Everybody knows about Gulfport, the funky little beach burg that claims a bit of mainland Pinellas County's southwest edge. The funny thing is, everybody has a different image of the place.
Gulfport is that retirement community.
Gulfport is that artsy-fartsy place where there's some sort of Stroll or Fair or Look At Our Work Festival every weekend. (No, not Dunedin - the other artsy-fartsy place.)
Gulfport is that beach that tourists don't go to.
Gulfport is that place where all the houses are painted different colors.
Gulfport is that string of bars across the street from the water.
Gulfport is that place where all the lesbians live.
All of these things are true to some extent - well, I mean, all the lesbians don't really live here, or even half of them - but none of these factors alone goes any distance toward defining Gulfport.
Taken together, however, they serve to paint a picture of a community whose identity lies in its eclecticism.
"I think the coolest thing about Gulfport is that the 'identity' is so diverse that you can't really identify it," says Chamber of Commerce member and Gulfport mover-and-shaker Dolly Tickell. "That's why I came here.
"There's a diversity of age, of ethnic background, of occupation. We have a heterosexual population, a homosexual population, we have bag ladies and Ph.D.s."
Standing at the end of the modern concrete-and-metal "T" that is Gulfport's Williams Pier, with your back to the city, you can look across oft-murky Boca Ciega Bay and see a typical contemporary Florida beachfront tableau: the crowded high-rises and barrier-island geography of Isla del Sol and Tierra Verde. Turn around, though, and you're faced with something very different: the connected one-story business fronts and sidewalk promenade of The Little Seaside Florida Town. It's a view straight out of the '50s, encountered with increasing rarity since then.
You're looking at Shore Boulevard. It, and Beach Boulevard, which runs down from 22nd Avenue South to meet it, constitutes the Waterfront Redevelopment District, or downtown Gulfport. And while the City of Gulfport is, in terms of land use, almost overwhelmingly residential, it's this little area that defines Gulfport for visitors - from the intimate, frequently used Catherine Hickman Theatre, down Beach past the brightly colored buildings of the Art Village on the left, past the marvelously refurbished Peninsula Inn & Spa on the right, past the tiny Post Office where the clerk undoubtedly knows everybody's name, past the tourist-trinket shops and cozy restaurants, to Shore and the famous Gulfport Casino, where a left leads to bars and the pier and a right leads to bars and the beach and the jarringly modern Recreation Center. This downtown-that-time-forgot charm has attracted new residents for decades, and inspired in them a fervent dedication to preserving it.
"I came when it was the unpopular thing to do," says Tickell. "We were part of … we called ourselves the new pioneers."
Tickell's family moved to Gulfport around 10 years ago, and she immediately immersed herself in what seems to be the unofficial official pastime/investment option of affluent locals: residential restoration. She bought an abandoned crackhouse located near Gulfport's northern edge (where the city shares 49th Street South's slowly improving urban sprawl with St. Petersburg), and had the whole thing moved not once, but twice, before beginning an ongoing project to return it to its former '50s glory.
"In Gulfport, a buzzsaw is just [the sound of] dollar signs," she says.
The community may be largely opposed to modernizing downtown and the historic neighborhoods, but all the restoration has had the same effect on the city's property values that new construction would have. While Gulfport still looks like the kind of place where a young writer might rent a bungalow for a few months in order to finish a novel in relative isolation, these days he or she would have a tough time making the payments. The average value of a Gulfport home - and there aren't many big ones - currently hovers somewhere around $200,000.
Walking around the city on a weekday, one mostly encounters older residents, hobby artists committing one interesting building or another to canvas, and the odd tourist; it's a scene that bolsters Gulfport's quaint vibe. But one doesn't see the average citizen circa 2005, because the average citizen circa 2005 is somewhere working hard to be able to afford living here.
Lynn Brown, an authority on Gulfport history who's written two books on the subject (and is working on a third - see sidebar), came to the area in 1978.
"In those days, it was the only affordable place in Pinellas County to buy a house," she says. "Things have definitely changed."