Taking my dad to visit a local institution that has withstood the ravages of ferocious growth. Some things remain intact in my hometown…
It’s a different town. That’s all I can say when anyone asks me what I think of Sarasota today. When I grew up here, there were few buildings higher than two stories. It was affordable, or at least affordable enough that a family of four could come down and start over in a stilt house on a shell drive in a part of town so close to the water that retiring baby boomers are willing to shell out half their life savings to live there now. Going back is strange, particularly because I haven’t lived there for almost two decades. It’s not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just different.
When I go home, I go back for family. My 95 year-old grandmother who has more energy than I do. Stepbrothers and stepsisters who live in farm country far east of the interstate. And my folks, my dad and stepmother, who marvel at the rapid growth of the little town.
“Want to see the house?” my dad asked me. He was referring to the house I (mostly) grew up in, along with three siblings. A one story cottage in a place called Oyster Bay, which backed up against the fingers of Sarasota Bay.
“Sure,” I said. So we drove there and I recognized nothing.
The house where the house I grew up in used to be.
The home we had is gone, razed in the name of something bigger. Maybe better and maybe not. Who am I to say? It’s not like our lot was unique. On the stretch of street where my brother and I used to ride our bikes and play football with other kids from the neighborhood, only one of the original houses stood unchanged.
“If you blindfolded me, drove me around, and dropped me right here,” I told my dad, “I wouldn’t have any idea where I was.”
There was something strange about the new houses. They seemed to have no interest in fitting in, following the architecture of the old Florida homes that had been there for decades. They were also gigantic, far larger than any home I was used to, and I tried to imagine how many people might be living in them now. Was something that size only for two people?
And there was something else. Something strange I couldn’t put my finger on. Then my dad drove me to the next neighborhood and I saw a beautiful banyan next to an oak tree whose lowest hanging limb was suspended off the ground by a set of wooden planks the owner must have built themselves. That’s when it hit me.
“They dug up all the trees.”
My dad nodded. They’d dug up all the banyans and oaks, taken them down along with their accompanying Spanish Moss. Clear cut and uprooted everything on the property. And now they can build things like this:
It would be a better picture but, you know, there’s a gate.
I’m not a very nostalgic guy. I understand things change and I try to appreciate the moments I got to enjoy in places more than lamenting their loss. But this was jarring. There were immaculately manicured driveways and lots instead of old growth trees. There were imposing gates on every other property. Coming back to Sarasota is strange, but it’s still a beautiful place and I can still find my own ways of connecting to it.
But coming back to this neighborhood was like landing in an alternate history. I didn’t even feel sad, just baffled. Any memories I have of the place, or my childhood in it, gain absolutely no traction in this new geography. I don’t live here. I never lived here.
My dad and I decided to head to the Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar for lunch on the same day, and there’s something comforting there. It’s one of the few places left in my hometown that I have active memories of visiting. When I was a kid, we’d come here regularly. I even swam in this creek when I lived in a nearby neighborhood.
Then, two years after I left for college, they caught this guy in that same shallow water where I used to swim.
You should see the other guy.
That is a 1500 pound Great White Shark that, I can only assume, was down in the creek checking out local real estate trends. Everyone else retires here. Why not the shark? They hauled him out of the creek and hung him up like a warning sign in the Old West. This here’s how we deal with cattle rustlers round these parts. I came back from school and went to get lunch and there was the shark. He’s still there 17 years later.
The bar itself is largely unchanged. They still print the menus on old newspaper, and they still offer local favorites like grilled grouper sandwiches and Key Lime Pie. It’s a bit bigger than it used to be, and the prices have jumped. But overall it’s still a local hangout, a quiet little Old Florida joint popular with locals and those like me who need a reminder of some continuity in the town. You can still pull up on a boat and tie to the dock out back like my grandfather and I used to. This is comfort food in the truest sense of the term for me. I can’t remember a visit to Sarasota where I didn’t stop here for this.
There wasn’t any mystery for us. We both got the grilled grouper sandwich and a beer and shared a slice of Key Lime Pie. Old standbys on an old standby kind of day. We talked about the town. We talked about our history. We talked about what has changed in the growth. And, inevitably, we talked about what’s been lost. That’s a long story. It’s not always a sad one, but one can’t help but notice that it gets longer by the year.
I don’t go back to Sarasota for what’s been lost. I go back to see family, to feel the breeze off the Gulf, to feel some connection to who I was. No matter how many of the landmarks get plowed under in the meantime. It’s a reminder that we don’t need the landmarks to find our way to the past. But when we find one, it’s a relief. It’s a reminder of how close we are to the water we once swam in, and that maybe it was better if we didn’t know what was coming, or what kind of dangers might have been swimming around us the whole time.
The Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar is located at 5353 S. Tamiami Trail. They have a website here and a facebook page here. They are open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week (10:30 close on the weekend).