Over the summer, Tampa Underground moved our ministry hub from Ybor City to a section of the University Area known as Suitcase City. An exciting part of that move has been the shift of presence to an area with a unique set of needs and much less of an Underground footprint. I have been doing some ground work over the last couple months with another Underground leader surveying the neighborhood, and getting to know other incredible leaders who have been doing amazing ministry for years.
On Tuesday last week, we were eating delicious tacos in Mort Park with a leader of a ministry that has been serving and advocating for Mexican immigrants for close to a decade. One of us mentioned the name “Suitcase City” in the midst of an innocent question, and that leader responded:
“Where did you hear that name? Why do you say that?”
She wasn’t angry or hostile, more so surprised and confused. She was aware of that name, it wasn’t new for her, but she was surprised that we would use it. We represented something, and carried with us an expectation, that was fundamentally divergent from using that type of moniker.
It was a subtle moment in the conversation, but I was jarred by it, because I’ve used the name Suitcase City for months now. Many of us have. None of us have meant harm by using it (I hope), and I think the cause of using it is actually a cultural conflict of how we identify place. People who live in Tampa city limits almost always identify where they live primarily by neighborhood, and secondarily by street.
“Where do you live?”
“Seminole Heights / Ybor / Tampa Heights / Sulphur Springs / Hyde Park / Hampton Terrace / East Tampa / College Hill…..etc”
“Oh really? I have a friend who lives there, what street?”
But people who live north of Fowler almost always identify where they live primarily in relation to a major intersection, and secondarily by street. The reason why? North of Fowler is a nameless place. Take a look at this Tampa Neighborhood map. Every colored area is a different neighborhood, and the red box is “suitcase city”.
So when someone asks me about the location of the new Underground Hub, my mind immediately searches for a neighborhood name that doesn’t exist, and Suitcase City is one of the only names I know. But names have consequences. Names communicate meaning, assumptions, expectations, and identity. The immense power of naming can be redemptive or demonic. We can name people or places as an act of prophetic hope or an act of ruthless condemnation. A name can lift up or level, which does “Suitcase City” do? (Just read some of this visceral, first hand writing from someone living in the nameless place, the “place of many monikers.”)
I walked around both Walmart and University Mall this week pretending to do a survey, clipboard and all. First, I asked people whether or not they lived north of Fowler, and then I asked them about the name “Suitcase City”, what they thought it meant, and how they felt about it. The vast majority of people who were not locals felt indifferent about the name or even liked it, but over 90% of the locals I talked to do not like the name. When I asked what the name meant, I got three different common answers, which expose three different assumptions about the area.
An area known for transience: It’s Suitcase City because no one completely unpacks. This place is transient. No one stays, because it is not worth staying here.
An area known for poverty: It’s Suitcase City because most of the people live out of suitcases, and can carry their whole lives in a suitcase.
An area known for crime: It’s Suitcase City because you should always keep your suitcase packed and ready to leave at a moments notice, because you never know what is going to happen.
In the nameless void, we try to attach names from the outside. Police officers call it “The Box”, others call it Hillsborough, but it is more commonly referred to in reference to the nearby university which it has nothing to do with (University Area, University Commons, USF Country). But in the void of names, Suitcase City is by far the most insidious. Every time the name Suitcase City is used, it deepens the roots of false assumptions, takes an axe to the branches of future hope, and multiplies the fruit of condemnation for an entire population. Every time I have said it in the past, even with a mix of ignorance and good intentions, I have collaborated with evil, and for that I must repent. I have to take seriously the effective power of the names I use, and the message those names declare over people and places.
So I’ve been taming my tongue, and I think we all should, in order to align ourselves more with the way God sees the reality and future of this community north of Fowler. People made in His image. People loved and pursued by him with redemptive fervor. People overflowing with strength, joy, and resilience. A rich, diverse, and hospitable community. A community with a beautiful soul. I wonder what God would name this community. I wonder if he might tell us in the years ahead.
“Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.” — Maya Angelou