While former-Mayor Darlene Bradley often referred to the town she once governed as Mayberry, her arrest last month displayed, literally to the entire world, the seamier side of one of Florida’s smallest cities. It’s a realm with a long history, one that started long before Bradley was re-elected Mayor last year for her third and last term.
Unlike many Floridian cities, Davenport’s blessed with a cadre of residents who’ve lived here for generations, beginning when the original settlers, who travelled onto the Mid-Florida Ridge during the period of the Seminole Wars. This homesteading began circa 1838.
The presence of Fort Davenport and the local railroad made it a safe place, ripe for settlers, which originally included those fleeing from the wars and from slavery, primarily Native Americans and Africans. Later, in the next century, it attracted white settlers who not only made it their home but also flexed their privilege to thrust non-white settlers into the outskirts, away from Lake Play. Like most American cities, Davenport’s origins include racism, which in at least one sector of the city is still evident today, the historical area.
It’s one of the many challenges that Davenport now has moving into the future, the primary one being that it is in the process of losing its Mayberry in exchange for what is being considered progress: an outrageous explosion of new single-family homes and the most common of retail stores, such as the new RaceTrak on Route 27, the deteriorating Family Dollar, and the chronically disheveled Dollar General. [And whose bright, effen idea was it to locate two general discount stores across the street from each other? (Excuse my French please.)]
The vernacular homes that once defined the area are succumbing to new, concrete block homes. And while, perhaps, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since neglected homes do bode terribly for communities, what other option is left but to demolish them?
When we begin to lose those structures, though, we lose a piece of sound local importance, of naturally local resources, so to say. Then it becomes an issue of losing our historical value, of losing our Mayberry, of going extinct in a philosophical manner, in a zeitgeist kind of way.
There are too many examples of this lack of maintenance, this neglect, such as: the iconic water tower that was razed in December 2014 under Bradley’s leadership; or, according to The Ledger, the planned demolition of a Sears home later this year to make way for “an enclave of townhomes” dead square in the middle of the historical area, an area made up primarily of single-family homes built over the last hundred years.
Another big example of the neglect, is the old, 1927 school building, between the streets of Maple and Palmetto and juxtaposed against a variety of home styles, the mark of an established, American neighborhood. It is used only part-time and is always in danger of falling apart.
Just last year, a massive termite infestation was identified. While the school was tented, and what a termite tent it was, it’s unknown just how much damage actually occurred.
It appears that neither the School Board, which owns the building and two adjacent properties (a parking lot and an open playground), nor the city are willing to do what it takes to recover it, make it shiny, make it new in spite of the fact that communities throughout the U.S.A. have done just that to their great successes.
Although the Polk County School Board has recently reached out to commissioners to negotiate re-opening the school to elementary-level students with a potential infusion of millions of dollars into this venture, commissioners now have to step up to the plate and demonstrate negotiation techniques that lead to a solution, one preferably that retains this last of our area’s iconic symbols. Unless this negotiation produces fruit this time, someday soon, it appears, the Old School House will also succumb to demolition. (Yeah, it’s that bad in there.)
By the way, there’ll be a meeting in February to share images and stories about the Old School House. Go. This may be the last meeting before the fate of our Old School is finally determined later this year.
Besides a razed water tower and an Old School House, there’s also a push to tear down the historic community center for a new $300,000 center somewhere else, as though this logic makes an ounce of common sense.
Replace the old community center with what? Parking? For who? And, why would it be so horrible for the city to have two community centers?
Then there’s the park that takes my breath away.
Just take a quick peek, if you can, at the waterfront property of Gilchrist Park, a perfect example of the city’s decades-old philosophy of neglect: grass about 10-feet-tall; no paved roadway in; no signage to welcome visitors; no parking easement; and a brand, new multi-story home to ensure, once the park is restored, if ever, we can all enjoy looking into someone’s living room.
And if all this neglect is not enough, historically the city has had a pretty rotten record with encouraging business-property owners to adhere to the same community standards required of residents, e.g., the decades-dilapidated Brenner Building on Bay Street. Instead, we have structures like Holly Hills, a defunct-looking citrus factory, and The Hotel, a restaurant apparently run by my dead grandmother, both the truest eyesores in a city, which was best described by one Wells Fargo employee as “run down.” (She said that back in 2014, and, yes, she asked, “What the *#@! is going on with their fence?)
The loss of the iconic water tower, loss of historical homes, possible future loss of the Old School House and the community center, neglect of our natural resources, and lowering the bar of acceptable community standards; all this will spell the extinction of what makes Davenport Davenport: Quaint. Livable. Mayberry!
With the slow disappearance of these icons and with the inured acceptance of the run down, the city exposes itself to the extinction of its historical value. Without historical value — its unincorporated namesake at the intersection of I-4 and Route 27 @ Exit 55, apparently among the fastest growing regions in Florida — all this will be without a historical anchor, devoid of personality, and without value at all except to serve as Disney’s bedroom community, subject to the whims of their market.
As the Bradley once said during her pre-felony days, “The case to maintain the City of Davenport is at an all-time high.” She had a good point there. (Or was that her husband?)
Instead of annexation and re-zoning to increase our residential stock, we need a new plan. We need a plan that includes maintaining the old while allowing the new but — and a big but here — the new, only with restrictions that considers the historical value of our area.
Will Davenport continue to go extinct? We may very well find out in just a few months.