Toby Israel Ph.D.

Design on My Mind

On 'The Road' to Home in North Central Florida

What makes places authentic? Palms? Concrete? Elephants that ski?

Posted Mar 09, 2016

I had to face it. This past winter my toes no longer were prepared to survive the New Jersey cold. Since thriving, not just surviving is the name of my game I set out on a road trip around Florida in search of warm oases, adventure and maybe . . . a new, annual winter home.

Driving down there I remembered my Grandparent’s Miami Beach garden apartment.  The sound of birds singing as I awoke. White railings and bushes with red hibiscus marked the territory of each old folk’s porch where cronies played Canasta together in the open air. Walking around the corner, I sat and fished with my Grandpa off a little local bridge.

Arriving near that South Florida locale, I had to be strategic when navigating the eight lanes of traffic.  Survival tips: Plan your driving route so you can always make a ‘right on red’ otherwise you’ll die waiting at each lo-o-o-o-o-n-g light. Don’t rely on landmarks-- every mall looks the same. Restaurants’ “Early Bird Specials” are a misnomer as they don’t involve special, live, early birds that wake you in the a.m. Avoid the crowds: Head to Northern Florida. And so I did.

I drove on toward the landmark New Urbanist(1) Gulf Coast town of Seaside. I was scheduled to give a ‘Home Design Psychology Workshop’ and retreat there for two weeks to write about the psychology of home. What’s ‘home’ like in Northern Florida?” I wondered as I purposely drove the slow, back route to Seaside via the Panhandle, through pristine pine forests, past the poverty of trailer homes and dark, abandoned (or perhaps occupied) shacks.

I turned left. Contrasts. You’ve heard of the Emerald City? The sea by Seaside is emerald.  The town, itself, is white. White homes. White porches. White fences. White shops. White sand.  Don’t get me wrong: Each open space and home there is like a white pearl of planning and architecture wisdom.  Yet, when strung together, do the pearls create a shining community?

Walking along a back lane that first week I met one of five artists on Seaside’s “Escape to Create” program.(2) Soon I was swept into their colorful midst and swept away by their soulful country songs and stories of Newfoundland ghosts and of Audubon’s life under a wild sky.(3)  People taking my workshop the next week also became like friends as we dug side-by-side to excavate the psychic meaning of their past home stories.  Those moments of sharing transcendent place and art and stories did provide me with an oasis for my soul.

Yet I feared for transcendence when I left Seaside driving past Gulf shoreline eviscerated by new development. Many artists (not to mention birds), too, remain a fragile, endangered species. Artists- - at first welcomed as the harbingers of such “hip” new communities- - get priced out when its real estate becomes hot.(4)  “Survival of the fittest,” one might say. . .

Fish flailing on the line on that bridge with my grandfather. Even back then I remember puzzling over the contrast between concrete and palms and wondering what was real and what was fake home.  Perhaps that’s why something sort of clicked when I saw a Road Scholar advert for a 5-day Gainesville program on “Conserving Wildlife, Lands and Springs in North Central Florida.”

As I headed toward Gainesville, fish and forests, hibiscus and the sea, porches and paths, ghosts, country songs and Audubon were all flying in my head- - puzzle pieces I was trying to fit together to form a full picture of what an ideal Florida home might be like for me (and maybe for you?)

The Sweetwater Branch Inn B & B in historic downtown Gainesville hosting the Road Scholar program was a marvelous starting point for imagining oasis. Staying in their complex of carefully restored, Victorian darlings, I got a taste of gracious Southern comfort. I felt right at home there drinking wine in one of their elegant living rooms and eating luscious fried green tomatoes with fellow participants- - biologists, botanists, naturalists and teachers. 

Photo T. Israel
Source: Photo T. Israel

Kudos and thanks to Cornelia Holbrook who lovingly restored the B & B’s historic houses thereby contributing to the preservation and revitalization of historic Gainesville.

Over the next few days Kimberly Tillman, the knowledge/ passion-filled biologist who took us deep into this heart of North Central Florida, helped me peel Florida’s layers of concrete away from my mind’s eye. Here’s just a smattering of the many fascinating things she showed us on the Road’s program . Which of these might YOU include in your vision of ideal place to live?

  • Historic homes with wide front porches where you can sit and see your neighbors
  • A rainforest-like sinkhole where you can hike everyday
  • Nearby walkable savannahs with hawks, horses and bison (!) in the distance
  • Museums with mastodons (old locals) and modern Asian art that make you gasp
  • A local State Park with warm springs that (rumor has it) are fountains of youth

My favorite? DeLeon Springs where19 million gallons of water spring forth every day. There you can swim or scuba dive year round in clear, 71-degree water surrounded by live oaks bedecked in Spanish moss.   

On the Road’s program I learned that DeLeon Springs used to be one of many unique “Roadside Attractions,” a string of beautiful, one-of-a-kind oases that motorists could visit. The star attraction at DeLeon Springs was “Sunshine Sally,” an elephant trained to water ski!(5). Florida’s “Roadside Attractions” closed down when Interstate 4 and Disneyworld were built and people were drawn away from the real Florida to that plastic, fantastic one. Who needs Sally or savannahs or Scrub-jays(6) when you have Dumbo? I think everyone should go on this Road Scholar offering to learn about authentic place. It made me muse about what’s at stake if greed trumps survival of the earth’s most precious gifts.(7)    

Yet I couldn’t live in a spring, so my last stop was DeLand, Florida, just fifteen minutes south of DeLeon Springs near where my grandfather had purchased land years ago.  I had visited that sleepy town eight years prior.  This time the place was awake! - - transformed into a small, vibrant town chock full of character, restaurants, shops, a university, museums and people walking.  Local leaders of varying species had joined together in DeLand to preserve yet revitalize this community.  I sensed I’d finally found some place like home(8) when I toured their restored Historic Garden District with its paths and wide porches, hibiscus and birds that always sing to artists for whom homes there are affordable.(9)   

Back in N.J. it was hard to return to TV’s election chatter since civil politics seemed all but extinct. Instead I watched a special about astronaut Scott Kelly’s year in space where he’d photographed countries merging together as landmasses of extraordinary color.  Life comes around: Did you know that 300,000,000 years ago Florida was part of Africa and South America as it was all one big land mass?  This was one of the earth’s miracles we learned about from on the Road Scholar journey.(10)  

Perhaps we should all go up to space, not just to North Central Florida. Then, from such new perspectives, we could all experience epiphany about the importance of endangered, transcendent place and art and stories.  Meanwhile:

 While we are here on earth, we have an incredible opportunity–to recognize and rejoice in the Unity of All Being, to stand in awe and wonder at the glory of all that is, and to bring forward as much consciousness, love, solidarity, creativity, sensitivity, and goodness as we can possibly manifest.(11)_____________________________________________________

1. Seaside is a master-planned community, one of the first cities in America designed on the principles of New Urbanism, an urban design movement which promotes environmentally friendly habits by creating walkable neighborhoods containing a wide range of housing and job types.

2. ‘Escape to Create’ is a multi-disciplinary creative retreat hosted by the town of Seaside, FL since 1993 in celebration of art, life and community. Artists-in-residence during my stay included Charis Cotter, Jeff Black, Michele Caniato, Katrina Schwartz and William Souder.

3. Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of THE BIRDS OF AMERICA is the name of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book by William Souder.

4. During my stay, Andres Duany, the darling of the international New Urbanist planning world, led a tour of Rosemary Beach, a New Urbanist community he also planned near Seaside. On the tour Duany mentioned that artists, initial vanguard residents, were later priced out of Rosemary Beach.

5. Although I am lauding the unique quality and authenticity of “Roadside Attractions” here, I don’t applaud any shows that might include anything resembling animal abuse.

6. On our Road Scholar program we visited Ocala National Forest, the southernmost National Forest in the continental U.S.It protects the threatened Florida Scub-jays, the only species of birds endemic to Florida.

7. Shortly after our Road Scholar program, after months of passionate debate, local officials voted down a plan to build about 10,500 homes on land straddling a significant wildlife corridor. The plan was proposed by Plum Creek (now Wyerhaeuser), the largest private owner of timberland in the U.S.

8. Toby Israel, Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places (Chichester:Academy Editions/Wiley, 2003).

9. Kudos to Michael E. Arth, who built 32 homes and businesses in this section of DeLand, a former slum, turning it into the Historic Garden District. Arth describes himself as an “artist, landscape & urban planner, green builder, social activist and public policy analyst, advocate for the homeless, filmmaker, futurist, public speaker and author.”

10. Walk fast-forward into Palm Beach and Miami in modern times and you’ll see that homes at one point were simple beach cottages. Now the total property values of these Southern oases exceed 1.3 trillion dollars! One of the many fascinating points made by geologist Dr. Matthew Smith of the University of Florida, Gainesville.

11. Michael Lerner, “Emancipatory Spirituality”, Tikkun, Vol. 15, No. 3, p. 34.

Copyright Toby Israel 2016

About the Author

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.

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