Apalachicola’s historic plat distinguishes us from every other town or city along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Its preservation is crucial to our economic prosperity.
What is a plat? It is a deliberate design of the way land is to be used; the relative divisions between public and private spaces and the sizes, location and amounts of each. We are blessed to have had our town’s plat laid out in 1836, with its streets and alleys, squares and parks, and plenty of room for churches and public buildings.
Residential lots were five to a side, in blocks bisected by an alley down the middle of each block. Commercial and wharf blocks were narrow and long, with their short ends facing the river. All the areas were tied together by wide avenues and equally spaced side streets, punctuated by squares and parks. Stroll around any part of the historic plat today, and your eyes will confirm that it has remained remarkably intact for the last 183 years.
Viewed through a contemporary lens, the historic plat is still a good city design. The arrangement of lots and alleys allows houses and porches to face each other, thereby encouraging visiting, walking, and yes, slow golf-carting through the residential areas. The alleys confer both privacy and proximity; many are lined with oyster shells providing a unique, intriguing vista that proclaims our link to the bay.
Squares and parks sprinkled throughout the town are places for residents and visitors to congregate and relax. The annual African-American History Festival held in Franklin Square springs to mind. If restored, and enhanced, the squares could become even more magnetic mini destinations. The parks speak for themselves. Who has not strolled by Lafayette Park on a crisp fall Saturday and caught a glimpse of a beautiful wedding unfolding or listened to happy children on the playground equipment?
Our civic identity embedded in our historic plat is a vital key to our future economic prosperity. We have been a shipping port, a timber town, a sponge town, an oyster town, and now we are a tourist town. People want to visit here, and move here, to relax on our beaches, fish in our waters, and drink in our history so plainly visible here.
That translates into dollars flowing into our local economy. Based on statistics kept by Visit Florida, the state agency responsible for promoting and monitoring the economic impact of tourism, in 2015 the direct dollar impact of tourism in Franklin County was $94 million, or roughly 30 percent of Franklin County’s total economy. Add to that the underlying goods and services that support tourism and the amplifying effect of wages spent locally by those who work in the hospitality industry and the percentage increases to 40 percent.
So along with our favorable location on the bay, and close to the beach, the historic plat is one of our most precious economic assets, and we all have a stake in preserving it. We must realize that closing streets and alleys, or letting the squares lose their distinctiveness, not only diminishes the legacy we pass on to future generations, it’s not a smart economic move for the city. And once gone, any part of the historic plat would be very difficult to recover.
Upscale developments like Seaside attempt to establish what Apalachicola never lost. Let’s do everything we can to preserve our legacy, because we value our history, and because it is crucial to our economic prosperity now and in the future.
Bonnie E. Davis is president of Historic Apalachicola Plat Preservation, Inc., or HAPPI.