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The Coolness of Old Florida

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent dig that Florida is "for the old people" cut locals here to the quick.

"Florida's not cool to a 20-year-old, and it has to be," retail executive Larry Levine told the Economic Council of Palm Beach County. His own children have gone west.

Levine's analysis is only half right. And under it lies a crashing irony. Florida's future depends not on replacing old Floridians but in preserving Old Florida. Not far from the tired shopping strips, empty but for a tax preparer and hearing-aid vender, are havens of cool. Hipsters have taken over worn neighborhoods with vintage main streets and charming cottages that had seen better days.

This trend is not unique to Florida. The cool ones hang out in the reinvented warehouses in Omaha's Old Market and in the 19th century storefronts of Denver's LoDo neighborhood. Deadwood in South Dakota would be another gambling wasteland were it not for the splendid preservation of its Old West streetscape.

While Florida's economic boosters were obsessing on Schwarzenegger's comment -- made more unsettling by its scintilla of truth -- people of every age demographic were partying in Miami's South Beach, Stuart's downtown and wherever Old Florida has been rediscovered. Another common trait is their pedestrian-friendliness: No one has to scamper across eight lanes of angry traffic to enjoy the scene.

Lake Worth used to have a worn-out downtown. Calling it "sleepy" was nicer than calling it "dead." Now it's filled from sunrise to the wee hours with venues that would have appealed to Arthur Godfrey, Xavier Cugat, Lady Gaga or all three. There's an old-school French restaurant, a Jewish deli, Havana-inspired cafes, surfer bars, gay clubs and more than one Irish pub.

Every generation of cool people is served: There's a kava bar for hipsters, Birkenstock distributor for hippies and medical supply stores for those with new hips. Coolness, of course, has little to do with age -- as noted in a visit to The Cottage, a bar-and-outdoors restaurant that attracts a diverse clientele. At one table, a group of Medicare beneficiaries were drinking, laughing and carrying on. At another, a trio of pretty young women sat somberly, as they checked their makeup.

This happy setting makes a proposal only a few miles up the road in the deluxe town of Palm Beach seem mystifying. Developers want to replace the historic Royal Poinciana Playhouse with a "state-of-the-art" theater and -- no doubt their real motive -- to build waterfront condos on the property. Palm Beach has never been a hotbed for change, and this plan has set off a fierce opposition by those who like things the way they are. The developers' offer to incorporate one wall of the old playhouse into the design only infuriated opponents more.

Palm Beach is blessed with a gorgeously kept downtown that epitomizes the glamour of Old Florida -- the high-end version, that is. How a proposal to break one of the golden eggs that makes Palm Beach unique could get as far as it has confounds me. And with about 800 condo units now on the market, new apartments would seem the last thing Palm Beach needs.

Unsold homes are plentiful throughout Florida, due in part to overbuilding for newcomers who didn't come. Indeed, news that Florida's population actually fell recently may have triggered Schwarzenegger's ungenerous remark.

Apart from those trying to sell real estate, Floridians should take comfort in this trend and hope that the state's population continues to stabilize. That should dampen the lust to level historic downtowns that have become valuable precisely because they've been preserved.

Old Florida will always be cool. The rest of it has work to do.

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