Henry Flagler thought the land my house sits on would make excellent farmland. Yours too, if you live within whistling distance of the New River. If you don’t, well, there’s a good chance Mr. Flagler didn’t think about your land much at all.
Today we think of Henry Flagler as a railroad builder and, of course, he was. The railroad he built was one of the crucial steps in transforming our communities from small settler outposts into towns and then cities. But it’s just as accurate to call him a hotel builder who just happened to need a way to convey customers to his southernmost hotels. In a way, Flagler’s trains were a lot like that other famous Florida rail conveyance, the Disney World monorail; once you build the big-money tourist stuff, you’ve got to be able to get the tourists to it.
But Fort Lauderdale never got a grand Flagler hotel like Palm Beach’s Breakers or Miami’s long gone but once grand Royal Palm. Flagler explained his reasoning to Julia Tuttle, the woman who convinced him to build a hotel and run a railroad to a swampy, barely inhabited outpost on Biscayne Bay. In a story recounted by John Dolen last year in one of this magazine’s always fascinating Old Lauderdale columns, Flagler wrote to Tuttle that he did not “expect to build up a town at New River, but I think it is good farming land.”
I thought of Henry, who saw our plot of land as more fit for tomatoes than tourists, while reading over this month’s magazine. This is our development issue, and our two main features explore a pair of debated topics: the new Brightline trains, and where Fort Lauderdale’s next hot neighborhoods might be. With the former, the region is following a vision first set out by Flagler. With the latter, we’re trying to have more vision than he did.
Brightline’s the U.S.’s first private passenger rail line in more than half a century and for it to succeed, a business model not unlike Henry’s will need to work. Brightline’s parent company’s also in the real estate business; instead of Flagler-style fancy hotels, they’re bringing housing and retail to the areas around the stations they own. How will that 21st-century version of a 19th-century rail baron’s plan work? We’re about to find out.
Then there are our neighborhoods. Now, I’ll admit that if you’d asked me several years ago about South Andrews, I probably wouldn’t have said “Oooh, hot new cultural area.” It was a land of one big hospital, lots of small industrial buildings and a few bars that I liked because I like a certain kind of bar. Galt Ocean Mile was a nice enough, sleepy beach neighborhood. Northeast 13th? It had a year-round Christmas store and a liquor store, and that’s all I could tell you. But as with Flagler’s opinion that the New River settlement would make fine farmland and not much else, sometimes not everybody can see what a place might become, or is becoming.
So change is here, and I can get a fast train to West Palm Beach or have an evening of fine dining and theater on South Andrews. Or I can stay home and enjoy the simpler things, like tending to the garden the Petersens recently planted.
We may even grow tomatoes. It’s what Henry Flagler would have wanted.