Florida Main Street Program Has Stories to Tell
By Kevin McGeever
Florida’s Main Street communities have compelling stories to share.
In a state celebrated for its abundant sunshine and brand-name vacation destinations, these neighborhoods and small-town downtowns represent an underappreciated Florida that predates modern tourism and deserves exploration.
The South’s largest cattle range. The winter strawberry capital. River cities with warehouses that served Big Cotton. A once-segregated Black community surviving and thriving in St. Petersburg.
The heritage is preserved in the architecture, in the geography, and in the echoes of native Americans and pioneers and civil rights activists.
Propelled by dedicated neighbors, 45 Florida Main Streets have received technical assistance toward the goal of revitalizing historic downtowns and encouraging economic development. Main Street officials say the effort, 35 years on now, has paid off in greater community pride, the preservation of historic resources, and billions of dollars in reinvestment.
Joanie Smalley, former director of Main Street Leesburg, described her downtown in words and images that could stand for all of these communities: “It is the epitome of a small town. Everybody knows your name. If you are a visitor, you are welcomed. Everybody talks to you. You’re treated as family.”
Arcadia, an hour east of both Sarasota and Fort Myers, is the seat of De Soto County in the heart of Florida cattle country. It is a place, Janet Keeler wrote, “where the Old West meets the Old South.”
Livestock auctions and rodeo competitions have been city traditions for the better part of a century. On Saturdays, 100 antique dealers fill up a four-block district selling military weapons, comic books, Depression glass, silverware sets, artwork, stamps and dolls.
In response to a 1905 fire that incinerated 42 downtown buildings, the City Council mandated that all future construction be brick or cement. Those edifices, including the allegedly haunted Opera House, are more than a century old now and enshrined on the National Register of Historic Places.
Nineteenth-century brick buildings today hold oyster plants, one-of-a-kind boutiques, and river restaurants. The Center for History, Culture and Art, formerly one of the cotton warehouses that lined the riverfront downtown, dates to 1836.
The Raney House Museum, a Greek Revival house also built in 1836, is listed on the National Register of Historic Homes.
Two more nationally recognized historic structures, built in the 1900s, remain popular inns for visitors.
The Gibson’s early 20th-century Florida “Cracker” architecture features metal roof, high ceilings, and large wrap-around porches. A widow’s walk and cupola crown the tin roof, remnants of Apalach’s steamboat past.
The Coombs Inn is actually three Victorian Mansions. Twelve-foot ceilings, poster beds, and English chintz draperies are standard fare.
“At its peak during the early 1960s,” Jon Wilson wrote for VISIT FLORIDA, “more than 100 businesses, retail stores, professional offices and entertainment venues thrived on the thoroughfare.”
Veatrice Farrell, executive director of Deuces Live, the non-profit organization that oversees the Main Streets project here, said the Deuces corridor, prior to integration, is where one could live their whole lives.
From “Cradle to Grave, and everything in between,” the Deuces Live website says of the stretch of 22nd Street S between Eighth and 15th avenues. “In 1962, one could step out the door, cross the street and get a shoe shine at Cozy Inn, have lunch at the Shag, and later, get a haircut at Oscar Kleckley’s. You could visit your attorney and buy groceries at Barco’s store; Dr. Ayer could examine you. If it was too late for that, funeral arrangements could be made at the Arch-Royal.”
Again from Jon Wilson: “Today, a detailed African-American heritage trail reflects the street’s glory days, depicting a century of history – 1868 to 1968 – that developed along 22nd Street and along 9th Avenue South. … The street’s history sheds light on the overall St. Petersburg story. African-American workers built the railroad that put the city on the map, and they provided much of the craftsmanship that built the resort city’s downtown during the 1920s boom years.”
The Dr. Carter G. Woodson African-American Museum is the memory and voice of the Black community. A vivid Black Lives Matter mural, each of the 16 letters painted by a different artist commissioned by the city, brightens Ninth Avenue in front of the museum and joins other Deuces murals of legendary Black figures who stayed here during segregation.
Twice a month, movie nights at the Royal Theater and neighborhood block parties bring neighbors together. Monthly art walks and the annual Collard Greens Festival attract visitors from near and far.
From vital steamboat-era stops like Chattahoochee to gay-friendly districts such as St. Pete’s Grand Central, Florida’s Main Streets represent the Sunshine State’s collective memory. They reflect progress but also societal fault lines and important lessons. They are living history.
Accredited Main Street Communities
Communities within their first three years of the Florida Main Street program.