When I was a child growing up in Fort Pierce, I lived just a few blocks from downtown, and it became a sort of secondary playground when things got dull in the neighborhood. Mostly, I liked to ride my three-speed Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle to the Fort Pierce newsstand in the old Fort Pierce Hotel building, which had a wide selection of comic books and candy.
At about the age of 11, I got a paper route with the local News-Tribune. With a cloth paper bag slung over my banana seat to hold papers, I pedaled the Sting-Ray — not the most efficient bike for such an endeavor — on a route that began at the old newspaper office on U.S. 1 and took me through the heart of downtown and then to the old homes on Second Street.
Most of the deliveries were on what was called a “street route,’’ in which you picked up the payment of a dime for the newspaper every time you delivered instead of billing the customer several weeks out.
The most annoying part of the day was delivering papers to employees at the old Strange Insurance Co. on the southeast corner of U.S. 1 and Delaware Avenue, where one of the women in the office would stop me every day and tell me, “I have to see who died today.’’ She’d pull a paper from me, open it on her desk to see the obituaries, close it and then hand the newspaper back to me. This ritual went on for the nearly two years that I had the route, and the woman never once bought a paper from me.
But the rest of the route was fun. I’d go into the old Frankie ‘n Johnny’s on Atlantic Avenue, where the cold AC and the smell of booze would give a jolt from the hot Florida air outside. I’d stop by my uncle Eddie Enns’’s office, Enns Insurance Agency, and deliver a paper to my great-great aunt, Charlotte Enns, who worked in the office and always seemed to have a pot of coffee brewing. On Orange Avenue, I’d travel by the old Woolworth’s and W.T. Grant stores competing across the street from each other.
Next came the Arcade Building featuring David Taylor’s Soda Shop, Ranchland country wear and the shoe shine stand of John Horton, who sent a remarkable number of his children through college with his toils. Heading across U.S. 1, there was a Western Auto store at the corner and across from that the old Hummel’s bike shop, where my parents had purchased my steed and where I delivered papers to John, the bike repairman with the wooden leg. At the end of Orange was the cavernous Fort Pierce Hotel.
Along Second Street, there were several banks, McCrory’s 5 & 10, a J.C. Penney and Rubin’s men’s and women’s department stores, along with Mr. Tucker’s She Shop, Halsey & Griffith office supply store, Rosslow’s women’s store, the Walshon shoe store and the jewel of downtown, the Sunrise Theatre, where I spent many Saturdays watching the movie matinees. Along Avenue A, there was East Coast Lumber & Supply, Butterfield Drug Store, Sweet’s Jewelers, Fort Pierce Typewriter and a large discount shoe store.
While many of these businesses no longer operate, a few have never left, including East Coast Lumber, Sweet’s and Rosslow’s. Luckily, the Sunrise Theatre, shuttered as a movie house in the 1980s, reopened in 2006 as a performing arts center after a multi-million-dollar renovation. Except for a grocery store, downtown had almost anything you needed back in that day.
My route then ran to Second Street north of Tickle Tummy Hill to a mixture of homes and businesses that included the studio and home of landscape artist A.E. Backus and Buck White’s Tackle Shop. It ended at the old Angler’s Lodge and a surrounding trailer park, roughly located where Seaway Drive is today.
My memories of downtown circa 1970 were summoned on two recent occasions. The first was when an attendee at the Treasure Coast History Festival we produce every January asked me to describe what downtown used to be like. The second came while putting together this edition and reading Anthony Westbury’s story on downtown’s renaissance.
Like many other downtowns, Fort Pierce’s came under increasing competition from suburban malls in the early 80s. Many of the above businesses closed during that time. In an attempt to compete, the city closed off Second Street between Orange Avenue and Avenue A and put in large planters and bench areas to make it more pedestrian friendly. It didn’t work, with most of the objections coming over the loss of parking spaces.
We have seen several more attempts over the last decades at a comeback without much success. But the resurgence of downtown over the last 20 years seems real, with the opening of the new city hall, the reopening of the Sunrise Theatre and the construction of Leo Enriquez’s Renaissance building in mid-2000s followed later by the construction of the new federal courthouse and expansion of the new marina and the opening of Gus Gutierrez’s Galleria at Pierce Harbor.
And ever since 2008, when the city’s H.D. King power plant between Indian River Drive and Second Street was razed, the city has had a trump card to play — development of this 7-acre waterfront parcel between Indian River Drive and Second Street.
City commissioners in November voted to accept the proposal from Audubon Development to build King’s Landing, which will feature a 120-bed hotel, 60 condo units, eight single family homes, 40,000 square feet of retail space and 14,000 square feet of restaurant space.
I may not ever pedal a Schwinn Sting-Ray again, but I look forward to when downtown is once again as vibrant as in the days of my youth.