“Old Florida” is a term people love to use when describing a place that has not been taken over by the development trends of the day. It has been a favorite way to describe Anna Maria Island for many years … both by residents and visitors who truly love the simple charms of the area. It’s also a favorite term of those whose main interest is selling the island to the public. “Old Florida ” is a great marketing slogan.
Unfortunately, even among those who think they love the Old Florida feeling of a place, it is challenging to know how to identify the details that give that feeling. And it’s even more challenging to protect them. Often the details that need to be protected do not sound very glamorous. But getting rid of things that are not glamorous is a sure way to destroy the sense of history and simplicity that are so much a part of Old Florida.
Who wants to argue that an old shack should not be torn down? Especially among those whose main priority is marketing. Who wants to argue against “beautification?” Or replacing an old bridge with a big modern bridge? Or getting rid of invasive, exotic plant species?
Those who try to help the area by scouring it for eyesores that need to be removed or fixed up may be doing more harm than good. They usually use agreed-upon standards of municipalities and counties all around the state. It’s no surprise, then, that the result is a place that looks like the rest of the state, instead of a place with its own identity.
The image of Anna Maria Island, for many years, has been related to the Australian pines along its shores and along the causeway crossed by Manatee Avenue on the way to the island. It is now public policy in Florida to remove Australian pines. Those who defend the policy have many points to make, including that such activity has the sanction of many organizations and state agencies. It is exactly this “joining of the crowd” that robs Anna Maria Island of its own special identity. Removing the pines just makes Anna Maria more like the rest of modern Florida .
The causeway to the island used to be breathtakingly simple. It had an “other-worldly” feeling, because such simplicity has become rare. The simple landscape of Old Florida had become very hard to find, so it was an enchanting surprise to find it on the way to the island. Now it has been replaced by a landscape cluttered with signs, public art, parking spaces, dog waste stations, posts and rope barriers to control activities. This is the new look of the causeway, and it is no longer a rare place. It is a gussied up modern parking lot. “Notice: you are now entering a highly controlled area.” This is the message that may as well be posted for all island visitors to see.
The fact that the Florida Department of Transportation has decided to replace the current low drawbridge to the island, with a high bridge, is another major indicator that the island is being transformed into something very different from its Old Florida style. The aesthetics of a high rise bridge will forever change the low level feel that has been so much a trademark of the island. The natural beauty of the bridge approaches will be compromised by the larger structures and supports for a high bridge. The feeling will be institutional instead of intimate and natural. But aside from aesthetics, the genuinely “Old Florida” locals who can be seen fishing from the low bridge will be displaced. This is tragic from both a human angle and a marketing angle. Nothing will ever sell Old Florida as well as the view of real people catching their food from a low bridge. But much more important than marketing images is the change in the culture of the island when the activities of simple local people are discarded in favor of convenience for wealthier people in a rush.
The Federal government has played its role in the gradual destruction of the low-scale development that has always been associated with the island. FEMA regulations require all new residences to be elevated. The fifty-percent rule allows remodeling of ground floor homes, but new homes must be elevated. Before the living space is added, the structure is already as big as the old houses of the island were at completion. And with government-guaranteed insurance, new homeowners may as well build big. The result is structures that often look three times as large as the traditional Old Florida island home.
For anyone who loves the Old Florida feeling of Anna Maria Island, the time to visit is now. Maybe that’s a good marketing tool in itself: a warning that what you love here is being destroyed, so come and get it while you can.