Ruskin somehow manages to be the odd man out in things. Sun City Center has an identity, and the people who live there work hard to maintain it. Apollo Beach has an identity of sorts, mostly as a bedroom community, but there is also an inclusiveness found in the community. Gibsonton has an identity and, until recently, it had a certain exclusiveness among the many performers who called it home. Riverview, well Riverview is a big ol’ place filled with homes and people, and is right next to all of the big city amenities.
But what is Ruskin? It always seems to be the odd man out. When I moved to Ruskin nearly 17 years ago, it had two tack stores and at least three grocery stores. I, of course, heard about the history of the place steeped in hard work, education and the arts, but saw little of the remnants in today’s life. When the Coffee Cup disappeared and there were no more “2 for $2” breakfasts at the Ruskin Cafe, it seemed the last threads to what Ruskin was and wanted to be were fraying away.
When I was looking into opening a marine store back in 2000, I was told that people from Apollo Beach would not go to Ruskin. I was told that people from Sun City Center wouldn’t go to Ruskin. Why not? OK, yes, Ruskin is a little eclectic. While Apollo Beach and Sun City Center have nicely planned streets and avenues, Ruskin is a good bit more ad hoc. There are houses in this community that have no real right-of-way access to a street. Over the years, stuff just happened, and things seemed to be randomly put together. One day, a silver travel trailer is new and shiny on an empty lot, the next day someone nails a bunch of plywood to it and that trailer becomes the living room of an inexpensive, odd-looking house.
And yes, the randomness and ad hoc nature of things has made for a somewhat dangerous neighborhood or two. Shopping in town isn’t quite what you’d find in Apollo Beach, but eclectic isn’t a bad thing and a little diversity adds some spice to life, as long as that doesn’t include getting shot or continually having your yard ornaments stolen.
In 17 years here, I’ve never been the victim of a crime in Ruskin, unless I count the missing bicycle that I accidentally left unlocked at a marina bike rack for a year or so. Of course, there have been many crimes over the years, so maybe I’m just lucky. There have been some horrific crimes in Apollo Beach and Sun City Center, too, but those are seen with surprise. Ruskin, again, is the odd-man out because people always seem to expect it here.
The reality is that Ruskin isn’t dangerous, and crime is actually lower here than in many parts of the Tampa Bay area. Yes, this place runs the gamut from outlandish to run-down and, let’s face it, the main shopping center isn’t exactly Fifth Avenue style. But somewhere in this community I can still hear a heart that has been beating for more than 100 years. The past few months have exemplified that with numerous gatherings to help people in need. There have been so many events lately that I’m at a loss for new headlines because there are only so many ways to say “Community steps up for…”. In my opinion, that’s a good problem for a community to have. It shows that there is most certainly a heart in Ruskin.
Even with my already fond feelings towards the community, everything I knew about Ruskin changed last Saturday night. I now know something of the Ruskin that the community has always wanted it to be — a long spoken of, yet oft-forgotten vision for Ruskin has been transformed into reality. On Saturday night, Ruskin became a regional center for the arts.
A group of people, with help from local, regional, and national businesses and organizations, worked their tails off to transform a decades-old, somewhat unattractive building that had been built to house fire trucks and firefighters into a regional cultural center. They did that work based entirely on faith: faith that people in Ruskin would see the potential in it and thus support it and faith that people in Sun City Center, Apollo Beach, Gibsonton and Riverview would make the trip to Ruskin to do the same. To me, it was the fulfillment of Ruskin’s destiny, all built on hard work, dreams and a shoestring.
The large bays that once housed fire engines have been painted black, a stage with long curtains is in place in the largest bay at the far end, and there is seating for at least 100 people inside. On Saturday night, when performance artist Leland Faulkner took that stage, each and every seat was full. The show was a sellout. For the first time in my 17 years in Ruskin, my wife and I enjoyed live theater in a place dedicated to live theater and other performances. It felt good to see so many turn out, it felt great to hear their laughter and applause as Faulkner dazzled the audience with his worldly talent. It felt great to know that people — my neighbors in this community — cared so much to work so hard to make it happen. I can only imagine how they felt seeing all of their hard work come to fruition.
For years, I’ve heard that Ruskin was founded on the arts. On Saturday night, Ruskin returned to its roots. When the curtain went up and the applause began at the Firehouse Cultural Center, everything that anyone alive today has thought about Ruskin changed.
“This is going to leave a mark — a good one,” my wife Michelle said as we left the theater after Faulkner’s performance. “Twenty years from now, people will remember this is when it all began.”
This community just emerged from being the odd man out to being what it was always meant to be — a regional center for the arts and a resource for all of South Hillsborough.
Saturday night in Ruskin — you can catch a live show and, perhaps, enjoy dinner or cocktails afterwards. How cool is that?
Find out more at www.firehouseculturalcenter.org.