Roger Birkel is the new director of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens-an interesting change from his last job as director of the Baltimore Zoo. Originally from St. Louis, where he got his start in zoos beginning at the bottom, Birkel comes across as smart, open and at times, very funny. He may be exactly the kind of leader the strife-torn Selby needs to regain its footing and prestige in the community.
Q: The differences between zoos and botanical gardens are obvious. What are the similarities?
A: Whether it's a gorilla, a bromeliad or an orchid, they're all beautiful, and we need to understand our role here in order to protect our world. We live in a beautiful world full of life. My mission is to help people connect with the natural world around them.
Q: During the turmoil at the gardens, rumors raged about the loss of the scientific staff. What is the state of that staff?
A: Science at the garden is alive and well. The scientists and researchers here are the same ones who've been here for many years. I've often been head of research where I've worked, and the research going on here is splendid-some of the best I've ever encountered. When I contemplated coming here I looked into the research being done here, and I can tell you, it's good science.
Q: How's your relationship these days with your old neighbor, the downtown boat mooring field?
A: I have heard all the stories, and really, I think of the mooring field as local color. I simply haven't had any issues or problems with it as yet. When you look at all the diversity we have in the biological world, it's easy to understand we're going to have some diversity in the human community as well.
Q: What's the state of the gardens' famous Bo tree, toppled by Tropical Storm Gabrielle in 2001?
A: It's perfect. Clearly it's a very special tree because of its relation to the human condition and Buddhism. I'm so glad the effort was made to save that tree. It's special to me because of a personal fondness for Eastern culture.
Q: How about the gardens' ambitious master plan?
A: Like any good professional organization with a new CEO on board, we're going to look to the future and revisit the plan with new thoughts, new ideas and new creativity. I'm anxious to take that journey with the staff, board and the community.
Q: So what keeps you awake at night?
A: If we are to maintain the quality of life for our children and their children, we have to understand how to create a balance between growth and development of our human community and the continuation and protection of the natural world. I worry we still haven't grasped a real understanding of how to accomplish this. Of course one of Selby's roles is the need to do that.
Hot Dog Haven
"Sometimes it's difficult to see things through the eyes of a hot dog vendor," Jim D'Esterre began his presentation before the city commission recently. But all eyes were fixed on Jim, because he was holding a tray containing four of the most beautifully prepared hot dogs any of us had ever seen.
They looked like a shot from Gourmet Magazine-or at least as if they were created by Michael Klauber.
You see, D'Esterre had a plan that night, and he knew he was only going to get one shot, so he had to make it work. He was counting on those hot dogs decorated with not only ketchup and mustard, but peppers both red and green, relish and fresh chopped onions to carry the day for him.
Commissioner Fredd Atkins promptly interrupted to ask if the dogs were for him. That was a good sign.
For the past year and a half, D'Esterre has been selling dogs, chips and sodas at the corner of Second Street and Central Avenue, site of both the temporary downtown bus station next to Selby Library and the new condos going up behind the library. Between bus riders and construction workers, it was a pretty good gig.
But then the new bus station opened on Lemon Avenue, and sales plummeted to maybe 60 or so hot dogs a day, mostly bought by the construction crew. D'Esterre faced having to eat his own food to survive. So he took action.
Having approached the city's code enforcement department, which handles vendors permits, D'Esterre was told no, he couldn't set up on the Lemon Avenue mall because it wasn't an approved location. Appealing to the city manager's office, he was turned down again, this time being told the mall "is a city park and we don't allow vendors in city parks."
So there stood D'Esterre before the city commission, explaining how his high-class hot dog cart plays classical music and even has a picture of his mother on the front. In fact, his business is named Annalida's, after his mother back home in Bucks County, Penn.
It was a fine performance. Vice Mayor Mary Anne Servian blurted out, "I'm from Bucks County, too," and Commissioner Danny Bilyeu turned to the city manager and testily asked, "Can't you talk this thing out?"
By that time, Atkins was back to saying how good those dogs sitting on the commission table really looked, and then-Mayor Richard Martin was explaining how beneficial it would be "to have another set of eyes on the street-it would clearly benefit the city."
You guessed it. The commission unanimously directed staff to work out some way for D'Esterre to set up on the north end of the mall and to stop putting roadblocks in the path of his cart.
"Pork and greens" is the very flat-footed name for a very unflat-footed dish served at Howlin' Wolf, Sarasota's "Southern restaurant with a Creole twist."
Grilled pork tenderloin slices rest on a bed of chopped collard greens topped with black-eyed peas, with lightly garlicked mashed potatoes and a vegetable on the side. Now that's an $11.95 plateful of good food for anyone who appreciates real Southern cuisine.
It's just one of the dozen or so "down South" dinners served by Howlin' Wolf's founder and owner, Arcadia native Eric Bethel. You'll find the restaurant in the Coral Cove Plaza, 7286 S. Tamiami Trail (941-929-1571).
Not a meat eater? Try the Delta shrimp, with blackened shrimp in a spicy cream sauce served over fried green tomatoes. And, sure, you can have mashed potatoes or rice pilaf with that, too.
This place is worth the trip.
Jimmy Ernst (1920-1984), who had a painting studio and home with his wife, Dallas, on Casey Key for a number of years, is the subject of a documentary being made by David Irving, head of the film department at New York University. (Actor Eli Wallach is the narrator.) Eric Ernst, Jimmy's son, says he has seen rough cuts and the film is well along. The documentary most likely will be aired on public television. In addition to numerous plays and films to his credit, Irving has created documentaries about the artists Jacob Lawrence, Robert Colescott and Faith Ringgold.
Photographer Max Vadukul, whose portraits of two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank were featured in the March issue of Interview magazine and whose shots of Natalie Portman were seen in the March Italian Vogue, was the subject of an exhibition here in Sarasota in 1994 at Kanega, a former restaurant-bar-gallery on Main Street. In a recent chat in his New York studio, Vadukul said he remembers Sarasota as "beautiful" and "the perfect place to relax." Lou Salvatori, who owned Kanega, has been friends with Vadukul since 1981, when they shared an apartment in New York.
The bus transfer station on Lemon Avenue, designed by Dale Parks of Seibert Architects, was dedicated Feb. 28. It's a beautiful, restrained design in the spirit of the Sarasota School, in which Tim Seibert played a part. The overhangs of metal seem to recall the cast concrete elements of the construction of the Sarasota School's era. The public art contribution here originally was intended to be a circular tile mosaic in the middle of the waiting platform, but after a lengthy review the county decided not to contribute the public art and cut the City Public Art program a check instead. Parks says he's designed a plinth in the hopes that the city will install a significant piece of art there someday.
Virginia Shearer, who left the Ringling Museum in December 2003 to become deputy director for education at the Tampa Museum of Art, has moved to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in April to be in charge of public programs there. Before her move to Georgia, she flew to Paris with Michael Shapiro, director of the High, to meet with officials from the Louvre, with whom they're planning a series of loan exhibitions. "It was such a great opportunity" she couldn't say no when the High approached her, says Shearer.-Mark Ormond
Boy of Summer
Sarasota's Ian Desmond is a hit with the Washington Nationals.
Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond had one of those spring training runs that most young players only dream about. The 2004 graduate of Sarasota High, who spent last summer with the Montreal Expos' Gulf Coast League team, became a National this year when the Expos moved to Washington, D.C. During spring training, 19-year-old Desmond caused such excitement with his sharp defensive skills that Nationals general manager Jim Bowden crowed to the Washington Post, "He reminds me of Derek Jeter, except those were Ian Desmond plays, not Derek Jeter plays. Man, that kid has some tools."
It's been a wild spring, hasn't it? It sure has. I was preparing myself for an accelerated mini-camp and I was at the batting cages when someone came over and said, "Hey, they want you over in the big league to help open the season." What did you do? I tried to keep calm. I didn't want to jump for joy, but I was definitely smiling inside. Did you play Little League at the 12th Street park in Sarasota? Yes, but I didn't start until I was 10. I was too busy playing soccer. What's the reaction from your Sarasota High teammates? When I talk to them, I really don't get into that. They have an exciting time coming up with college and everything. I try to keep the excitement off me. How does it feel to be compared to a young Derek Jeter? People say that kind of stuff but I don't think about it. I just go out and have fun and do what I do. -Ilene Denton