The city of Delray Beach, Florida represents a world of two distinct realities
for two distinct groups of people: those of upper income and those of middle
to low income. The current trends that are shaping the downtown section
of this city of over 50,000 inhabitants are both wonderful and tragic—depending
on whom you ask.
The city of Delray Beach was established in 1895 by a group of Michigan
pioneers led by William Linton and David Smith, prompted in part by Henry
Flagler’s East Coast Railroad that opened up much of South Florida to travel.
The economic boom of the 1920s led to an increase in housing, commerce,
and tourism along the town’s main road, Atlantic Avenue. The warm South
Florida climate and beaches soon turned Delray Beach into a winter resort,
transforming it from a small farming community into a bustling city. Many
of the northern visitors, when faced with the prospect of returning to
the colder northern climate, decided to remain in South Florida, and many
of those visitors made Delray Beach their permanent home.
While the Great Depression did not affect Delray directly, the later shifts
in the economy during the 1980s hit Delray Beach hard. The decrease in
revenue and tourism affected Delray much more than its neighbors to the
north (West Palm Beach) and the south (Boca Raton, Miami Beach). At the
same time numerous outlying shopping malls in Delray closed, and many businesses
within those malls left the city for more prosperous areas. With a decrease
in tourism, investment, and revenue, Delray Beach fell vacant.
It was at this time that the political situation in Haiti under the “Baby
Doc” Duvalier regime forced thousands of Haitians to flee the island, bringing
approximately 50,000 Haitian refugees to South Florida. The low housing
costs of an empty Delray Beach provided a place for the immigrants to live.
However, local racial discrimination caused these people to keep a low
profile, and their presence was not felt by the larger community until
It was soon after these events that a Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA)
was formed by the city to begin a renewal process in Delray Beach in an
effort to bring back the business that fled the decaying city years earlier.
While the houses in the city were full, the retail sector was half empty.
The area of Delray Beach between George Bush Boulevard (8th Street) to
the north and Linton Boulevard to the south, and east of Congress Avenue
to the beach can be categorically divided according to ethnicity, and,
correspondingly, to class. Using George Bush and Linton Boulevards as the
north and south borders (respectively) for our area study, housing between
Congress Avenue (western border) and Swinton Boulevard (to the east) primarily
contains lower-middle class African Americans. Going further east, between
Swinton and Federal Highway, the composition becomes more lower/lower-middle
class Haitian and Latino. East of Federal Highway (and as a six lane highway,
Federal Highway serves as a very physical border) to the Intracoastal Waterway
the area becomes upper-middle to upper class white. East of the Intracoastal
to the ocean is upper- class white.
All along the stretch of Atlantic Avenue, between Congress Avenue to the
west and Federal Highway to the east, the African American, Haitian, and
Latino shops are being evicted by the CRA under the auspices of “eminent
domain,” a process by which the CRA could buy property from willing or
unwilling sellers. Four months ago, a person driving down Atlantic Avenue
would have seen the same vacant, empty town that existed in the 1980s.
But the modern day trail of tears does not stop with the commercial zone
along Atlantic Avenue. Situated one block to the north and south of Atlantic
begins the residential zone. As the shops close, the encroachment of new
business and revenue pushes deeper into the community spurred on by the
“eminent domain” of the CRA buying select pieces of land so that the draw
of the new investors will not be hampered by the existence of a lower-middle
The revitalization of Delray Beach is occurring at the expense of not only
the taxpayers of Delray, but also the livelihood and housing of the nearly
18,000 non-white citizens of the city.
Walk into the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce and ask to see what information
they have regarding the recent changes in the city. You will be inundated
with magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and recent books all reporting
that Delray Beach is a much better city in the 1990s than it was in the
1970s and 1980s. Then the city held “a Sunday night drug party,” now “Atlantic
Avenue hosts a people party. Music, food, strolling, and shopping are today’s
turn-ons.” Then “Delray Beach was a ghost town,” now the city has been
declared “The Best-Run Town in Florida,” and an “All America City.” Then
there was “government against special interests, rich against poor, and
east against west.” Now there is “a restored and revitalized Atlantic Avenue,
the gateway to Delray Beach…a magnet for residents and tourists who like
to stroll, browse, dine, and shop. The avenue teems with people caught
up in its vitality.”
This is what is officially reported and to a certain extent this is all
very true. There was a considerable crime and drug problem in Delray Beach
in the 1980s. Shops and storefronts did stand vacant along much of Atlantic
Avenue, and tourists were few and far between. The problem with the current
reporting on Delray Beach’s changes is that it highlights the benefits
and totally disregards the harm that has been done. The makeover of Atlantic
Avenue is nearly complete and the renewal is currently advancing into the
homes in the neighborhoods next to Atlantic. The question remains—when
will the encroachment end? How many more neighborhoods will find that their
property has been sold from under them to make room for the new professional/managerial/business
class needed to run the new revitalized Delray Beach? Where will those
who have been forced out go? The surrounding cities have either undergone
or are undergoing their own revitalizations.
The new Delray Beach is better for those of middle to middle-upper class,
also known as those who do not live in the growing revitalization zone.
But for those who wake in the morning to find gentrification lapping at
their doorsteps, Delray Beach is anything but an All America City. Z
Michael Demers is a visual artist and author currently working in Germany
His works center on social and political themes.