Commercialism takes the shine off Florida's Gold Coast

I remember the Florida Gold Coast from my childhood. Most of it was just like this small town of Lake Worth, built low to the ground, with its narrow streets and sandy yards. You could walk to the ocean almost as fast as you could walk to school. And when you got there, you could sit alone watching the tide break as the moon rose.

Driving along A1A, the ocean road stretching from Jupiter to Miami Beach, you'd see the wild seashore swept by ocean winds. By the time you hit Hollywood and North Miami Beach, you had started to enter the condocrete-walled tunnel of commerce. But, for miles, you would have traveled the rugged expanse of oceanfront that sprayed your windshield with salt and invited you with a sense of endless frontier.

Well, Florida's Gold Coast has kissed most of that primitive beauty goodbye.

On a recent journey down the coast, after a long absence, I saw what has become of the place. The experience made me mourn the loss of topographical innocence I remember from the late 1950s and early '60s; and it made me wonder why people spend their money to vacation in the arcade-style unreality of Florida's motel-row.

Most of ''scenic A1A'' from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach has all the quaint charm of a carnival midway. If ever an argument were to be made for putting a leash on runaway commercialism, this is the place to make it. Not because this is the worst example of gaudy signs and wall-to-wall vendors, but because what it replaced was once so wild, beautiful, and mysterious.

The Gold Coast at the height of the season is traffic jams and crowded restaurants. It is a multitude of brown bodies grilling on the sand and muddying the waters.

''We wait for the summer to come down here,'' said one resident of Lake Worth. ''That's when the restaurants have tables and there are places to park. It's also when you can get (from Boynton Beach to Fort Lauderdale) without being tied up in traffic jams.''

This lamp-shop proprietor doesn't know how good he has it. Compared with Fort Lauderdale, Lake Worth looks like a picture post card of small-town-America-by-the-sea. F. Scott Fitzgerald's phrase ''Tender Is the Night'' could have been coined for the close, balmy evenings here. With its low, Mexican-style houses, sandy back alleys, and spreading banyon trees, the town provides an untouched setting for Florida living.

The frame-stucco house my grandfather bought here in 1953, hardly new at the time, still stands; and around it, to my amazement, nearly the selfsame community of tiny houses and dim memories that peopled my childhood.

Lake Worth has labored to keep itself small with such measures as an ordinance to limit building size, and these labors have largely been successful. There are unfortunate inroads of development, like a widened Dixie Highway and trendy-theme shopping plazas. But you can still wander through quiet neighborhoods where the loudest sound you'll hear is a cicada.

On a random corner in this little town, it is hard to imagine that you are hard by the plush-and-glitz of the Gold Coast developers.

All you need to awaken you is a quick drive to the ocean and a sharp right turn onto A1A south. It won't be long before you hit long stretches of jam-packed real estate that most people know as Florida's Gold Coast. Places with names like Lakeside Villas, the Diplomat, Driftwood on the Ocean, crowd against the seashore, as if trying to keep intruders from peeking at their private paradise.

The ''paradise'' turns out to be a narrow strip of sand on the edge of the sea. But you'll probably not be in much of a mood to contemplate the limitless deep after descending in the Muzak-filled elevator, walking through the plastic and plush lobby, suntan lotion in hand, and joining fellow sunbathers on the little stretch of towel and beach you temporarily call your own.

Contemplation is not the main order of business here, anyway. This place is crammed with people GETTING A TAN with the grim determination of those who calculate the cost of each succeeding shade of brown in the hundreds of dollars. When you pay that kind of money, you're serious about soaking up rays.

If I lived in the midst of such manic sun-worshipping, I'd save all year for a vacation somewhere else.

Oddly enough, if you want to miss the mobs of sunbathers, the place to go is Miami Beach, where Mildred Bobick (not her real name) sits with two friends on the porch of the Sunset Hotel, built after a once modern model. Mildred and her friends have been coming here in Miami Beach's art deco gone-to-seed bank of hotels for over a third of a century, to ''get away from the cold weather and unwind.'' Now they sit in the lonely paradox of Miami Beach in the '80s.

Miami, the city that drew the huge crowds to Florida's Gold Coast, still suffers from a long tourist slump that began with the riots of 1980. These women say they are afraid to walk at night because of the high crime in the area and that many of their friends in New York have stopped coming.

The huge media play given to those riots ''was the beginning of the end,'' says Christina Marcolina, desk clerk at one of the grand hotels here. ''Socially , the Beach is suffering. You can't compare it to Miami Beach in the 1960s. All that's gone. The Beach is a thing of the past.''

Maybe. But the Doral, where Marcolina works, is enjoying a brisk turnover in its $120- to $264-a-day rooms and suites, as the convention trade has begun to rediscover Miami Beach. And along the ocean road, the hardware - all the gleaming ocean palaces and their shiny fittings - still hug the shoreline. The beach has been widened, and a new boardwalk is being built.A massive building regeneration is going on at the south end of Miami Beach.

Which is all to the good. Except that what they are building is an idealized version of the runaway development that cheapened this area in the first place. You look around and fear that Miami Beach may regain some lost business and still remain a seaside tinsel town.

Gradually it dawns on you - as you travel through the land of gilt and money surrounding it - that, in the rush to development, hardly a provision has been made to rest the wanderer who isn't forking over some cash. Outside of shops and restaurants and hotels, few places offer a cool seat in the shade or even a grassy knoll from which to observe the passing Cadillacs.

Maybe such single-minded city-planning makes for good tourism, but does it create a place with any of its own ethos, with any life of its own to offer the visitor? Or does it become a fantasy package built around the sun and the sea and a solid 78 degrees in the beginning of March?

Maybe if I'd never been here before, I could answer this question favorably. But anyone who can remember Florida the way it was, before the bankrolls took over, can't help but wince at what has come along. I couldn't find much joy in it today.

Because I remember Florida the way it used to be.

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