Sunday, November 19, 2017
Human Interest

They paved paradise — and put up a memorial to what's under the parking lot

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If you drive in Florida, you're familiar with Traffic Jam Season, which is what other parts of the country call fall and winter. This is the time of year when, instead of leaves turning color or snowflakes tumbling out of the sky, we see a sudden influx of Bob's Barricades and paving crews languidly waving you along.

Traffic Jam Season forces you to stop and smell the asphalt, to memorize the 800 number for Bob's merchandise and to note the differences between Florida license plates (126 kinds) and Canadian license plates (one, period).

I got stuck in one such jam on Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg not long ago, and because I had the time to study my surroundings, I made a startling discovery.

On the side of an overpass being built, workers had installed some decorative concrete tiles. The tiles were in groupings of three. They offered silhouettes of a manatee, a sea turtle and a pelican.

As I sat there listening to my engine whine, the sight of these shadowy apparitions made me wonder: Is Florida the only state where we memorialize our endangered species as part of the process of covering our landscape with concrete?

It could be worse. At least they aren't using actual manatees and sea turtles to create the molds. (I think.)

And to be fair, the Florida Department of Transportation isn't paving over where the manatees and sea turtles live.

But a friend of mine in Central Florida reports that highways in that region feature images of sandhill cranes soaring over a field of palmettos. Now guess what was there before the asphalt.

The DOT has been using these kinds of tiles for about five years, agency spokeswoman Kris Carson told me. As it builds more highways, the agency works with local officials "to see what their vision is for their community and what aesthetics we can include in our projects."

In other words, you get to pick what critters you'd like to see cast in concrete, forever frozen in place, like a statue in reverse.

Some of the DOT's tiles are produced by a Maryland company, Creative Design Resolutions, which calls itself "an industry leader in the exploration and development of context sensitive aesthetic transportation design."

What does that mean? According to its website, the company makes "site-specific aesthetic treatments that respect and engage the community's history, values, and surrounding environment and architecture."

In other words, the tiles are a lovely reminder of what the overpass is covering.

This shouldn't surprise me. I'm a native Floridian, and if you grow up here, you'll never suffer from an irony deficiency.

I was talking about this the other day with another native I know, a guy named Dexter. He grew up in Cape Canaveral. He remembers when he was 8 or 9 years old selling Apollo pins to the tourists who showed up for moon shots — earning pin money in the most literal sense.

Dexter said he had decided that growing up in Florida is like being the kid who saw dead people in the movie The Sixth Sense. You're constantly seeing things nobody else sees, things that used to exist but aren't there anymore. You remember the fragrant citrus grove that became a strip shopping center. The rococo hotel torn down to build glass-and-steel condos. The shady cattle pasture that became a sun-baked parking lot.

There are often little reminders of what has disappeared. Every Floridian usually can name at least five local subdivisions that were named after the things they wiped out — Panther Trace, Osprey Landing, Cypress Lakes and so forth.

My all-time favorite example is a country club in Naples with an 18-hole golf course, four tennis courts, five heated pools and the most perfect name ever: Wilderness.

Compared to that, the overpass tiles seem all right. It's good to look up from a backed-up, bird-flipping traffic jam and remember there's a lot more to this state than asphalt.

As long as we still have the real wildlife around — not just its concrete ghost.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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