Sunday, January 23, 2011

Small-Town Solutions Needed

Water towers are great mariner's landmarks.  The water tower in Cocoa Village (where we're now anchored)
 is painted to look like an American flag.
First, the answer to the ever-popular question, "Where ARE you?" From Stuart we've sloowwlly hopped our way north up the Florida coast, anchoring behind mangrove islands by night and admiring our dolphin escorts by day. We're now anchored off Cocoa Village, not far south of Cape Kennedy.

I promised to return to the subject of Pahokee, the farm town where we stayed at the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee. (A few favorite photos now viewable on the SlowBoatCruise Facebook page.)

We docked there for old-time's sake:  Our boat's been there before! Back when the Dragonfly was a rental boat named the Honeyoe, she used to ride south, in winter, on a truckbed, to Pahokee, where she was a rental boat on the Okeechobee Waterway.  Imagine her steely sigh of satisfaction last week as, for the first time, she arrived at the port under her OWN power.

We imagine the place looks a little different now than it did when our boat first visited.  Pahokee has a spanking new, state-of-the-art marina, massive piers creating a safe harbor with 104 boat slips. The $12 million complex includes Old-Florida-style rental cottages, 400 RV campsites, a welcome center, swimming pool and Tiki-bar restaurant.

The idea behind the development was to inject a little economic vigor to this former "Winter Vegetable Capital of the World," a town of 6,000 where the median income is $10,346 and the unemployment rate is 28 percent.  Developers and politicians reasoned that boats like ours, making the trip from one Florida coast to the another, would need a place to stop, refuel, refresh. Pahokee would deliver Old Florida charm and ambiance

But when we pulled in, there were five boats in the marina. Three looked derelict.  Flocks of seabirds--mostly black skimmers, standing shoulder to shoulder facing the wind--completely obscured the wood plank surface on most of the docks.  Birds flew up as we pulled in, revealing what looked like several weeks' worth of guano. The marina website said the office was open till 6 PM on Saturdays. It was 4 PM. The office was closed.

I'm told that besides the new marina, the town also has a brand $9 million, 5,000-seat football stadium. (The town's small high school (700 students on average) has a very successful Class 2B football team that's sent a remarkable six football players to the NFL.

Back in the days when vegetable-growing and sugar cane were profitable--as recently as the 1970s-- Pahokee had an active business district, with hotels, restaurants, gas stations, car dealers, andretail shops.

When I strolled down off the 33-foot-high dike that surrounds the lake for a pre-dinner walk downtown, I found one large, brand-new bank, some vintage 1930s-Florida stucco buildings, mostly deserted, a sidewalk fruit stand, a Sav-a-Lot grocery store with an armed guard at the entrance, and a Chinese buffet with no cars in the lot at 5:30 PM on a Saturday night.

That night, we sat at the marina tiki bar and ordered beers and asked the young guy behind the counter, "Do you live here?" He hesitated.

"I was brought in to help open this place," he said.  "I live in one of the cottages.  It's okay. Just don't go over the dike."

"I DID go over the dike, to get groceries," I said.

He stared.  "You're still alive?  Man, a guy was shot last week in the restaurant across the street from there."

That doesn't exactly recommend the town as a place for boaters on fancy yachts to stop.  The crime rate in Pahokee is twice as high as the rest of Palm Beach County; twice as high as all the rest of Florida combined.

The night of Barack Obama's inauguration, an exceptionally thoughtful 10-year-old looked into an ABC news camera and asked, "President Obama, what can you do to help Pahokee?"

It's the kind of question the Cap and I have been debating throughout this trip . . . as we've stopped in waterfront town after waterfront down with empty storefronts, towns where street lights are being removed, towns that look as if a bomb detonated, eliminating the human inhabitants but leaving buildings, intact, to molder.

No rescue from industrial parks--manufacturing has moved overseas. No rescue from tourism for towns with crime and crumbling infrastructure, even if (like Pahokee) you're surrounded by natural beauty.

What's the solution?  Your thoughts?

And another aside--for the folks we've met who dream of taking their OWN canal boat trip:  There's a very sweet article in yesterday's L.A.Times that describes perfectly what it's like to SlowBoat from port to old-fashioned port along the Erie Canal. You could rent one and have your own adventure!

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