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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 4, NO. 1 -- DECEMBER 2001/JANUARY 2002
 

The Birthday: A New Town Turns 20

By Andrés Duany

The Seaside of today is difficult even for me to believe. There she lies on that beautiful beach with her sophisticated school and gorgeous chapel, dozens of shops and hundreds of houses, many of them designed by the world's best architects. There is now espresso offered in four places at least, and a constant stream of cultural events at the Seaside Institute. The food is wonderful -- and made with olive oil, no less! This was a non-existent ingredient 20 years ago when fried mullet under neon was the high-end restaurant experience.

Seaside is an affirmation of American high culture, a civilizing mission to that most unlikely of places -- the honky-tonk holiday destination of the Florida Panhandle, once known with wry humor as the "the Redneck Riviera."

I remember well what it was like in 1980 when we first set eyes on these 80 acres of windswept ground, and I now wonder how the developer, Robert Davis, had the nerve to entertain such ambitions for this land. Then, throughout this panhandle, only the beachfront lots had any value; and those were then being developed as cheap condos, pathetic townhouse clusters without towns, and claptrap houses for which the term "beach shack" was to assign them undue dignity. To get here, we had to fly into a little airport that seemed to be at the end of the world -- an airport that could try to compete in size or elegance with a Taco Bell -- and not necessarily win the contest.

It hardly seemed the place to plan a sophisticated development. Any rational analysis would indicate that the beachfront should be cut up for "blow and go" development, like everyone else was doing to make money fast, and that the 60 acres behind it could be ignored as it was valueless. Who would want to be here, if not right on the beach? Nothing else was happening.

But that idea seemed to bore Robert and his wife, Daryl. As did the next best thing: to do a nice, tidy, residential development. Instead, we kept designing until we envisioned nothing less than a town! A real town with cottages and grand mansions, an outlandishly big, commercial square downtown; live/work townhouses (with a town attached this time) a school and a chapel and a dozen civic buildings, including a post office. Clearly, we were delusional.

But it wasn't a delusion. We were merely continuing that most ancient and integral American ethos of operating with a vision. This ability to envision is one that has only recently been replaced by the shortsightedness that creates suburban sprawl, among so many other of our ills. We were doing nothing more than conceiving a place that could transcend the limits of its origins; one that over the years could grow to become great.

This, after all, is how our great cities evolved -- all of them: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Savannah, Seattle, San Francisco, the list goes on and on. These American cities, equal to the best in the world were conceived, every single one of them, in circumstances even less promising than Seaside -- on the shores of an untamed continent, in the desolation of its midlands, and on the inaccessible furthest shores of another ocean. The means then were so limited that they could only begin as squalid shantytowns, with mud for streets; but they were conceived with a vision and thus had the ability to become what they became.

Such vision, it turns out, is not so hard to achieve. It requires only the inclusion of the factor of time in the process of design -- chronology at the scale of history. This was once commonplace: Think only of Pierre L'Enfant and Thomas Jefferson surrounded by shacks and teepees, mud and mosquitoes, confronting a site that was more or less a swamp; a lousy compromise on a river called the Potomac between the unstable politics of the new states of Virginia and Maryland. Without prospect of earth moving machines, telecommunication or even a banking system, they conceived a plan that two centuries later would accommodate the capital of the greatest country that has ever been, and not fail it in size and grandeur.

How different it is today when developers can see no further than the limits of the present market. What has happened to us? Can we recover enough of our senses to realize that urbanism, of all of mankind's endeavors, is the longest-lived -- one that thrives on the resource of time, which is free. That ambitious, quality design will reap the rewards of civilization: civic institutions, cultural events, clever people and five-star restaurants.

Seaside, nearly finished, is now poised to grow, exactly as was originally conceived by its plan, towards the west and north. Its extension, Watercolor, equally visionary and much, much larger, has now broken ground. A big new airport nearby has the go ahead, as does a community college. When Seaside and Watercolor are completed they, along with Seaside's eastern neighbor Seagrove, will form the neighborhoods of a city that will offer as much first-rate urbanism as any other place in Florida. More, perhaps than the current champions: Key West, Palm Beach and Winter Park. All of which, remember, were once rough, primitive places.

And so, allow me to project further into the future. Is it possible to see that perhaps a century hence Seaside would be the quaint "historic neighborhood" at the center of the capital of the new state of North Florida? Of course it is possible -- and necessary -- to think that way. Given what we have seen happen here in a mere 20 years, it is not at all difficult to believe.