The following is an exclusive preview of The Unlikely Parks of Tampa Bay: A Scenic History by Thomas Kenning, out now from Arcadia Press.
“…the original Florida is going fast.”
-Dick Bothwell, St. Petersburg Times, October 12, 1958.
At first there were a few people, and it wasn’t a big deal. If for no other reason than by virtue of their small numbers, they tramped lightly upon the land and gathered sparingly from the waters.
Tampa Bay was big enough for all the plants, animals, and people who called it home.
But then came the railroad, the automobile, air conditioning, and the airplane.
Soon, there were many people, and each wanted to carve off his or her own little slice of paradise.
And it became a big deal.
The balance had shifted.
Nature was in full retreat, under threat by people who hadn’t quite realized their role in the choir of creation—mistaking the undeniable ingenuity of humanity for a mandate to conquer and tame.
But a few came to understand that, on their best days, humans were capable of singing in harmony with the birds, rather than drowning them out under the din of industry—and these few set about trying to show everyone else how it might be done.
At the end of the first quarter of the twenty-first century, Tampa Bay is home to more than four million people—a sprawling urban area, organized into dozens of interlocking municipalities spanning from the gulf on around the bay. In an environment as built as this, any remaining traces of wild Florida are deeply entwined with human infrastructure—making for some of the most unlikely, most remarkable nature preserves in the state.
Consider these improbable vistas found along the shores of Tampa Bay—the remains of a ruined cross-bay bridge are repurposed into one of the best fishing spots in the bay. A condemned zoo is reverting in real time to one of the region’s most authentic examples of native habitat. A failed movie studio serves as the backlot to a thriving intertidal mangrove forest. An abandoned island fortress now stands guard over a federally-designated bird sanctuary.
Natural beauty and ecological merit weren’t reason enough on their own to protect these places.
Instead, Tampa Bay’s starring parks and wild spaces are a constellation of accidents and scraps, set aside as such only after all other plans came to naught—and then, only through the efforts of men and women with foresight enough to conserve a leftover slice of original Florida before it disappeared. An economic turn of luck here, some better marketing there—and any number of these green and blue jewels might today languish beneath another dozen blocks of anonymous residential street grid.
These are the ongoing stories of ten unlikely parks from around Tampa Bay—that almost weren’t.
From Philippe Park to Fort DeSoto, from Boyd Hill to Weedon Island, from the Skyway Fishing Pier to Big Bend Manatee Viewing Center—The Unlikely Parks of Tampa Bay: A Scenic History offers a rousing look at the roundabout backstories behind ten of the region’s most beloved natural spaces. Featuring more than 130 stunning photos, it is also a reminder—in case you needed it—that wild Florida is very much alive in Tampa Bay.
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