A tiny Florida beach town is rebuilding after a hurricane. Is it becoming a preserve of the rich?
The town of Surfside, Florida, is a tiny dot in a larger American landscape, located just south of Clearwater Island, where the state’s northern tip juts out into the Gulf of Mexico. This beachside community is a quiet, modest, and lovely place. It was built from scratch by families who fled post-revolutionary Russia and moved westward to escape the poverty around them. When President Kennedy visited the area in 1963, he said he was attracted to it because it reminded him of “a small American town.”
After I visited the town last week, I was surprised by how quickly it was taking on a different identity. The local public school is starting to use the school’s playground to hold classes, and at the end of the day, many of the children are sent back home to the nearby city of Wesley Chapel, where they live with their grandparents or other relatives. The town doesn’t have the density of urban cores I had expected, but it does have people moving back and forth from their beach houses to the city’s office and hospital. There is little traffic on the streets, but this small town that is slowly becoming a destination is also feeling a loss of the economic diversity of a city like Miami, where there are large commercial and residential communities, including many of high income and middle class.
Before Katrina, the town didn’t have a lot going for it. The beach didn’t even have the right waves to attract tourists, and the beach was already crowded with locals. But now, the residents have a new attraction: a massive new development on the beach with a variety of shops and restaurants, including a large, shiny new restaurant called The Bitter End at the edge of the town. The Bitter End was built by the owners of Surfside’s largest employer—a company called Surfside Condominiums Inc.—with a lot of effort from the town’s current mayor, Kevin Kostes