Beyond Books: UT Students Become Civic Activists

UT students join civic efforts to save pieces of Tampa’s past

Published: Dec 2, 2013
UT students join civic efforts to save pieces of Tampa’s past, including the Bro Bowl. Photo by Leah Beilhart
UT students join civic efforts to save pieces of Tampa’s past, including the Bro Bowl. Photo by Leah Beilhart

Watch the Jackson House documentary

Dylan Cucci ’15 said he is an unlikely civic activist. He has no interest in politics of the sort. However, when the skateboarder heard that the skate bowl where he spends several days a week was in jeopardy of being torn down, he spoke up.

“When I see something I’m passionate about, I want to do something about it,” said Cucci, a business management major.

The skate bowl, known as the Bro Bowl, just recently made it onto the National Register of Historic Places. It sits in Perry Harvey Sr. Park, the site of redevelopment plans to celebrate the historic culture of Central Avenue and the African-American community in Tampa. The plans call for remodeling the park and building a new skate bowl near the current location.

Cucci has been one of many to speak at public meetings in favor of salvaging the Bro Bowl. He likes the old school style — no fees, no pads, skate at your own risk. The long pavement starts at one end, descending into a bowl, resembling the shape of wave. It’s why Cucci and the UT Surf Club skate here so often.

“The newer skate parks are set up for doing tricks,” he said. “The Bro Bowl is better for surfers.”

Long before coming to UT, Cucci had heard of the Bro Bowl. It’s in Tony Hawk’s Underground video games he played as a kid. Now, he rides to the park from his UT residence hall a couple times a week, spending time with a mixed crowd of little kids with their families to college students to “hard-core 60-year-old old school skaters.”

“It’s a second home,” said Cucci.

The city is currently working with the state on a plan to move the skate park while keeping it on the National Register.
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An assignment early this semester to make a documentary film piece morphed into a labor of love for three UT students Mary McCune ’15, Dylan Stinson ’14 and Anita Owusu ’14. The three had read about Tampa’s Jackson House in the newspaper and thought it’d make for a great documentary project.

The Jackson Rooming House — a place for travelers to find rest during a time of segregation — housed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and music legends like Nat “King” Cole. The more than 100-year-old home is in disrepair, and its owner, Willie Robinson, has been fighting for years to save it.

Anita Owusu ’14 is originally from Ghana, West Africa, but grew up in Tampa. She was drawn to the project because she felt a personal connection, and had a desire to help preserve this piece of history.

“I've always been fascinated with African-American history, especially the lives of prominent African Americans,” said Owusu, a film and media arts major.

Unable to raise the funds needed for restoration by the Nov. 30 deadline, Robinson recently conceded his effort. His story though, lives on through the UT students’ documentary.

“We really wanted to just spread awareness about the home’s rich history for the community,” said McCune, a film and media arts major from Land O’ Lakes, FL. “How are you going to progress if you don’t know about your past. You need to know your roots.”

The students spent many hours with Robinson doing interviews and capturing footage for their piece, pulling from lessons learned in Associate Professor Gregg Perkins’ classes. The process confirmed a love of documentary filmmaking in the three students. For Stinson, of Silver Spring, MD, it helped her direct her post-graduation plans into documentary production rather than narrative films.

“Meeting Willie Robinson and seeing him light up when he talked about his mom, family history and the house,” were some of the most interesting aspects of the process, Stinson said, as well as “walking through the home and having Willie show us the walls where his grandfather’s handprints are, and learning about all the musicians that stayed at the house like Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Cab Calloway.”

McCune said the three of them have become like daughters to Robinson.

“There was a heartwarming transition that went on from beginning of production to end,” McCune said. “Documentary production is so different from what we’re used to. You become a part of their lives.”

McCune said they hope to show the documentary on Tampa’s public television, as well as at the Tampa Bay History Center. 

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