Why do tourists come to Sarasota? Why did many of us move here in the first place? Why do friends elsewhere envy us our life here? The beach, that's why.
Yes, of course, our arts and culture, good education, growing business opportunities and a delightful climate all contribute to the strong attraction our community offers. But be honest, isn't it the glittering Gulf of Mexico, the dazzling beaches, and the promise of an idyllic life that we love? While honesty has gripped us, we must also admit that most of us don't often make or take the time we should to enjoy the great gift to our psyches that the beach can be. When we do, as we luxuriate in sun, surf and sand, or when the evening glow is upon us, we promise to take better advantage of the beach in the future.
And yet, and yet ... we have somehow managed to destroy the intimate connection with the beaches that once characterized this place, the very quality that probably brought us here in the first place. In the name of progress and in the pursuit of prosperity, we have built massive condominiums, hotels and houses along the beachfront, blocking the line of sight of the passer-by while preserving the valuable "view" for the property owner.
The process has often resulted in a kind of standard, repetitive architecture that fails to express the special personality of the place. Residential architecture often embraces the faux-Mediterranean, while commercial buildings present bland, blank facades to the street, providing no hint of the beautiful beach that lies on the other side. This architecture, influenced by the standardized style of chain stores and fast-food restaurants, drains the beach character out of the place in which it occurs.
Yet older structures along the beachfront often expressed a clean international style influenced by Sarasota School of Architecture principles. Too few of these remain, as developers have snatched up many of the undervalued and under-appreciated beach shacks, cottages and small stores that lined the road that snakes up Anna Maria Island, from Coquina Beach to the sleepy precincts of the City of Anna Maria, passing through Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach.
Recently, however, some developers and business interests are beginning to realize that a beach community needs to express its nature. Romantic memories or tropical fantasies aside, this makes perfect business sense. After all, why would anyone travel to a place that looks like every other place or, just as depressing, that looks like the decayed shadow of itself?
Bradenton Beach, especially, seems to have awakened to the potential of its "downtown"-from City Hall through the miniature traffic circle at Bridge Street, south to the beginning of the stretch of unencumbered (except for parking under the trees) beachfront heading toward Coquina Beach.
On Bridge Street itself, a long arcaded building offers shade to the pedestrian, a small hotel (The Bridge Walk Resort), shops and galleries. On the other side of the street, opposite the post office, restaurants run the gamut from French (The Creperie) to folkloric (The Bridge Tender Inn), just before another tiny traffic circle heralds the entrance to the pier itself, powerfully reminiscent of the waterfront docks that play such a vital role in great beach cities, from Long Beach to Brighton, from Cannes to East Hampton. This is a place for important human tasks: strolling, talking, sitting, eating and drinking.
The Pier Cafe offers a place to watch the traffic on the Intracoastal and gaze at the busy fisheries and restaurants dotting the shoreline in Cortez Village on the opposite side. From the pier, you can see a busy marina (the main boat storage warehouse of which is cleverly disguised with false windows and shutters), cottages and small businesses. In short, this is the real waterfront thing, the laid-back beach life we imagined when we came here.
It never fails: Let someone have some success in historic preservation or in building new structures that respect the style of the place, and everyone jumps on board. Here in Bradenton Beach, it's likely that the Bridge Street redevelopment convinced the faint of heart to join the movement. Older structures are spruced up in bright island colors, signs and graphics are sassy and amusing, even a new condo on the beach side has a reasonably attractive, almost-Key West style and is scaled to fit the surroundings. Up the street a bit, there's the Beach House restaurant, with music and a beach-side porch to die for at sunset. On recent visits, strollers and shoppers, dreaming the beach-bum dream, drifted up and down the sidewalks and filled the shops and restaurants. Somebody is doing something right.
Shame on us if we allow the modern obsession with competitive overwork, with multi-tasking, with the elusive symbols of "success" to overwhelm us, to keep us from littoral life. Our beach dream is right here waiting for us, but not immune from destruction. All we have to do is pay attention, prioritize, reward those who take the risks to protect our heritage-and, from time to time, make a fuss fighting speculative predators. To do so, we need to get to the beach. Kick back, enjoy and keep the dream alive.