Tampa On Track: A Desire Named Streetcar

This much we know. Come Oct. 19 — barring a hurricane hit, a meltdown between the city and HART or the wrath of former Mayor Sandy Freedman — there will be electric streetcars running in Tampa for the first time in more than half a century. Ridership numbers and economic impact remain intriguing unknowns.

Amid all the familiar names, faces and ceremonial fanfare surrounding the debut of the TECO Line Streetcar System will be a certain city planner who will allow himself the briefest sigh of relief. After the respite, WilsonMiller, Inc. senior planner Michael English goes back behind the scenes to continue culling prospects for station ($100,000) and car ($250,000) naming rights and resume ubiquitous trouble-shooting. For more than a decade he’s been a key streetcar player, including efforts to help land an important federal grant and lobby for special assessments on private property in the areas served by the streetcars: downtown, the Channel District and Ybor City.

English, an affable, mass transit true believer, is a seven-time president of the Tampa and Ybor City Railway Society, the organization responsible for promoting the return of streetcars to Tampa. He’s also president of Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc., the nonprofit corporation that will manage the system.

“It was always intended to be a tourist and visitor-driven concept,” states English. “But this is not a toy. It can help accomplish subtle things. Encourage new residential development; help attract more people to downtown. But, then again, it’s not just an economic development tool. It’s effective transportation within the urban center.”

English, known in South Tampa circles as the civic conscience of the venerable Hyde Park Men’s Club, is also an urban anthropologist.

“One of the key principles of cultural anthropology is people’s behavior and how it’s representative of people’s values,” explains English. “I’ve always believed the streetcar can’t fail here. It still rests in the hearts of local people. Always has.”

Pragmatic progress or utopian vision, it’s back on track Oct. 19.

Who Was That Mosque Man?

Earlier this month USF’s controversial Palestinian professor, Sami Al-Arian, spoke to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg. Al-Arian, who denies charges that he has ties to terrorist groups in the Middle East, hasn’t made many such public appearances of late. So this Sami sighting drew a big media turnout.

Now we learn that Bay News 9 has been asked by the FBI to turn over its videotape for possible use by a federal grand jury. It’s problematic, however, as to what the feds would learn other than Al-Arian is well-and-out spoken, calculated and smart.

Smart enough to make no more appearances on the O’Reilly Factor. And smart enough to appear in public now to declare his innocence and love of America, free speech and academic freedom a few weeks before Judy Genshaft has to declare him fired or re-hired. Also smart enough to bring his lawyer.

And calculated enough to bring his son and wife. Harder to demonize a family man. He’s even added an after-dinner joke whose punch line lampoons scapegoating.

But the feds would also learn this: Al-Arian the Palestinian activist is uncannily unlucky. No one gets misquoted, misinterpreted and mistranslated more than this tenured computer science professor. Not even Charles Barkley, who was “misquoted” in his own autobiography, is so misunderstood.

Caught on tape declaring “Death to Israel,” Al-Arian explains it in Nelson Mandela-esque terms. “DTI” really means “death to apartheid, death to oppression, death to occupation.” But obviously not death to hyperbole. Besides, who could give a rousing stem-winder to an all-Arab audience without the obligatory, rhetorical overkill of “Death to Israel”? Nothing personal, just playing to the home crowd with killer applause lines. Sort of like Steve Spurrier used to do with Gator boosters.

Then there was Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, the guy he sponsored and hired for his USF think tank, World and Islam Studies Enterprises. As luck would have it, doesn’t Shallah surface later as the leader of Islamic Jihad, the notorious Mid East terrorist outfit. Talk about your PR hits. But who was to know? There was no hint in his vita . Even Sami still asks, “Who was that mosque man?”

When the feds look at the Al-Arrant tape, they will see and hear for themselves; this guy is really unlucky.

Also Remember Sept. 11 on Sept. 10

There’s no denying that “Flags Along The Bayshore: Tampa Remembers 9-11” will be a sight for the ages: a patriotic ribbon of red, white and blue waving freely from Gandy Boulevard to Platt Street. It will be an impressively graphic reminder that we haven’t forgotten those who died Sept. 11. Nor what it is that is worth fighting for: our democratic way of life.

But where does that leave Sept. 10? That’s the date of the primary, an opportunity to actually participate in the process we all agree — and decree — is worth fighting for.

For the record, the first primary of 2000 drew 17.09 percent of registered voters. And that, mind you, was an improvement over ’98, when 13.05 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

“Flag-waving is wonderful,” says Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio, “but the greatest act of patriotism is voting. We can remember Sept. 11 by voting Sept. 10.”

Let’s really roll.

Greco’s Cuban Trip: Why He Did It

A fortnight ago Mayor Dick Greco was ground zero in a raging, geopolitical firestorm over his furtive foray to Cuba. His press conference, an emotional, meandering mix of sentiment, philosophy, rationales and travelogue outtakes, didn’t satisfy most of the media. Very little does.

Explaining a trip to Cuba and a meeting with Fidel Castro — given all the political nuances– is inherently dicey, especially if you’re wont to wear your emotions on your sleeve.

Here’s one columnist’s take on why the mayor did it. The reasons are as multi-faceted as the mayor himself.

* Curiosity: The mayor has long been, well, smitten. You don’t grow up in Ybor City — of Italian and Spanish descent — without an acute sense of Cubans and their homeland. Vestiges of the grandeur that once was had to be seen first-hand. Intimations of mortality only added to the sense of exigency.

Moreover, increasing numbers of Americans of influence and standing, including some in the mayor’s own circle of acquaintances, had gone. A number are Anglos. After a while, the well-intentioned, informative, second-hand accounts were becoming gnawing reminders of where the mayor himself had never been.

“I don’t hate anyone,” says Greco. “But I understand why anyone would hate Castro. I’ve seen what they left. It was gorgeous

Times’ Column: Poor Parody, Poor Taste

Tampa Mayor Dick Greco’s controversial trip to Cuba — and its ex post facto revelation — are certainly fair game for commentary as well as parody.

Having said that, Times’ columnist Sandra Thompson certainly abused the latter in her Aug. 10 column. Her send-up of a Greco sojourn to Baghdad was not funny, merely sophomoric. But that’s not the issue. Not everyone can be intentionally humorous, let alone dead-on satiric. Some efforts are just laughable.

The column morphed from bad to bad taste when referring to the mayor denying “the rumor that he and Linda will be guests of Osama bin Laden at a Sept. 11 anniversary bash

Miner-Survivors And Media Overkill

Let’s just enjoy this while we can.

That gripping, melodramatic rescue of nine miners from the all-but-clenched jaws of death was a news antidote counteracting media coverage of homeland insecurity, stock market trauma, kidnapped children and Middle East carnage. The Quecreek Mine drama embodied so much of the human spirit that we so easily take for granted in a world too mindful of mankind’s dark side.

No less impressive than the trapped miners’ presence of mind and notes to loved ones was the fortitude and technological know-how of their rescuers. A 77-hour reminder of the ingenuity and can-do ethic that is the American spirit.

Also associated with America, however, is media overkill that can turn people into public and private property.

Geraldo and Donahue had early dibs on interviews. Networks touted and teased their “exclusives.” Letterman and Leno are in line. The rights of the “Somerset 9” will need to be secured for a made-for-TV movie. Book scenarios and even endorsements — think Skoal — could be in the mix.

Not all miner-survivors are equally photogenic or articulate. Some will have opportunities outside the mines. Others, when their celebrity status wanes, will have to return to their sub-strata culture.

For now, however, let’s just revel with a cause and enjoy this for as long as it is what it is: a celebration of life against some really long odds.

Mankind and Manslaughter

We can’t possibly know what it’s like to lose a loved one in a tragic, violent way unless we’ve walked in a survivor’s shoes. Would we seek revenge as much as justice? Is the horrifically unforgettable also forgivable? We can’t know, and we can’t judge.

But we can salute Bruce Murakami for the compassion he showed in asking a judge for leniency in the case of the young man convicted of the manslaughter deaths of his wife and daughter. Murakami’s family was snuffed out in a fiery accident caused by a 19-year-old drag racer.

The judge heeded Murakami’s plea for mercy and gave Justin Cabezas house arrest and probation instead of jailing him for up to 30 years. In addition, both Murakami and Cabezas, now 23, will be part of a community-service dialogue with teenagers on the consequences of drag racing.

Moreover, another life wasn’t claimed by the tragic accident. Murakami says Cabezas now has the opportunity to make something of himself. If he, indeed, does, that will be the legacy of uncommon compassion shown under the most trying and tragic of circumstances.

UFO’s: Remember Them?

See where military officials confirmed that two F-16 jets from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland were scrambled recently after radar had detected an unknown, low-flying aircraft in the DC airspace. The officials said they do not know what the jets were chasing because whatever it was disappeared.

“It was a routine launch,” deadpanned an Air Force spokesman.

Indeed. Only in post-9/11 America, could the launching of a couple of air-to-air missile-carrying jets around the Capital qualify as “routine.” Your basic, supersonic “Who goes there?”

Interestingly, there was a (non-military) eyewitness. He said he saw a “light-blue object, traveling at a phenomenal rate of speed

Pointless Pre-Season Exercise

Among the more pointless exercises in all of sportsdom is the publishing of point spreads for pre-season NFL games. Why bother? Do people actually bet on this stuff? These are exhibitions featuring cameo performances by frontline players and lots of playing time for those not good enough to line up on Sundays. The only thing real is the ticket price.

And this just in. The Bucs are 3 1/2-point favorites against the Miami Dolphins in the exhibition opener Aug. 12. With or without Warren Sapp on offense.

Bucs’ Disney Digs: Spartan No More

Seems like everyone is properly impressed with the Bucs’ new summer camp setup at Disney’s Wide World of Gruden Complex. The fields are manicured and the 115-room Celebration Hotel is hardly your Spartan training camp digs.

Which, in a way, is kind of a shame.

For fans who otherwise cannot realistically identify with professional athletes, the University of Tampa scene was a bonus. Millionaires were forced to live in amenity-challenged dorms and walk to work. Want a TV? Bring one. Need more blankets? Bring them too and carry them up yourself. That after-hours hunger attack? Try Subway or Mr. T’s on Kennedy Boulevard.

Now it’s posh rooms, cable TV and room service. But it was humbling while it lasted.