Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Familiar, Yet Foreign
Clearwater Beach, Florida

The glaring sun hovers above Clearwater Beach, its late-day rays splashing an orange tint over the island. Approaching from the mainland and crossing the modern bridge that spans Clearwater Bay, we enjoy a view that stretches from the barrier island westward, miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Palm trees and tropical fauna line the median and shoulders of Memorial Causeway, adding to the attractiveness. I’ve traveled this mainland-to-beach route hundreds of times over the past few decades, lured not only by its beauty, but by the promise of a bright and vibrant beach scene at the end of the causeway. This evening, however, my former home away from home seems foreign to me, as Clearwater Beach languishes amid redevelopment efforts.

Along Mandalay Avenue, the north beach dozes. Souvenir shops housed behind old storefronts remain open at sunset, but attract few shoppers. Their arms folded, waiters in white aprons lean against the fa├žade of the Lobster Pot Restaurant, watching the few cars that pass on this December evening. At Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber, an elegant Christmas tree decorates the foyer, with no patrons inside the landmark Clearwater Beach restaurant to enjoy the festive scene.

Squeezed between the edge of the marina and the Sea Captain Resort on the south beach, the imposing 11-story Holiday Inn Express under construction sits on a tiny corner lot once occupied by the family-friendly Sunny Motel. A block south on Coronado Drive, the pink Hyatt Aqualea Condominium Hotel towers 17 stories to dominate the area. The building shadows its neighbors, including the dark and quiet Alex Restaurant which shares a block with crumbling cottages and shabby motels.

The few remaining garden style motels on Clearwater Beach have fallen into neglect. At the New Yorker, smudges cover guest room windows. The disregarded asphalt parking lot cracks from end to end. The sign sags and its vacancy indicator no longer lights. It’s unnecessary really, since the motel can claim no guests this evening.

Directly across Brightwater Drive from the New Yorker, the Gem Tower looks equally untidy. A single car, with West Virginia plates, sits in the lot. Neither the motel’s sign, nor the office, exhibit any light. If not for the lone car, I’d guess the place has closed. Paint peels from the eaves. Grime and dust cover the faded lawn chairs and umbrellas. Unkempt trees and bushes invade the debris covered walkways. The swimming pool appears cloudy and grimy.

We park and exit the car after spotting a man on a ladder with a paintbrush. He splashes a fresh coat of aqua colored paint on the eaves, but his attempt at rejuvenation seems futile. The place needs a major facelift or a wrecking ball, not a cosmetic touch-up. The shuttered office looks abandoned. Through fogged windows, I notice stacks of yellowed postcards and photographs, and heat-curled receipts on the dusty counter.

Seven years ago, from our second floor room across the street at the New Yorker, I watched as the owner of the Gem Tower, a perky Polish immigrant, routinely swept patios, washed windows, and ushered guests to their rooms. Often she cleaned the apartments and changed sheets well after dark to accommodate late arriving guests. The current condition would indicate the motel has changed hands, but the man on the ladder says he and his wife—the perky Polish immigrant—have owned the place for over 20 years. If the exterior is any indication, the rooms must need serious attention.

Directly behind the Gem Tower, an expansive lot awaits redevelopment. Town officials hope to build a multi-story parking garage on the site. Similarly, a weed infested lot behind the New Yorker Motel sits vacant, as it has for more than three years. The oceanfront Adam's Mark Caribbean Gulf Resort, the sprawling seaside Holiday Inn Sunspree, and the neat if small Gulf Beach Motel have all been razed, reduced to bulldozed plots of sand and crushed shells—a common sight now on Clearwater Beach.

Several years ago, the Beach Walk landscape renovation transformed a stretch of Gulfview Boulevard into an attractive, winding promenade. But fast food restaurants, and tacky surf shops with garish window displays, border the street and clash with the scene. Despite the costly project, few people enjoy the result.

Once my family’s favorite vacation destination, Clearwater Beach no longer appeals to me. As we cruise down the traffic-free streets, passing former haunts, I reminisce about the atmosphere that attracted families to this Gulfside resort community. I remember the tropical melodies of steel drum ensembles blaring from hotel tiki bars; the aromas of fried fish, of sweet waffles, of grilled onions; the endless glow of colorful neon lights; the pedestrians who strolled at all hours. At dusk tonight, the beach looks deserted, despite the much hyped Sunsets at Pier 60 festival, a mock-up of the Sunset Celebration arts and crafts event held nightly at Mallory Square Dock in Key West. And Post Corner Restaurant, the sprawling Greek-owned pizzeria where we stop for a carryout cheese and sausage, welcomes fewer than a dozen diners at dinnertime.

I realize the December low season contributes to a lack of tourists. But unlike similar seasonally-affected communities along Florida’s Suncoast, Clearwater Beach feels uninviting—borderline eerie, really. It seems the attempt to transform Clearwater Beach from a family friendly community to a chic resort has alienated the carloads of tourists who, for decades, supported the local economy. Moreover, the changing landscape fails to attract the caliber of visitors public officials had expected.

This Christmas season, the dismal shores of a formerly bustling Clearwater Beach offer no comfort, or joy.

from 2011