African-American community and skaters clash over future plans for Perry Harvey Sr. Park

09/13/13 Janelle Irwin
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A park in downtown Tampa is slated for a makeover that has left two groups – some members of the African-American community and skateboarders - battling over whose cultural significance should be preserved. On Monday city officials hope to persuade some naysayers that it is a good idea to move a historic skate park somewhere else.

The skater’s haven at Perry Harvey Sr. Park is called the Bro Bowl because since the 1970’s it has brought skateboarders of all ages, races and backgrounds together as, well, bros. Shannon Bruffett has been skating at the graffiti-laden concrete bowl for almost 30 years and now he’s leading a charge to save it. Bruffet says the bowl is culturally significant because it’s one of only four known concrete skate parks left that were first built.

"You know, at a time when skate boarding began to develop it's own identity and move away from the surfer stereotype."

But the city wants to give Perry Harvey Sr. Park a $6.5 million facelift, one that will preserve African-American history. Brad Suder with the city’s Parks and Recreation department says the plans include a history walk detailing leaders in the area.

"There will be an interactive fountain. There will be what we are calling gateway portal and sculptures which we hope to be iconic in nature, they are going to be through our public art program. It is going to secure five different artists to do different elements within this park."

Suder adds the city also wants to incorporate music throughout the park to honor the Central Avenue district’s influence on musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, who one of the new buildings in the Encore housing development is named after.

"Hank Ballard was performing along Central Avenue when he saw the local kids doing "The Stance" and he said 'Hey, what are you guys doing?' they said 'We don't know mister, we just call it the twist', so he went home and wrote a song about the twist and had limited success with that song for about two years. And then Dick Clark's wife heard him performing it and went to Dick and said I think we may have a song for this artist they wanted to highlight on the show and so they hooked up Chubby Checker with this song and put it on American Bandstand and that's where it became famous."

But Bruffet and an army of others are well into a fight to designate the concrete skate bowl as a historic landmark. Their efforts have been successful at both a local and state level and now they are waiting on a national historic preservation group to make the final decision.

"At the time Perry Harvey Sr. Park was designed and created, it was a key component of Central Avenue. It's just a natural progression through the steps that all of that area went through and it's just another segment of Central Avenue history. It's not separate from it, it's not divided, it's just a different place in the timeline."

The two sides are separated by generations in some cases. Tampa native Frank Hearns remembers the park in the glory days of African-American life in Tampa. He says the area began to develop after the civil war and thrived as a result of segregation. It stayed that way until the late 60’s when a young African-American boy was shot and killed by police, sparking three days worth of riots.

"And for the last forty years people have been waiting, those people interested in preserving that history of Central Avenue as a business and entertainment district, for forty years we've been waiting for some appropriate recognition of that legacy."

Hearns argues the new skate park will be better than the one already there – bigger and with a more skate-friendly design. It will also incorporate memorials to the original bowl.

"The folks who want to keep the skatebowl at it's current location have really disrupted those plans and personally I find it an insult to African Americans and to people who want to see justice done to preserve this history of Central Avenue."

But for people like Bruffett, memorials aren’t enough. They want the bowl to stay put. The group seeking historical designation of the structure has been criticized of not compromising, but Bruffett says that goes both ways.

"Perry Harvey Sr. Park consists of nearly 500,000 square feet or 11 acres. The Bro Bowl consists of approximately 6,500 square feet. Mathematically that's about a litte more than 1 percent of the area of Perry Harvey Sr. Park. Considering the design that the city proposes for their re-development, the Bro Bowl could remain in it's original location and the history walk, the leaders row, the amphitheater and all of the other elements of their design could still be constructed at little or no cost to the city."

The public meeting on Monday will be at 6:30 in the evening at the Greater Bethel Missionary Baptist Church at 1207 North Jefferson Street. City Staff will be present to answer questions and accept comments.

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