Tampa Housing Authority is rebuilding a historic Black neighborhood

TAMPA — The Tampa Housing Authority once helped wipe out the Scrub, the downtown neighborhood founded by Tampa’s pioneering Black community.

In 1954, the Housing Authority razed a third of the Scrub and replaced it with Central Park Village, a public housing project that has since been replaced by the federal agency’s Encore development.

Now, the Housing Authority is looking to rebuild the Scrub — part of it, at least.

They recently purchased and will next restore the Scrub’s last remaining residential homes, located at 1248 and 1250 E Scott St.

Affordable housing will then be erected around those, with each new residence mimicking the architectural style of the two originals that date to the early 1900s.

The two remaining houses from the Scrub, downtown Tampa’s pioneering Black neighborhood. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website, the Housing Authority owns around three-fourths of an acre of the 1200 block of E Scott Street.

Leroy Moore, the Housing Authority’s chief operating officer, estimates they could fit 12 new homes there.

“We’re too early in the process to have a schedule or cost,” Moore said. “But the plan is, we want to recreate the Scrub. This is something we’ve had our eye on doing for a long time.”

Over the years, Moore said, he made several offers to the homes’ previous owner, Paul Johnson.

“They are his childhood homes and he still lived there,” Moore said. “He wasn’t ready to sell.”

Related: Art provides a rare glimpse at Tampa’s historic Black neighborhoods

Then, earlier this year, Darryl Shaw made Johnson an offer.

Shaw, who is developing the 50-acre Gas Worx mixed-use community connecting Ybor City and Water Street, said he drove by the homes often and worried that they’d fall into such disrepair that they would not be restorable.

So, Shaw cold-called Johnson and convinced him to sell.

Knowing that Moore wanted to restore the structures and rebuild a portion of the Scrub, Shaw then offered to sign the contract over to the Housing Authority. The sale was finalized in February for $310,000, according to the property appraiser’s website.

“They are the only two homes left from the Scrub,” Shaw said. “They are really important to the history of the area. It’s important to preserve them.”

Related: Black communities around Tampa Bay were erased. Should cities pay to save the history?

The Scrub was founded by freed enslaved people after the Civil War and grew into a thriving business and entertainment district that included Central Avenue, known as the Harlem of the South. Central Avenue is where popular Black musicians of the day went to perform — Ray Charles, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald among them.

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In the 1950s, the city of Tampa declared the Scrub a slum. The new development “abolished Tampa’s greatest eyesore, the Scrub, 29 acres of ramshackle unpainted dwellings in the heart of the city,” the Tampa Tribune reported Oct. 21, 1954, the day Central Park was dedicated.

The housing project replaced 442 Scrub homes.

Urban renewal and the construction of the interstate wiped out the rest of the Scrub.

The living room inside one of the two houses the Tampa Housing Authority has purchased to restore from the Scrub, downtown Tampa's pioneering Black neighborhood.
The living room inside one of the two houses the Tampa Housing Authority has purchased to restore from the Scrub, downtown Tampa’s pioneering Black neighborhood. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

The Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite-Powell estimates fewer than a dozen structures from the Scrub remain standing. Those include St. James Episcopal Church at 1202 Governor St., which the Housing Authority also owns. It is being restored and converted into a Black history museum.

The two homes are in poor shape and it would be cheaper to raze and replace them with replicas, Moore said. “But we need to save our history, not destroy it. This is a passion project. So, it’s not going to make total fiscal sense. But it’s the right thing to do.”