2014 - 2015 Events & Workshops

OCEP launches a Public Lecture and Networking Series

Dr. Robert Kerstein, author of Politics and Growth in Twentieth-Century Tampa, gave a rousing lecture for the inaugural Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships' Public Lecture and Networking Series on May 22, 2015. 

Dr. Robert Kerstein


Interim Director of the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships (OCEP) Dr. Harold Keller introduced the talk by explaining that part of OCEP's mission is to bring top academics to the campus and the community to address topics related to service-learning, community engaged research, and public scholarship. Among our speakers this academic year, Dr. Ann Abbott spoke about best practices in service-learning courses; Lauren Schweder Biel, Executive Director of DC Greens, gave the keynote address for the annual Research that Matters conference, this year focusing on Sustainable Food, where she emphasized the importance of research in making meaningful policy changes at the local and federal level; and Dr. Paul Gorski, from George Mason University, who participated in a two-day community dialogue focused on reaching and teaching young people who are living on low incomes, including the importance of equity literacy to make the educational system fair and just for all.

OCEP has also been focused on educating the public about the recently released ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained) report, which shows that 48% of Floridians and 48% of people in Hillsborough County are struggling to cover their basic living expenses.


Kerstein provided the historical basis that the Tampa Bay region has long been affected by low wages and a strong hold on the power structures by the political elites, perhaps best exemplified by the City's annual Gasparilla Festival. As Keller stated in his introduction, "Kerstein will discuss the structural barriers that impede change for all or which privilege only certain groups."

Kerstein stated that in 1880, Tampa was very isolated and had only 720 people living in the City, but in 1884, Henry Plant brought the railroad to the area. Importantly, Kerstein noted, Plant received "nearly 14,000 acres of public land for each mile of track completed. It was a real mix of public and private."

This little-known fact about the assistance Plant received when building his railroad empire is clearly reminiscent of the comments of Senator Elizabeth Warren and President Obama's famous words, a few years ago, "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help....Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." Therefore, even those who proclaim they are "self-made" entrepreneurs, such as Plant, rely heavily on government assistance and subsidies to be able to achieve their business successes—an important thing to remember in a climate where so much blame is placed on those who need public assistance, a major theme of OCEP's programming this year.

Kerstein noted that Tampa began to flourish after the railroad extended to New York City, and the Tampa Port took off, with phosphate for fertilizer becoming a major export, Additionally, Vicente Martinez-Ybor's decision to bring the cigar industry to Tampa had major significance in the development of the city as well. The combination of the humidity, the railroad, and the steamboat, as well as the labor unrest in Key West, where Ybor had moved his cigar business from Cuba, led Ybor to settle his business interests in Tampa. Again, Ybor was subsidized, according to Kerstein, by the Tampa Board of Trade, which helped sway him to come to Tampa.

Vicente Ybor brought cigar making to Tampa.


In the early twentieth century, Tampa's population exploded, particularly as a result of the development of the cigar industry and of the port and harbor area. In order to create a distinctive event to celebrate Tampa's growth, the city's "movers and shakers," as Kerstein called them, came together to create the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla for a storming of the "pirates"—Tampa's version of New Orleans Mardi Gras. This exclusive event, as Kerstein said, "symbolized the elite in Tampa."

Tampa’s famous Gaspirilla Pirate Festival.


Kerstein said that some suggest that Southern cities exhibited a "traditionalist culture" where governance by members of the social class that comprised Gasparilla would be accepted as legitimate by the population of the city. "This picture, however, does not fit Tampa."

In fact, Kerstein stated that a Socialist candidate garnered almost 30% of the votes in the 1912 Mayoral election, and he emphasized that Tampa was, in fact, a "strong labor town." More than 5,000 workers marched in the Labor Day parade in 1907. "It was not just a question of pay, the people wanted more control of the workplace," He said. The elites even went so far as to engage in illegal vigilante actions, such as kidnappings of union leaders, to "quell unrest." He said, "It was not just a nice cordial mix."

First Labor Day parade in Tampa.


Institutional racism in Tampa, he said, was in part "a Southern phenomenon," but also a nationwide problem. In 1910, the local Democratic Party became the White Municipal Party, effectively disenfranchising African American for nearly forty years because they could not vote in the primary elections of the party, whose victor virtually always won in the general election. After Reconstruction, one African American man was elected to office in the late 19th century, and then it took until 1983—nearly a century—until another African American was elected to the City Council. Although Kerstein notes that there have been more recent political gains for people of color and women, he said in his book, "the process toward inclusion has by no means been as certain as the mainstream perspective on Sunbelt urban politics suggests."

Additionally, Kerstein emphasized the prevalence of corruption in the election process in Tampa. He said, "There were few honest elections in Tampa for several decades during the first half of the twentieth century. Those who controlled the ballot boxes were the ones who won." Also problematic was the airtight relationships between the gamblers and the politicians. This culminated in 1935, when Tampa received nationwide publicity, he said, for "blatant corruption." People began to "mobilize for cleaner elections and to weaken the connection between gamblers and politicians." Basically, he said, although the corruption continued in some form, the elites "wanted a city and county that had a better reputation."

Another problem Kerstein notes has been the prevalence of low paying jobs in Tampa's economic expansion following World War II. Actually, that fact was used as a draw to bring businesses to Tampa so that employers could save money by hiring cheap labor. Furthermore, in 1943, Florida became a "right to work state," which further cemented the "low paying non-union jobs." Also, the Chamber of Commerce opposed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which, Kerstein said, further demonstrated the "tone of Tampa's governing coalition."

In 1953, Tampa adopted non-partisan elections, and in 1954, the Committee of 100 was developed "to recruit businesses to move to Tampa to mobilize for economic growth."

Another mid-century decision was to locate USF, not in the center of town, but rather to place it "out beyond the City." Kerstein said that "it was an odd choice to put USF outside the City limits," because Tampa's business leaders were stressing the importance of downtown development.

Furthermore, when I-75 and I-4 were built, this resulted in major displacement of low-income communities, including large numbers of African-American family homes and other businesses, which were knocked down. Kerstein said approximately 650 largely African American families were displaced by the riverfront urban renewal project, located on both sides of the Hillsborough River. Much of the land on the west side of the Hillsborough was sold to the University of Tampa, which he said did not do much with it. He continued, "redevelopment was not spurred other than the Straz and a hotel and office building."

Additionally, more than 600 homes were demolished in Ybor City through the City's "grand plans to redevelop Ybor City." The intention, he said, was to have it "emerge as the beautiful butterfly it should be." But again, he said, that did not come to pass.

He did laud the development of the Tampa International Airport in 1971, which he called "something Tampa did right." Also significant was the Tampa football stadium, which enabled the NFL franchise. Other significant projects included the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the Tampa Convention Center, and The Florida Aquarium.

After World War II, Tampa and Hillsborough County were experiencing "de-industrialization and de-centralization, and downtown stagnated." Additionally, Tampa made "little effort to develop mass transit," which resulted in its ranking 93rd out of 100 in the country's bigger cities for the "key convenience of mass transit." The lack of adequate mass transit together with low wage work, leads inevitably to "issues of inequity and lack of mobility," Kerstein said.

Kerstein concluded his remarks by stating that we "need to develop the civic capacity to spread prosperity around." He noted two potentially positive developments – the Safe and Sound Committee and the Tampa Innovation Alliance near USF.

The USF Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships is another key player in bridging and even eliminating any potential barriers between academia and the community. We believe that by building strong university–community partnerships, we can improve our communities and the civic life of the city, which is crucial to the future success of the Tampa Bay area.

Stay tuned for future lectures offered by OCEP. If you have suggestions for speakers you would like to see, please let us know at CommunityEngagement@usf.edu.