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Living in Delray Beach
The city of Delray Beach, Florida represents a world of two distinct realities for two distinct groups of people: those of upper income and those of middle to low income. The current trends that are shaping the downtown section of this city of over 50,000 inhabitants are both wonderful and tragicdepending on whom you ask.
The city of Delray Beach was established in 1895 by a group of Michigan pioneers led by William Linton and David Smith, prompted in part by Henry Flaglers East Coast Railroad that opened up much of South Florida to travel. The economic boom of the 1920s led to an increase in housing, commerce, and tourism along the towns main road, Atlantic Avenue. The warm South Florida climate and beaches soon turned Delray Beach into a winter resort, transforming it from a small farming community into a bustling city. Many of the northern visitors, when faced with the prospect of returning to the colder northern climate, decided to remain in South Florida, and many of those visitors made Delray Beach their permanent home.
While the Great Depression did not affect Delray directly, the later shifts in the economy during the 1980s hit Delray Beach hard. The decrease in revenue and tourism affected Delray much more than its neighbors to the north (West Palm Beach) and the south (Boca Raton, Miami Beach). At the same time numerous outlying shopping malls in Delray closed, and many businesses within those malls left the city for more prosperous areas. With a decrease in tourism, investment, and revenue, Delray Beach fell vacant.
It was at this time that the political situation in Haiti under the Baby Doc Duvalier regime forced thousands of Haitians to flee the island, bringing approximately 50,000 Haitian refugees to South Florida. The low housing costs of an empty Delray Beach provided a place for the immigrants to live. However, local racial discrimination caused these people to keep a low profile, and their presence was not felt by the larger community until recent years.
It was soon after these events that a Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) was formed by the city to begin a renewal process in Delray Beach in an effort to bring back the business that fled the decaying city years earlier. While the houses in the city were full, the retail sector was half empty.
The area of Delray Beach between George Bush Boulevard (8th Street) to the north and Linton Boulevard to the south, and east of Congress Avenue to the beach can be categorically divided according to ethnicity, and, correspondingly, to class. Using George Bush and Linton Boulevards as the north and south borders (respectively) for our area study, housing between Congress Avenue (western border) and Swinton Boulevard (to the east) primarily contains lower-middle class African Americans. Going further east, between Swinton and Federal Highway, the composition becomes more lower/lower-middle class Haitian and Latino. East of Federal Highway (and as a six lane highway, Federal Highway serves as a very physical border) to the Intracoastal Waterway the area becomes upper-middle to upper class white. East of the Intracoastal to the ocean is upper- class white.
All along the stretch of Atlantic Avenue, between Congress Avenue to the west and Federal Highway to the east, the African American, Haitian, and Latino shops are being evicted by the CRA under the auspices of eminent domain, a process by which the CRA could buy property from willing or unwilling sellers. Four months ago, a person driving down Atlantic Avenue would have seen the same vacant, empty town that existed in the 1980s. But the modern day trail of tears does not stop with the commercial zone along Atlantic Avenue. Situated one block to the north and south of Atlantic begins the residential zone. As the shops close, the encroachment of new business and revenue pushes deeper into the community spurred on by the eminent domain of the CRA buying select pieces of land so that the draw of the new investors will not be hampered by the existence of a lower-middle class area.
The revitalization of Delray Beach is occurring at the expense of not only the taxpayers of Delray, but also the livelihood and housing of the nearly 18,000 non-white citizens of the city.
Walk into the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce and ask to see what information they have regarding the recent changes in the city. You will be inundated with magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and recent books all reporting that Delray Beach is a much better city in the 1990s than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Then the city held a Sunday night drug party, now Atlantic Avenue hosts a people party. Music, food, strolling, and shopping are todays turn-ons. Then Delray Beach was a ghost town, now the city has been declared The Best-Run Town in Florida, and an All America City. Then there was government against special interests, rich against poor, and east against west. Now there is a restored and revitalized Atlantic Avenue, the gateway to Delray Beach a magnet for residents and tourists who like to stroll, browse, dine, and shop. The avenue teems with people caught up in its vitality.
This is what is officially reported and to a certain extent this is all very true. There was a considerable crime and drug problem in Delray Beach in the 1980s. Shops and storefronts did stand vacant along much of Atlantic Avenue, and tourists were few and far between. The problem with the current reporting on Delray Beachs changes is that it highlights the benefits and totally disregards the harm that has been done. The makeover of Atlantic Avenue is nearly complete and the renewal is currently advancing into the homes in the neighborhoods next to Atlantic. The question remainswhen will the encroachment end? How many more neighborhoods will find that their property has been sold from under them to make room for the new professional/managerial/business class needed to run the new revitalized Delray Beach? Where will those who have been forced out go? The surrounding cities have either undergone or are undergoing their own revitalizations.
The new Delray Beach is better for those of middle to middle-upper class, also known as those who do not live in the growing revitalization zone. But for those who wake in the morning to find gentrification lapping at their doorsteps, Delray Beach is anything but an All America City. Z
Michael Demers is a visual artist and author currently working in Germany His works center on social and political themes.