It’s honestly somewhat difficult for me to relate when people express a strong sense of pride or connection to their hometowns. A large part of this is due to my privileges of being from a Florida beach town, or somewhere typically used to escape from the stress of somewhere we might consider more ‘real’ or ‘authentic,’ as well as how I was fortunate enough to often travel throughout the United States while growing up there. Consider my gradual realization of the other desire to move here to escape from paying taxes and supporting a stronger public sphere, and you can understand why I became more jaded about the image of the city as some sort of tropical oasis. However, I’m happy to have had this experience growing up, as it allowed me to learn at an early age about the power of marketing, or the disconnection beyond the idyllic beach resort image which perpetually drives the real estate market of the state, and the lived experience of the borderlands between the post-industrial city of Tampa and the white-sand beaches lining the Pinellas county coast on the Gulf of Mexico.
I’m not surprised how I haven’t met anyone from Clearwater, Florida outside of the region, referred to broadly as “Tampa Bay.” It’s not really a place to be “from,” and even returning as an adult who moved from the Florida ‘Suncoast’ (which includes Manatee and Sarasota counties to the south) to New York after college, it’s a bizarre feeling of being an interloper among tourists and retirees who don’t know or care if I’m technically a local. It’s an even stranger feeling to see the advertisements across the New York subway for Clearwater/St. Petersburg during the winter, making me have to remind myself again why I gave up beaches for underfunded transit. Like many Floridians, neither of my parents were from the state. Rather, they were both from popular ‘snowbird’ (winter tourist) states, New York and Maryland, and had parents who decided to move down to Tampa Bay during the height of the Cold War, when companies supporting new modern aerospace industries began rapidly expanding to the state, including their main employer, Honeywell.
This history of boom-and-bust industries and real estate ventures in Florida informs its complicated heritage protection, as the field remains very much secondary to commercial interests. However, a more robust method of preserving archaeological sites is built into the municipal preservation ordinances, due to the prominent presence of Tocobaga Native Americans in Tampa Bay prior to the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Clearwater is the county seat of Pinellas County, and both have worked to establish public archaeological sites including my favorite, Philippe Park, at the east end of Clearwater which faces Safety Harbor, the innermost part of Tampa Bay. Named after French explorer and first European settler in the region, Odet Philippe, the park features the largest mound which dates back to the Tocobaga.(1) This southern Timucuan tribe formed these alternating layers of shell and sand into the largest such formation in the region, listed on the National Register in 1966.(2)
My other favorite historic site in the area is known as Heritage Village, located technically in Largo just south of Clearwater. This is a 21-acre, outdoor living history museum which features several relocated historic buildings of the county. Due to the tourism boom and suburbanization following World War II, increased real estate demand along the waterfront forced these wooden structures, including a school, church, and sponge warehouse,(3) to be relocated inland together by the Pinellas County Historical Society for conservation. The homes within range from the McMullen-Coachman log cabin, the oldest existing structure in the county, to the Queen Anne-style House of Seven Gables.(4) Within Clearwater proper, the sole historic residential district which has been spared the same fate as these buildings within Heritage Village is known as Harbor Oaks. Just south of downtown Clearwater, the Clearwater Historical Society helped designate this site in 1988, as it was the first planned residential neighborhood in the city, having opened in 1914 by developer Dean Alvord.(5)
Although I gained my share of cynicism about Clearwater as I grew up, I’ve had to keep a sense of humor about this bizarre place. After all, its biggest claims to fame outside of Florida are being the site of the original Hooters restaurant, and being the world headquarters of the Church of Scientology (which has largely bought up the properties of the central business district). In Pinellas County, it’s easy to miss the region’s diverse historic assets, but like anywhere it’s worth a closer look.
1 Philippe Park. Pinellas County Parks and Reserves. http://www.pinellascounty.org/park/11_philippe.htm
2 Safety Harbor Site, National Register #66000270. http://www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/FL/Pinellas/state.html
3 The sponge diving aspect of Pinellas’ history is specific to the significant Greek Orthodox community of Tarpon Springs, just north of Clearwater.
4 Heritage Village. http://www.pinellascounty.org/heritage/
5 Harbor Oaks Historic District. http://www.historicalmarkerproject.com/markers/HMY38_harbor-oaks-historic-district_Clearwater-FL.html