Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dixie Highway - What it meant to Lake Worth and what it could mean to its future.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I periodically mention the sorry state of Dixie Highway through Lake Worth.  I even have a slide show that I post which shows the large amount of vacant and under-utilized property along its entire length. I also put together a YouTube video that shows what some of the properties along the road looked like during an earlier time, among other locations in Lake Worth.

It's that earlier period and the formation of the city that I would like to focus on now.  Lake Worth owes its beginnings to Flagler's East Coast Railway and, soon afterward, Dixie Highway, which became designated US 1 soon after World War II.  When the city of Lake Worth was formed, I guess we are settling on 1913 as the year, what we know as Dixie Highway was little more than a dirt road that ran north and south. Pavement came in the later, around 1920, which coincided with the increase of northern tourist traffic.

The enterprising people of Lake Worth at the time attempted to make the most of it.  They saw to it that we had  an attractive Casino building on the ocean, drawing tourist traffic through our downtown and dropping dollars along the way.  The same can be said for the many mom-and-pop motels that sprang up along Dixie Highway itself - all ways of fishing for wealth from the traveling public.  This sustained the city economically while US 1 was the ONLY route north and south, before the Turnpike and then before I-95.

During the same time, the automobile industry was producing vehicles that allowed individual travel and freedom that had never before been experienced.  It was also helping to produce a middle-class with leisure time to do other things than provide for one's own sustenance - it could afford to take time to travel.  But, from a national point of view, travel wouldn't have been possible if not for roads for this new invention called the automobile to ride on.  Leaders of the automobile industry became instrumental in the promotion of road building and special routes to take people from one location to another in the cars that they manufactured.

Two of the most notable efforts were our own Dixie Highway - a north/south route or combination of routes that we designed to allow travel primarily from the cold northern states to southern states.  Florida was a specific destination of all the southern states due to its subtropical climate which was unique in the North American continent.  The other effort was an east/west route call the Lincoln Highway - which started in New York City and went all the way to San Francisco.  This route eventually became either US 30 or US 40, or other state roads, after World War II.

It's the Lincoln Highway that I would like to focus on now, even though it has little to do with what happened in the development of Lake Worth, but it may have a role in what happens in the future.  Last weekend I happened to stumble upon a program on the local PBS station about the Lincoln Highway.  It dealt with its history and the Lincoln Highway Association, a group of people interested in preservation of that history, the experiences along the road and the people associated with it.  If you haven't already seen the program, I would urge you to or, through one of the links provided above, you can purchase a DVD of the program.

I am sure that most of you have heard about Route 66, made famous a number of ways through our pop culture, including a song.  Well, this is celebration of the "car culture" with which this country has a fascination.  The link above about the Lincoln Highway Association is supported by a number of enthusiasts that either love the notion of the open road, the roadside architecture, the history of transportation, the development of our nation during the 20th Century - all of the above, or just a nostalgia for the past because they remember their families using these roads back in the day.

The point here is that there is a market and there is enough raw historic material here in Lake Worth and the south part of West Palm Beach to take advantage of this.  If you check out the Internet, there isn't too much hype around Dixie Highway or US 1 and it really doesn't have a group that is rallying around it.  There are few, one in Georgia, some other locations, but none in Florida.

The fact is that Lake Worth owes its very existence to this road, Dixie Highway - it was literally built around it.  When I-95 opened up, it was like the city's blood supply was shut off.  We really haven't been able to adjust adequately to the new reality since.  Instead of running away from it, we need to run toward it.  This is something that I tired to push, amongst many other things with an overwhelmed staff and distracted elected officials.  I was hoping that the Master Planning process would bring forth this notion, but the whole process turn a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

There are many different ways we could bring this about and most of it would be by emphasizing what we are already doing or promoting things that we aren't.  It's not about re-directing traffic from I-95 to Lake Worth - it's about creating an attraction around its history that would attract more interest economically in the city.  Following this "road" would be a way of being the "last place" position we currently have among Palm Beach County cities.

Branding anyone?