visiting teams. And to date, the smattering of the colorful paint blocks featuring various team mottos and mascots hold special significance.

* * *
Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which represents the local business community, reflected upon the markings.

“The artwork is a part of our heritage,” said Burdick. “Art is in the eye of the beholder and the artwork is part of the people who have visited and enjoyed Tampa.”

Somehow, crew art was great back in 2013 but now detracts from the enjoyment of the river?  Apparently, not for the rowers:

In addition to convenience, Carcich elaborated on the draw of Tampa.

“There is a lot of history in those markings and the tradition of tagging is a symbol of Tampa’s acceptance of rowing. I used to go down there when I was an undergraduate at UMass,“ said Carcich. “It’s a good opportunity to get my team down to a city that embraces rowing.”

Well, the City doesn’t seem to be embracing rowing quite as much as it used to.

There are two main points to be made.  First, as we have said, eliminating crew art on a small part of the riverfront is theoretically ok, but what we have is a creeping elimination of the crew art in more than one place.  There may be some open space left for it, but how much and for how long? It is not clearly delineated.  Given the trend and the City’s behavior in other areas, it is most likely that crew art in other parts of the riverfront will suddenly become somehow detrimental to the health of the City, and so on and so forth.  If the City really embraces this tradition, which predates most of the residents (and many of the people in the City government), it should say so.  It is this kind of quirky, harmless tradition that separates one place from the next.

The second point is this – lights on the river are nice.  The Riverwalk is nice.  But that does not mean that the traditions – especially harmless (in fact beneficial) traditions like this one – that make Tampa different are somehow problematic.  Lots of cities have Riverwalks.  Lots of Cities have lights on bridges and other parts of their waterfront.  Other cities color their rivers green for St. Patrick’s Day.  As far as we know, no other city has the tradition of winter training for college crew teams and the painting on the seawall connected to it (and which connects them to us and us to them). We don’t need to copy everyone else all the time.  We don’t need a McRiverwalk.  We need Tampa’s Riverwalk.

And one more thing – how does it attract young, educated people (like the Ivy Leaguers who paint the seawall) to have a City that is stuffy and boring and makes sure those young people no longer can have a physical connection to the City they can see every day as they walk along the river?

The City Council should not vote on the Mayor’s proposal.  It should make sure that the tradition of crew art is protected.

— And One More Thing

Even more interestingly, the Times columnist who is unusually reticent to say anything in opposed to the administration has a column today addressing this issue. (You can read it here.)   Sure, the columnist comes at the issue from a slightly different direction – but not that different since she also points out it is a cool Tampa tradition.

In an officially cool town in Texas, bumper stickers say: Keep Austin Weird. You get this if you have ever lamented changes that made parts of Key West or Coconut Grove look like pretty much everywhere else.

Another Tampa tradition is that we rarely do things the easy way. (Think of the park to properly honor the city’s black history, at odds with a beloved 1970s skateboard bowl in its midst.) Thursday, the City Council considers what was supposed to be a mundane yes-or-no on giving access to that part of the Riverwalk to get rid of “staining and defacement.” (Ouch.) But council member Yvonne Yolie Capin says given that such graffiti is a point of interest in cities like Boston, and the buzz from constituents already, a discussion is warranted.

So we can find more ways to keep Tampa — if not weird — at least, Tampa.

We don’t always agree with the columnist but on this (especially about the Bro Bowl, where the administration acted the same way as here), we can’t argue with her conclusion.  Discussion, not rubber stamping, is definitely warranted.

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