By Cathy Salustri
Ah, the sweet smell of diesel mingled with the unique aroma of low tide.
Yep, you guessed it, I’m talking about the Gulfport waterfront.
I am a fan of water. In it, on it, near it – I don’t care. Kayak, sailboat, power boat – it’s really all the same to me, because as long as there’s salt water, nothing else matters.
As a third grader brand-new to this salty, sandy, sunny spit of limestone, my dad would get me up at the crack of dawn and take me down to the beach to search for shells. As an adult, I head to the shoreline to think things over. I have filled my home with shells, shark’s teeth, and shoreline memories. I surround myself with water; I wrap myself in its salty blanket every chance I get.
Odd, then, that I used to scream when water swirled around my ankles. That’s right, me, the former swim instructor, lifeguard and advocate for all things marine, would scream and cry as soon as the saltwater lapped at my stubby seven-year-old legs.
It’s understandable, really. Before living here we lived about a half-hour outside Manhattan. If you’ve ever seen the East River, perhaps you can understand my terror. In my mind I didn’t see the Gulf’s placid teal waters but a churning angry cold black beast. With the patience of an aunt/swim instructor I ultimately learned to jump into the water, feet first, and just start swimming. I’ve never looked back. Throughout my life as men, friends, and jobs all disappointed, the salt water never let me down. I just kept swimming.
Gulfport would be well served to take a page out of that book. Around town, I hear a lot of chatter about how to fix Gulfport’s economy, as though she’s a derelict boat or crumbling sea wall. Some wonder why some restaurants can’t stay afloat while others wrinkle their noses at the boats anchored offshore. Everyone, it seems, has a plan, from creating a “Main Street” project to tightening the noose on code enforcement.
While I don’t mean to dismiss these ideas as without merit, I don’t understand why we, as a city, ignore our maritime heritage. We like to brand ourselves as “weird” and an “art village,” but rarely do I hear anyone make reference to our rich aquatic history.
Civilizations historically spring up around the water, and Gulfport made no exception. We started as a fishing community, but good luck finding a fish house in town. A few restaurants, like O’Maddy’s, offer excellent seafood specials, and others, like Neptune, have regular seafood items on the grill, but we don’t have a crab house or a dedicated seafood restaurant. Am I the only one who finds that irregular?
The water works in Gulfport; it always has. Businesses operate with apparent success out of our marina; we have kayak tours and stand up paddleboard companies leading tours out of Clam Bayou. These people, certainly, feel the economic pinch, but I don’t see them shuttering their business in the same way so many restaurants and art galleries have over the past few years. They’re culling a living from the one thing they know will not fail them: the water.
The water remains the one constant in Gulfport. We have dredged it, filled it, poisoned it, and reshaped it, and still, the water works. In the 1950s scientists predicted that Boca Ciega Bay would never have sea grass on its bottom again; today, it is there. The water offers itself up to us again and again, and still Gulfport ignores it. There are no water taxis to and from the beach, no seafood restaurants capitalizing on Gulfport’s fishing heritage. We have no memorial to local ships and families; even our centennial celebrations gave the fisherman and boat houses no more than a passing nod. We could be Anywhere, USA, for all anyone knows when they come to visit. We may be one of the only waterfront towns in Florida that fails to capitalize on the state’s most prized asset.
Perhaps some folks have some apprehension about the water. I can understand your fear; I remember it well. But, although we have a slight problem with boating waste (which we’re about to fix with the mooring field), this is not the East River. This is Florida, a coastal paradise. Gulfport beach isn’t exactly Fort DeSoto, but we could use it better, keep it in better shape. We could see our water as an asset rather than something to be managed and regulated. We could view the pattern of the sun on the water, the masts of the sailboats, and the salt on the mangroves as art in its own right, and the fishermen who bring their haul through Gulfport’s marina as an integral part of who we are and how we got here instead of relics of a bygone era.
Gulfport’s worked so hard to carve out a unique arts niche that it forgot about the niche it already had. We have no art galleries left. We have working artists, sure, and people come here looking for art, of course. However, an artist can sell their wares in any number of small art colonies in Florida, but Gulfport’s maritime history is our true gift to visitors; it’s ours and ours alone.
No other city had the Aylesworth fish house, the Mary Disston, or the blockade runners from Key West. Forget Gasparilla; we had real pirates. Did you not know that? That’s exactly my point. We are a waterfront town, something I feel like we should mention every now and again. The city owns a building on the edge of Clam Bayou. Why not open a maritime museum or history center? Why aren’t we giving walking history tours extolling the men who built the city on fishnets and saltwater? Why do we refuse to acknowledge the one thing that has never failed Gulfport?
In my house I have a picture that includes a quote from Christopher Columbus:
“And the sea will grant each man new hope, as sleep brings dreams of home.”
Those who don’t know their past, they say, are doomed to repeat it. Looking around town and out on the water, I say that repeating our history is the best thing that could happen to us.