Published in Creative Loafing Sarasota, Dec. 1, 2009
The Rosemary District has been an up-and-coming area in the city for the past decade, but the ascent has proven to be a sluggish climb. Bordered by Fruitville Road, 10th Street, Tamiami Trail and Orange Avenue, Rosemary has one of the richest histories of any square mile in Sarasota. Its ebb and flow over the last century from bustling commercial hub to ghost town and back have become part of its character. The streets showcase an eclectic mix of renovated historic buildings standing beside some of architecture’s most modern designs. And while the past serves the aesthetics of the area well, the scars from Rosemary’s long journey remain visible.
The area was the original “Town of Sarasota” plat, filed in 1886. By the mid 1920s, the intersection that is now Boulevard of the Arts and Central Avenue was the heart of Overtown, the first segregated black community in Sarasota. Although the neighborhood boasted an impressive collection of all-black businesses, the Rosemary Cemetery — which would in time lend its name to the district — only houses the remains of two African-American residents. The names of some of Sarasota’s most prominent white figures, however (Burns, Gillespie, Higel, Browning, Whitaker, Stickney) can all be found among the gravestones.
In a way, the Rosemary District still struggles with this delicate balance between the haves and have-nots. While some see it as a burden, others embrace the diversity as a unique urban quality. With its collection of independent boutiques, upscale salons and community service organizations like the Salvation Army, Planned Parenthood, Resurrection House and ALSO Out Youth, the district has all the needed ingredients to grow into a hip, alternative, funky urban community.
Rosemary businesses have forwarded this effort for the past five years with the Rosemary Rising Holiday Walk, a tradition that continues this week. Laura Gale, owner of Everything But the Girl, is the self-proclaimed birth mother of the event, and feels the district is finally starting to find its identity. “At the event five years ago we had street closures and the shell from the county to do the bands and it just didn’t work for us,” she says. “It was a little too trying-to-be-something-we-weren’t as a neighborhood. For me this night is about saying to people: a) we’re here, b) we’re super cool and c) you don’t have to be scared of coming up here at night. Because the neighborhood is beautiful.”
Sarasota Olive Oil Company owner Kelly Kary also helped plan the first Rising event and believes Rosemary’s momentum is building. “I think in the last two years it’s really progressed,” says Kary. “It’s actually taken quite a step forward. I would love to see it become a nice little neighborhood-type Mecca, not a downtown Main Street-type Mecca.” Derek Barnes of Derek’s Culinary Casual, who has served his famous gumbo at every Rising, says that attracting new businesses is key. “I would encourage other restaurants that could bring a lot of people and bring awareness to the neighborhood. I would prefer anything that brings strong foot traffic. I welcome anyone. I would be perfectly fine with a fine dining restaurant opening up right next door to me. I’d actually encourage it.”
An exciting addition to the Rosemary family this year is Citrus Square on Orange Avenue. Twenty-six-year-old Shayna Teicher, owner of a new holistic, eco-conscious beauty boutique called Butterfly Effect, thinks the new storefronts are already attracting the right businesses. “You’re getting some really great local talent and people,” Teicher says. “You feel like you’re discovering a little gem when you walk into these stores. This is going to become a really cool, funky little district over here.”
Teicher’s Citrus neighbors — Michael Krempel of Michael’s Urban Salon and Lynne Epstein, owner of Divinia Jeanne’s Chocolate Heaven — believe Rosemary’s history is its biggest asset. “I think it could be a SoHo: a more urban setting, more offbeat, with a history attached to it,” says Krempel. “I’m more drawn to something like that than something more polished.” Epstein, who moved her shop from Lemon Avenue, felt the need to stay in the district: “As much as people have been saying it’s on the verge, I really believe it. People are trying to get away from the box stores and Rosemary is it. I think over the next five years there’s going to be some great development.”
Lourdes Castillo of Lourdes’ Hair and Nail Studio thinks the public’s perception of the area is finally improving. “It used to be really bad,” says Castillo. “This used to be a rehab center. The landlord told me he was afraid to walk in here because he would find needles. But it’s getting better and better. There’s just more businesses here, more upscale things. Even people from downtown are starting to move here. It’s happening. We’re ready.”
While business has picked up, the owners realize that some problems, like homeless traffic due to the Salvation Army and the Resurrection House, will be harder to solve. Lori Frary, who just opened her Frary Art Gallery in the old Ace Theater building, thinks it needs to be addressed. “The Salvation Army has been a big detriment to the area because you have that steady stream of the homeless wondering back and forth through here to get to downtown,” she says. “Being an urban person, that’s part of the edginess of life to me. But to most people it’s fear of the unknown. When it becomes hip and cool to go to a spot people will overlook some of that. The main players in the area have to work together and, God forbid, form a committee. But without that it’s all fragmented and nobody knows what anybody else is doing.”
Dave Sutton, Director of Programs and Facilities at the Salvation Army, says Rosemary’s homeless problem has improved significantly from five years ago. “I think the amount of traffic that we are seeing isn’t the same traffic that we had before. I don’t see the large cluster of drug dealers that I did. We have put in lighting to illuminate the other side of the street so it diminishes the people hanging around.” Sutton agrees with Frary that some dialogue between owners is needed. “We’d be glad to meet with them. It would really do a lot to help with the disdain. If we’re all speaking with one voice, and stop giving them handouts, and just tell them there are services available like the Salvation Army and the Resurrection House. If you give them something they will come back. Just send them to us.”
A meeting of the minds will be a crucial next step in the Rosemary District’s long promised rise to glory. Now that it’s expanding, business owners need to figure out how to get foot traffic from Citrus Square to Central and Fifth, while changing attitudes about the safeness of the neighborhood. Hopefully, by the time the 10th Rosemary Rising rolls around, the district won’t still be up-and-coming.
Rosemary District entrepreneurs Lourdes Castillo, Lori Frary, Kelly Kary, Laura Gale and Derek Barnes (left to right)
Photo by Tim Sukits