I had almost finished an entire piece regarding the Aqua by the Bay decision before heading out on the road to visit my grandkids in Texas. For those of you that have never been, Dallas is the epitome of urban sprawl. On my way home I decided to take the “scenic route” through the panhandle of Florida from Ft. Walton Beach along Hwy 98 all the way through Apalachicola to Perry before heading south. It wasn’t long before I realized Florida had developed its own unique version of urban sprawl when it comes to what we have allowed happen to our state, and especially our shorelines. The East Coast of Florida has known this for decades, but it has finally come to pass here on the west coast. I deleted my original article and started over.
At the risk of sounding like a sentimental old fool, let me start by saying that Florida has paved over more history than any other state in the union. I have always contended that the two things that ruined Florida are mosquito control and central air conditioning. I would add to that list developers and greed, which are pretty much one in the same. I don’t blame people for wanting to come here, Florida is diverse and naturally beautiful. As 98 wove itself along the coast and through the woods between towns along the panhandle I was taken on a journey that told Florida’s story of its humble roots and its arrogant future. Bypassing Pensacola completely because I am all too familiar with the traffic problems there, I started by leaving Interstate 10 and heading south on 85 to Fort Walton Beach about the middle of what is dubbed “The Emerald Coast”. Historically this area was home to farmers, commercial fishermen, ship builders and had a thriving logging industry in the early 1900’s. Now the main sources of income are tourism and hospitality. Sound familiar? It should. The beach itself reminded me of Anna Maria in the 70’s, a small strip of white sand with jetties made of rock and rolling sand dunes. The beaches here in the panhandle are still wild and natural, not the vast man-made pumped in beaches that attract the throngs of visitors we have now. The natural beauty of the coast attracts tourists mostly from Mississippi and Alabama giving rise to the nickname “The Redneck Riviera” and the typical kitschy restaurants and vacation rentals, condos and gift shops have risen along her shores. The highway turned north into the uplands for a bit, giving me a front row seat to retail stores, chain restaurants and strip malls. This cookie-cutter scenario played out over and over again. Destin, Seaside, Sandestin, Mexico Beach, Navarre, Perdido Key. They all kind of blended in together because they all looked pretty much the same. It wasn’t until I got to Port St. Joe, the unofficial starting point of “The Forgotten Coast” that I was put face to face with all we have lost in coastal Manatee County already.
This particular area along the Gulf of Mexico is only a few feet above sea level. It is also historically susceptible to hurricanes. The shoreline is untouched by the ravaging appetites of developers and tourism mostly because it’s considered a risky area for the reasons I just mentioned, although you see tiny glimpses of it here and there. The homes are modest, as are the people. They are working class folks, the kind that settled Florida. Farmers and fishermen, the same as Manatee County. As I made my way further east to Apalachicola, the realization that we lost our paradise decades ago came into sharp focus for me. Let me clarify that statement a little bit. I am a working class native Floridian and I am proud of it. I make my living with my hands, like so many others I grew up with. I am far from rich, but I am happy and comfortable. I was lucky enough to be born and raised in Cortez, our family homestead directly on the bay just north of the Seafood Shack restaurant. My grandparents owned a home directly across the bay from us on Bradenton Beach that sat on the last piece of gulf to bay property when my grandmother sold it in 1985. The bay was clean and the water clear, and we swam off the end of the dock year-round. Spotted eagle rays and huge leatherback turtles were a fairly common sight, now they are just a few of our growing list of endangered and protected species. I dug clams in my front yard at low tide and I waded those same grass flats at high tide, scooping up blue crabs with a dip net. I will never share these experiences with my grandchildren, because those grass flats, that way of life, doesn’t exist anymore. What my dad once called our “green beach” at low tide, is now dark muck that will suck you down and eat your flip flops. The clams are gone for the most part and what remains you probably wouldn’t want to eat anyway. The blue crabs have moved off to what few grass beds remain on less hardened shorelines.
As I drove through the stands of pines along the two-lane highway through Wakulla county it felt so familiar to me that for a moment I was driving out state road 70 to go fish at Jigg’s Landing as a kid. This stretch of road looked exactly like it. From 41 east to Jigg’s was a two-lane road, nothing but pine forests on both sides. Miles and miles went past before you happened upon the Division of Forestry tower on the north side of the road, signaling you to start watching for the southern turn on a long winding dirt road. Today, Jigg’s landing is smack dab in the middle of a subdivision and SR70 is a six-lane highway not lined with a forest of pines, but paved over and covered in Florida’s version of Urban Sprawl. The drive through Wakulla county also reminded me of the stretch of Cortez road from about 59th street to Cortez. Two lanes flanked with pine trees, farms and a few houses. That insulation from “Bradenton proper” has long since vanished.
As I drove through Carrabelle, it reminded me of what Cortez and the island once were- a small, hardworking community of commercial fishermen and the small coastal community that sprung up around it. In my lifetime I have watched the island go from a thriving, real community of families who lived and worked together, where a vast majority of the residents lived on the island year-round, to an island that has only a 10% annual population. The working-class islanders held on for as long as they could as housing prices spiked in the 90’s, and with it tax and insurance rates. Some moved inland but kept their island properties and turned them into rentals which was the only way they could to afford to keep them. Others simply cashed out and left. I don’t blame either choice, but it’s sad to have been put in that position in the first place. I’ve seen the same happen in Cortez to a degree. Cortezians are a bit more stubborn and resistant to change. My family’s home was sold in the 2001. I don’t blame him for that decision. He was a working-class man too, and the cost of keeping it simply became too high. As development drove land values up, it drove a lot of working class people out. As my family and so many others responded this harsh reality, the face of coastal Manatee County slowly began to change. Those of us who held on changed with it, and found ways to work and live within the constraints placed on us by market forces and inevitable change. Cortez and the commercial fishing industry and all the supporting industries around it will continue to struggle as the world squeezes in around us, straining our environment and resources that all of us depend on to survive. With the approvals of the Aqua by the Bay and Lake Flores development which will turn the last of western Manatee County’s farmland into residential and commercial “New Florida” urban sprawl, the writing is on the wall. Next to come will be the high bridge. In the next decade or so, when the traffic is backed up even further inland with twenty-something-thousand more people added to the coast, the next big blow will be an east-west thoroughfare, and Cortez will be just another exit on an off ramp in the shadow of an interchange. The paradise that was “Old Florida” was lost years ago, it just takes us a while to recognize it as such. Like grains of sand slipping through our grasp, the world I and so many other native Floridians knew has already been forever changed. The challenge for the fishing families of Cortez will not be to just survive as an industry, but to keep our identity, our traditions and our culture alive and working in the shadows of a strip-mall-chain-restaurant-tourism-based reality that is the New Florida. I hope my grandchildren and great grandchildren can grow up and know what the true nature of Cortez is because they are living it. My fear is that they will learn of their heritage as just another chapter of Old Florida told in books and looked at behind glass displays in museums with gift shops selling them merchandised memorabilia. That would truly be Paradise Lost.
photos from Facebook