by Ron Bernthal
It was once known for hosting the nation’s liveliest “Spring Break” weeks, when thousands of college students escaped cold and snowy northern campuses for Florida’s balmy March and April weather. With wet t-shirt contests, free-flowing alcohol, and thirty miles of inviting white-sand beaches who could blame these kids for letting it all hang-out in Fort Lauderdale after college mid-term exams. “Going to spring break at Ft. Lauderdale, getting drunk and flashing your breasts isn’t an act of personal empowerment. It’s you, so fashioned and programmed by the construct of a patriarchal society that you no longer know what’s best for yourself,” Chuck Palahniuk wrote in his novel Snuff.
From the mid 1950’s to the late 1980’s Fort Lauderdale was “Spring Break Capital of the World,” with many beachfront hotels bringing in enough revenue during spring break weeks to carry them the rest of the year. At least until the city got tired of seeing its reputation sinking faster than vodka seeping into sand. With nearby Miami attracting more high-spending business and leisure travelers to architecturally savvy and newly fashionable South Beach, and burgeoning downtown development projects, officials in Fort Lauderdale decided that hosting more than 300,000 spring breakers each year was not really doing the city any good, despite the two-month surge in visitor spending at local establishments.
After an ambitious 20-year revitalization plan, Fort Lauderdale, in its 100th anniversary year, has turned itself around. Striking, new hotels line the city’s beachfront now, and downtown’s River Walk is a beautiful, upscale entertainment district. These days it is the cultural venues, high-end restaurants, several yacht-filled marinas, and trendy night-spots that draw visitors to the city, on a year-round basis, and city leaders are now thrilled with Fort Lauderdale’s reputation as a safe and welcoming business destination, cruise port, and residential city.
In the early 19th century a few white settlers had begun to arrive at a hot, marshy area in south Florida, mingling with the mostly peaceful Seminole tribe. The settlers did some fishing, light farming and trapping, but the brutal summers, mosquitoes and difficult life in the tropics sent many settlers back north to escape the conditions.
In 1838, during the Second Seminole war, which occurred mostly in western and central Florida, Major William Lauderdale marched down from Tennessee on orders from the government,to establish several forts in southern Florida to maintain peace with the Seminoles in that area, and to protect any white settlements there.
Early white settlements in south Florida were slow to develop until the 1890’s, when the Florida East Coast Railway, developed by Henry Flagler, began to push its way south. Flagler, who had spent time in St. Augustine after when doctors told him the warm weather would help his sick wife, realized the potential of Florida’s climate to attract well-to-do leisure travelers, and he established large hotels in St. Augustine, and later in Palm Beach, where his railroad terminated in 1894.
When a winter freeze hit central Florida and the Palm Beach area in 1895, Flagler decided to push even further south, all the way down to Miami. By march 3, 1896, the railroad reached present-day Fort Lauderdale, and a month later the tracks touched the coastline of Biscayne Bay, where there were just fifty white inhabitants in what is now downtown Miami.
The settlement of Fort Lauderdale had just twelve white settlers, but two of them were Frank Stranahan, the area’s first postmaster, and his wife, Ivy Cromartie Stranahan, the area’s first school teacher. In 1901, the Stranahans built a small house on the bank of the New River, which served as a trading post, town hall, and as the Stranahan’s personal home.
Ten years later, in 1911, the small, quiet village along the New River, which had grown to about fifty residents since the railroad arrived, was incorporated as the City of Fort Lauderdale, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year. The Stranahan House (www.stranahanhouse.org) still stands as the oldest building in the city, a small, wooden house with a front porch overlooking the New River. It is not anything like the huge stone mansions that line the city’s inland waterways today, or the towering glass hotels and condominiums that have sprouted along the ocean beachfront nearby.
“The story of the Stranahan House is the story of Fort Lauderdale,” said April Kirk, Executive Director of the historic house and museum, a national landmark, as she sat on the narrow front porch of the house, gazing at the fishing boats passing by. “Our entire history as a city started here, on this very site, when this spot was a trading post for the local Seminoles. It is great that this structure was preserved and restored, and is open to any visitors who want to experience what early Florida used to be like.
Fort Lauderdale’s growth continued through the Florida land boom of the early 1920’s, but in 1926 the city was hit by a devastating hurricane that killed 350 residents in the region, and damaged much of the city. Coupled with the stock market crash three years later, total recovery took years, and even into the late 1980’s Fort Lauderdale remained a small town, living within the huge shadow of Miami, 25 miles to the south.
Like every other southern city, Fort Lauderdale was also segregated. Kitty Oliver, a local author and oral historian was, in 1971, one of the first black reporters hired by a newspaper to cover the entire county, not just the minority communities. “There was a rigid line running through the city, dividing Fort Lauderdale along racial lines,” Ms. Oliver said. “There was always discrimination against African-Americans here, but it was not a problem until tourism overtook agriculture as the city’s main industry after World War II. The hotels provided jobs, yes, but it was always difficult on the black community. We had to fight to get a beach where blacks were allowed to go, it really was another layer of life in Fort Lauderdale that few visitors were aware of.”
“These days, of course, Fort Lauderdale and all of Broward County embrace the diversity we have down here,” Oliver said. “Employers and city planners are fully prepared to bring all its residents into the next century as the area develops and prospers.”
Hotel companies have certainly shown that they are ready to invest in Fort Lauderdale’s growing upscale tourism market. A deluxe Ritz Carlton (www.ritz-carlton.com/fortlauderdale) is on the beach now, along with a trendy W Hotel (www.whotels.com/fortlauderdale). On the Intracoastal Waterway, within walking distance of the Broward County Convention Center, is the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina (www.fortlauderdalemarina.com) hotel, with views of the city skyline and the yacht-filled marina at the base of the property.
The newest hotel to open along Fort Lauderdale’s beachfront boulevard is called B Ocean Fort Lauderdale (www.bhotelsandresorts.com/ftlauderdale), part of the expanding B Hotels and Resorts brand. Formerly a Holiday Inn property, (and the 1950’s-era Schraffts Motor Inn before that), this completely refurbished hotel, where all 240 deluxe guest rooms have ocean views, perhaps best symbolizes the city’s efforts to reinvent itself. By convincing private developers and investors that the city is serious about revitalization and upscale growth, business leaders in Fort Lauderdale have seen a plethora of new urban commercial and residential projects in the city that have injected new life into formerly neglected neighborhoods. B Ocean, facing the Atlantic a little north of most of the beachfront properties, and overlooking the green expanse of Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, is helping to revitalize this part of the beach, where new boutiques and cafes are replacing the older Spring Break-era t-shirt shops and pizza joints.
“There has been a complete renaissance in Fort Lauderdale in the past ten to fifteen years,” said Joel Darr, B Ocean’s General Manager. “The entire beachfront is now quite stylish, and with all the new development taking place downtown, the city is very different than it was just a short time ago. People are coming here throughout the year now, from other cities in Florida for long weekends, and from Europe as well, because we have something great to offer them.
The Broward Center for Performing Arts (https://browardcenter.org), a beautiful structure opened 20 years ago, has been one of the most successful downtown entertainment venues in the country. A planned $43 million facility expansion, partly in an attempt to draw a younger audience, will include new seating and carpeting, a club level, retractable awnings over the courtyard, and a two-story pavilion at the back of the property overlooking the New River.
The downtown Riverwalk Arts and Entertainment District (www.riverwalkae.com), with the New River has its central focus, allows visitors to bike, walk, or take water taxis among a growing number of upscale shops and restaurants, as well as the Broward Center, the Museum of Art (www.moafl.org), the Museum of Discovery and Science (www.mods.org), Himmarshee Village (www.himmarsheevillage.com), with its collection of restaurants, clubs and bars, Parker Playhouse (www.parkerplayhouse.com), and the Fort Lauderdale History Center (www.fortlauderdalehistorycenter.org).
Fort Lauderdale’s current mayor, Rob Dressler, and some members of the City Commission, are not content to let the city sit on its laurels of the past two decades, and they want to spend city money on a consulting firm to help Fort Lauderdale formulate a vision for its future. Political opponents claim that the proposed consulting fees, about $300,000, are too high, and there’s even a big debate about what the new “visionary” committee should call themselves.
What everyone in this city of 166,000 residents seems to want, however, is for the city and its nearby communities to continue to draw visitors by maintaining and expanding the 1991-opened Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center; Port Everglades, the nation’s third busiest cruise port; and Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport (FLL), the fastest-growing major airport in the country building. These three facilities, along with The Wave, a proposed 2.7-mile electric streetcar system costing $125 million, using federal, state, and local funding, is being planned for downtown Fort Lauderdale in the near future. It is also helpful that in 2011 Fort Lauderdale had the lowest tourism taxes out of 50 U.S. destinations, according to an annual study by the Global Business Travel Association Foundation.
Contact: Great Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau
100 East Broward Boulevard
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
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