The Artfullness of Community Making
My future husband, Robert Davis, introduced me to the wilderness of NW Florida’s coast, on the Gulf of Mexico, to an area called Walton County. This was a large part of Florida I was unaware of and had always assumed belonged to the state of Alabama. The constituents of this area were a different sort who considered themselves to be urban dropouts. The reality was that their southern families preferred them to live in beach houses tucked away from society where they could carry on their “not so proper” business in private. These folks were renegades — very happy to live off the beaten path. They rarely socialized with outsiders. The only meeting places in the area were churches, a country club and a dog track. There wasn’t one proper gathering place over 17 miles of the County Road 30A, the main thoroughfare.
In the summer of 1980 I decided to leave Miami and move up to the wildness of the Florida Panhandle, to a city called Grayton Beach near some land my husband’s family had left to him. We were going to begin Seaside.
Robert began networking with different builders and carpenters and I devoted myself to finding a job in community counseling. Community counseling was my postgraduate major and before we moved up to what would become Seaside I was working in the field. I was surprised to discover that there weren’t any community services available in Walton County. Along the coast most of the locals self-medicated and took care of their problems without professional help.
I found myself with enormous amounts of time on my hands. To explore the culture I gravitated towards the three towns near Grayton Beach: Panama City, Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola. The area lacked an urban environment. The mall was the closest example of urbanism I could find and it was a sufficient enough to observe the lifestyles of folks who lived in these areas.
In 1981 the first two Seaside cottages were under way. They became know as the Yellow House and the Red House. The Red House was designated to be our sales office (in case we had any sales) and the Yellow House became our residence and served as a model house. While the construction was underway I began a Saturday vegetable stand – what later became known as the Seaside Saturday Market. This was a pivotal point in the beginning of community making and later, retail development. I tried several different formats before finding success: Saturday markets, Sunday markets, and sunset markets open in the cooler part of the early evening. Eventually I asked other artisans I met along the way to join me. We had a baker of organic breads, a potter, a photographer, a shrimp stand, an old book seller and many others. Deborah Berke, one of the early architects working in Seaside, ran the used books table. The only consistent vendors were Deborah and myself. All the rest of the artists showed up as they pleased. Some weeks they were there and some weeks they weren’t. Likewise, some weeks we had customers and some weeks we didn’t. I could see that depending on others was going to be a big problem.
Around that time I began experimenting with selling cotton items, dresses, sun caps, and colorful webbed army belts that I picked up at the local Salvation Army store. Cotton clothing and items in fun beach colors were not to be found in this 90 mile stretch of beach along the Gulf of Mexico. I brought these items up to Seaside from south Florida. I had purchased them at discount stores, used clothing shops, army surplus shops, etc. My eye was highly developed to find quality merchandise that I would be able to resell at my market. I knew nothing of mark-ups and sales tax but I was very much interested in the psychology of pricing. I began selling these items with my local produce including strawberries, southern peaches and Dothan tomatoes. The cotton items took off. I was unable to find enough to resell while my produce sales were flat. On Sundays, Robert and I started cooking up the leftovers from the stand into tomato sauce, strawberry jam, banana bread and whatever else remained. What we didn’t anticipate was the effect of these aromas on house sales. We had visitors coming through our sales model, the Yellow House we lived in, while cooking up these tempting treats. This sense of “home” helped to show future home buyers the advantages of the cottages we were proposing.
At the same time, I began to create activities with the intent of drawing people to Seaside. We sponsored volleyball on the beach at sunset, sailboat regattas from Seaside to Grayton Beach and back, storytelling, sand castle building contests, watermelon spitting contests, dancing under the stars, piano recitals on the bluff overlooking the Gulf at sunset, and outdoor movies. A friend from Coconut Grove, Florida had passed on to me a 16- millimeter projector that used huge reels. I order the movies and learned to be the projectionist — playing the films on a handmade screen.
I signed up to attend the Panama City Vocational School to study drafting. Robert and I created the first Seaside tee shirt by using a letterpress. I purchased the Hanes men and boy tees from the basement of Pizitz, Robert’s family department store in Birmingham, Alabama. The next step was to find a screen printer to print Seaside on those tees. We did that, learned the printing business, and we were on our way with a dozen shirts. The tees were sold for $10 each alongside my tomatoes and peaches. The first dozen tees sold out quickly. Seaside tees provided an opportunity for people to be part of something bigger than themselves and yet small enough to be considered cool and cult-like.
By 1982, Seaside was growing as a town and a destination, and we were having weekly events. I was running back and forth to Curry Copy Center in Panama City creating newspaper ads for these events and the Seaside Saturday Market. We promoted these events through the local newspapers and by word of mouth. Seaside Tees were continuing to sell through the roof, my cotton clothes were flying off the veggie table, and customers were walking through our model home on a regular basis. We had the beginnings of a destination.
I can’t say we planned for this to happen, and I can’t say that we didn’t. We both were very interested in creating activities in Seaside and from those first attempts at community building our retail enterprise slowly began and flourished. Our Saturday Market turned into stores and restaurants and our events became major attractions. Seaside became and remains a major destination in the Florida Panhandle for shopping, dining, goings-on, and vacations. And it all began with some ingenuity, the dream of a better way of life, and a little veggie stand…