The long-awaited renaissance of Tampa Heights finally set in in the mid-2010s. For there to be a renaissance, there must have been an earlier decline, and to say Tampa Heights was once in decline would put it mildly. The neighborhood north of downtown Tampa was the city’s first suburb, but it also became one of the city’s first economically difficult areas.
The rise, fall, and rebirth of Tampa Heights is a story that encompasses an epidemic of mysterious origins, short-lived city government, and large apartment buildings, followed by prolonged economic decline and a slow road to recovery.
X marks the point in Tampa Heights
During the numerous yellow fever outbreaks in Tampa in the mid to late 19th century, many families fled to the sparsely populated “heights” north of what is now downtown Tampa. It was seen as a healthy alternative to living in a “city” i.e. Tampa. Although unknown at the time, mosquitoes were responsible for the spread of the disease, and the slightly higher elevation allowed for better drainage and fewer mosquitos. This, along with the fact that few people lived there at the time, gave the “heights” a perception of being a healthier place.
In the 1880s, Tampa began to grow after the arrival of the railroad, the discovery of phosphate, and the start of the cigar industry. At the same time a new city was incorporated in the high altitude area north of Tampa. This new city was called “North Tampa”, the first use of this long-lived term. The boundaries of the city of North Tampa included Constant Street (roughly today’s Laurel Street) to the north, Florida Avenue to the east, the Hillsborough River to the west, and north of Harrison Street to the south.
Though little more than a continuation of the north-south streets of downtown Tampa, the property was outside of Tampa’s corporate boundaries, so it was eligible to become a town of its own. The city square (map) was created for EA Clarke in 1883. On November 8, 1886, North Tampa was officially incorporated and elected a mayor and councilor for the city. Almost everyone involved in North Tampa was already part of, or was about to become, part of Tampa’s political and economic power structure.
Ironically, the person who originally owned the land occupied by the new city of Northern Tampa sat outside that power structure because of both race and gender. Fortune Taylor, an African American, owned 32 acres north of Tampa, which she acquired through a state grant in 1875. They sold most of the land to Edward A. Clarke, a prominent Tampa businessman, and his son -law AJ Knight, in the mid-1870s, kept just under an acre for their home location (on the south side of Fortune Street, near what is now Barrymore Hotels).
While Clarke and Knight were dividing their land and building a new town, rancher and businessman William B. Henderson bought his own property for a new subdivision he called Tampa Heights. The neighborhood, east of Clarke’s northern Tampa, was small (just six blocks from Florida and Central Streets and Oak and Henderson Streets), but the name caught on. Soon the entire area north of downtown was known as Tampa Heights.
The city of Northern Tampa ceased to exist in 1887 when it became the second parish of the new city of Tampa along with the adjacent land. As Tampa continued to grow, Hendersons Tampa Heights grew with it. Ultimately, the Tampa Heights neighborhood included everything north of downtown and south of Buffalo (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard), as well as between the river and Nebraska Avenue.
Tampa’s most prominent families settled in Tampa Heights. This house at 301 E. Oak Ave. belonged to Amos Love Harris and Mattie Ward Henderson Harris, the latter of whom was the daughter of Tampa Heights founder William B. Henderson. In this 1904 or 1905 photo, she is sitting on the lawn with a baby, likely her daughter Caroline H. Harris (PHOTO: Tampa Bay History Center Collection).
In the 1890s, Tampa Heights became the preferred place to live for wealthy residents. Lavish Victorian homes have been built throughout the neighborhood, with particular emphasis on Ross Avenue, Palm Avenue, and Nebraska Avenue. Shops have opened on Franklin Street providing continuity between Tampa Heights and downtown. The city built its waterworks near the river and Seventh Avenue in the early 20th century, and the Tampa Electric Company’s tram barn followed a few years later. Despite the addition of these more industrial structures, Tampa Heights was still considered a popular place to live
Tampa’s African American elites also called Tampa Heights their home, but they were limited to where they could live. While Lamar Avenue was one of the main residential streets for African Americans at the time, there was an unwritten rule that they couldn’t live north of Kay Street or west of Jefferson.
Then, as Downtown Tampa continued to grow in the 1910s and 1920s, Tampa Heights’ popularity actually began to wane. Subsequent generations chose to live in Hyde Park, Palma Ceia, the Davis Islands, and other nearby neighborhoods, leaving Tampa Heights and its once grand residences behind. Some of these homes were donated by families to social service providers. During this period there was an urgent need for charity as government assistance to the poor was nowhere near as widespread as it is today. The intent of the families and charities was pure, but the unintended consequences had far-reaching implications. As the neighborhood is already becoming less popular, fewer middle-class families wanted to live near these social service providers. Some of the large houses in the area were soon divided into apartment blocks and intermediate houses for people who could not find or afford other housing options.
Many of Tampa’s older neighborhoods joined Tampa Heights in economic and structural decline after World War II. The GI Act gave veterans the opportunity to buy new homes in the suburbs, but they couldn’t use that money to renovate existing structures. With new homes and new subdivisions, Tampa Heights continued to decline.
Seventh Avenue in Tampa Heights was originally lined with majestic oak trees and stunning homes, pictured here in 1912 (PHOTO: Tampa Bay History Center Collection)
From the 1970s onwards, the historic preservation movement showed the value of older neighborhoods. On site, Hyde Park and Ybor City were the focus of conservation efforts, with Hyde Park in particular having the most positive impact. Local conservationists thought the same thing could and would happen in Tampa Heights. The neighborhood received both national and local historical designations that provided tax incentives for protection against demolition. Even so, it took Heights much longer to feel the same bump that boosted Hyde Park.
Eventually the situation began to change in the early 2000s. Investments by large companies and small business owners were starting to make a difference. Small steps turned into big leaps, and finally major renovation and maintenance initiatives were taken. An old shop front, the TECO tram barn and the city’s old waterworks became The Hall on Franklin, Armature Works and the Heights Public Market and Ulele. Craft breweries and restaurants filled empty buildings. The new building rose in long deserted properties and historic houses gained new life.
These successes come at a price. Rising property values have displaced longtime residents, and there is often an obvious socio-economic and cultural gap between those who visit the trendy bars and restaurants and those who use the social services that remain in the neighborhood. These are the problems that every growing city must face. Is There Room for Everyone in Reborn Tampa Heights? Only time can tell.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the director of the Touchton Map Library at the Tampa Bay History Center, where he joined the staff in 1995. He received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Florida and a Master of Arts from the University of South Florida. both on US history. Born and raised in Tampa, he has written and lectured extensively on the history of Tampa, Hillsborough Counties, and Florida. He was recently named the Official Historian for Hillsborough County by the Board of County Commissioners.