April 19, 2024

Urban Living Celebrating 50 Years

Tale of Two Neighborhoods

Two Florida communities -- unlike demographically and geographically -- followed similar paths as they declined, then rose again over the past 50 years. Today, they face the same challenges going forward.

Cynthia Barnett | 9/1/2008

Lake Eola/Thornton Park: 1980s-90s

Thornton Park
The Lake Eola/Thornton Park neighborhood is on the eastern side of downtown Orlando. [Map: ESRI, TeleAtlas]

Azalea Park
Beautiful parks with streams and footbridges had become hot spots for prostitution, neighbors say. [Photo: Orlando Sentinel/George Skene]
Lake Eola/Thornton Park: By the 1980s, the Macnamaras had a son. But the neighborhood was beginning to seem like a rotten place to raise kids. Many of the area’s parks, says Sue Macnamara, including the lush Dickson Azalea Park and Langford Park near their home, had become hot spots for prostitution. The flashing blue lights of police cars appeared as regularly as the green lights in the Lake Eola fountain. Craig Ustler, now 39, was growing up in nearby College Park. He says parents admonished their high school-aged children not to go near what they derisively called “Lake Eerie-ola.” As residents continued to move out or die off, some homes were boarded up or turned into rentals. Boarding houses popped up along the brick streets. “It got close to being a slum,” says Sue Macnamara.

Sue Macnamara
Fed up with the area’s decline, longtime resident Sue Macnamara led a drive to get parts of the neighborhood designated historic sites. [Photo: Gregg Matthews]
But by the end of the decade, a variety of revitalization efforts began building — led by then-Mayor Bill Frederick and others like the Macnamaras. For her part, Sue Macnamara, fed up with the prostitutes still hanging out in the park across the street from her house, began going door to door, finding neighbors to sign petitions and help her get parts of the area — like the quaint Washington Street Bridge with its white pillars — designated historic sites. This period also saw the first wave of young, white-collar newcomers — many gay — who were sick of urban sprawl and seeking more “authentic” neighborhoods. They began buying and fixing up the quaint bungalows.

One of those young people was Phil Rampy. Soon, he and Ustler, his neighbor, had become a two-man gentrification team. “Back then we were buying them for $50,000, fixing them up on weekends, and selling them for $150,000,” says Ustler. In 1996, Winter Park restaurateur Dexter Richardson took a chance when he opened a Dexter’s restaurant at 808 Washington St. — the former site of Orlando’s first Publix, which had opened in January 1940. The neighborhood was achieving critical mass.

Livingston Street 1989
In the 1980s, some of the neighborhoods east of downtown were sorely in need of investment. They would soon get a big shot of it. [Photo: Orlando Sentinel/John Raoux]

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