Colorful crews cause controversy

BY LYDIA HARVEY
lydiapharvey@gmail.com

Photo: The Kennedy Boulevard Bridge is covered with crew art. (Lydia Harvey)

Riverwalk Development Manager Lee Hoffman had an important decision to make when the project started in 2007: whether to keep or remove the urban art that covers the river’s sea walls and bridges.

The decision between tradition and beauty quickly became a controversial subject for Tampans.

University crews from the north began using the Hillsborough River in 1941 when the University of Tampa started its rowing team, according to Tom Feaster of The Stewards Foundation of Tampa. The nonprofit foundation organizes the crews’ visits.

Teams from schools like Princeton, Yale, Rutgers, Dartmouth and others began to travel south to train on the Hillsborough River and Garrison Channel, rowing from January to March, when it was typically too cold in the north, or the teams’ waterways were frozen. Now, schools from Florida to California take part the traditional trek.

The UT crew website insists rowers Joel Harris, Jonathan Day and Carlos Garced painted the first graffiti in 1974, but Feaster remembers the graffiti from his time rowing in Tampa with Marietta College from 1966-69.

Photo: School insignias make Tampa’s bridges look like stickered suitcases.
(tampadailyphoto.blogspot.com)

Though authorities on the subject disagree on whether the tradition started in the 60s or 70s, each year, crews have left their schools’ insignias as a proud symbol that they were here.

“It shows the river is being used,” Feaster said. He estimated 1,200 rowers trained in Tampa last year alone.

Eventually, the imaginative tradition became a competition to see which team could paint the prime spot on the Cass Street railroad bridge. Whichever team dared to dangle from bridges and climb to great heights held the honor of their school’s insignia adorning the top spot for the entire year, until the next spring.

Jamie Friedman rowed with Clemson’s crew in the late 90s. The downtown resident said the urban art is created in the spirit of good, clean competition, and it is ”a reflection of university students’ desire to leave behind their innocent, youthful expression on the city.”

Photo: The Tampa History Center has an interactive rowing exhibit that displays replica crew graffiti. (Alison Lewis)

The Tampa History Center recognizes the art as a unique and important part of the city’s past. On the third floor of the Channelside facility is a wall-sized exhibit featuring one of the bridges and the art the nation’s rowing teams have left behind.

Robin Nigh, the city’s art program manager, compared the “fascinating” art to a well-traveled suitcase with stickers all over it.

“It is so very much Tampa,” she said.

While many appreciate the history behind the expression, others find it offensive.

“I always thought it was an eyesore for downtown,” Tampa Heights resident Tammy Blowers said. ”I have never though graffiti looked edgy or cool. To me, it just looks trashy.”

Though some don’t view the paintings in a favorable light, the majority of residents consider them an important part of Tampa’s identity.

Some suggested the insignias be touched up and lit to keep them looking nice. Others proposed regulating which areas crews can paint and providing explanations for the insignias some might see as negative.

Riverwalk developers decided to keep the crew art for good in 2008. Plans are in place to light the bridges artistically in the future; crews are no longer allowed to paint the historic Cass Street railroad bridge or other dangerous locations; and signs along the Riverwalk and inside riverfront hotel lobbies now explain the history of the proud practice.

Photo: Riverwalk signage explains the graffiti to visitors. (Lydia Harvey)

The sign pictured to the left reads:

“Hillsborough Haiku

Like black, moistened pens,
rowboats glide up to the walls,
signatures ready.

River kings and queens
yet servants to sweat and salt —
beating their thin oars.”

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