My Sunday Stroll

Today....enjoying the original Gillespie Park neighborhood

The reaction to last weekend’s post about my walk around St. Armands and Lido Keys was so enthusiastic, I’ve decided to make “My Sunday Stroll” a regular Chronicles’ feature. But before I launch into this week’s entry — through the engaging Gillespie Park neighborhood — I want to make my intentions clearer.

Over the past week I received dozens of emails from readers who also make walking, in their own neighborhoods or beyond, a regular part of their routines. Many graciously suggested specific venues, routes, and highlights; a few even offered to take me on guided tours to make sure I didn’t miss their favorite spots.

Much as I appreciated the invitations — and would happily accept them if could just find about four more hours in a day — they made me realize what I had in mind was quite different.

A Sunday stroll, for me, is a solitary affair. It’s random wandering, unexpected discoveries, spontaneous sights and spur-of-the-moment reactions. There’s no list to check off or historical sites that must be appreciated. Instead, you’re guided by fate or whim or necessary detours, while keeping an eye out for the inconspicuous and cultivating a meditative mindset that makes the tiniest trigger a catalyst for contemplation.

In fact, I call it “my” Sunday Stroll intentionally, because that’s all it purports to be. Someone else who covered the same route would come away with an entirely different set of pictures, experiences and contemplations.

A friend who knows of my daily walks on Lido Beach once asked me, “Don’t you get tired of walking the same route every day?” The answer is … never. Because not only does what I see — the sky, the wildlife, the water, the sand — change every day, I am different every day and that alters how I view everything around me.

So understand that my strolls will never be deeply researched, strictly structured or exhaustively informative. That’s the wonderful thing about a Sunday stroll. There’s always plenty left to notice the next time around.

Starting out behind the cottages-turned-businesses that front on Fruitville Ave., the first thing I saw was this graveyard to a Banyan tree that must have been magnificent in its day. Something about its still graceful bones and the cluster of growth at its roots seemed like an apt metaphor for this gentrifying neighborhood, where spruced up classics butt against houses long past their prime and new homes tower over diminutive bungalows.

In the park that gives the neighborhood its name, a raft of ducks paddled away as I approached their pond, but a venerable Muscovy allowed me to come within inches, as if accustomed to posing for the paparazzi. A little girl clutching a plastic bag of old bread took turns taking bites herself and offering pieces to her feathered friends.

At the north end is the dog park, but it was strangely empty when I passed by, save for one lonely looking mutt looking for something to sniff. He pointedly ignored the fake red fire hydrant some canine park designer must have envisioned would be as enticing as the real thing, as if peeing on it would be beneath his dignity.

Nearby is an area devoted to busts of famous patriots (not surprisingly, all men). Though each bears a name and country, there’s no nearby plaque or sign to explain the tribute nor exactly why George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are included in the mix of Hispanic and Latino leaders from Cuba, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico.

My favorite was Cuba’s national hero, the poet Jose Marti, who stonily declined my request for a selfie.

On the opposite end of the park is the butterfly garden, a project underwritten by a county neighborhood grant which I wrote about several years ago. The garden’s design came from a child who, in pre-pandemic days, visited the nearby Reading Room after school. A resident artist helped the neighborhood kids create the pavers that weave through the Florida-friendly, butterfly-loving plants. There was just a solitary Monarch flitting about, but it obligingly posed for me on a color-coordinated bush.

Speaking of the Reading Room, this is obviously a neighborhood that places high value on the written word. The offerings in this take-it-or-leave-it mini-library weren’t my usual fare — I may be the only person in the world who hasn’t read “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” — but I was charmed by an assortment of note cards someone had added to the mix and the idea of brightening someone else’s day with an unexpected message.

If there’s one thing that sets Gillespie Park apart, it’s residents’ fondness for color. Vibrant color. It’s everywhere, from a kaleidoscopic bench to the rainbow of hues that have given vintage Craftsman homes, tucked behind white picket fences, a jazzy new life.

And though he doesn’t live in the neighborhood, on the day I visited local artist William Pearson — aka Doctor Nik or “the bike guy” — had done his part by adding a patriotic splash of red, white and blue.

Anyone who’s meandered down Osprey has likely taken note of these two nautical structures, constructed (by a boat builder) in the ‘30s for the guy who captained John Ringling’s yacht. They made me think of a story I once wrote in Albuquerque about an architect who designed houses “from the inside out” to accommodate the owner’s spatial needs. (Friom the outside, these were pretty bizarre looking structures). Here was an opposite design concept.

I’ve never dared ring the bell and ask for a tour, but I’d always wondered what they must look like inside. So when I saw a man leaning on the railing of the “boathouse” deck, gloomily looking out as if over a stormy sea, I was sorely tempted to call out, “Ahoy cap’n! Permission to come aboard?” Figuring he’d probably already heard enough bad boat jokes to last a lifetime, I thought better of it and moved on.

As I meandered up one street and down the next, I started to become obsessed with another thing…Gillespie Park’s doors. Though I felt a bit voyeuristic pointing my camera at people’s entryways (would someone burst out and tell me to get lost?) I felt compelled to add each new hue to my collection. Though my own neighborhood is hardly as flamboyant, I’ve decided I simply must repaint my front door periwinkle blue.

At the far northwest corner of the neighborhood — actually, technically just outside its boundaries — I found this rare stretch of Sarasota’s original brick pavement. It led me to The Children’s Garden, tucked just behind the Westcoast Black Theater Troupe’s home. If you have grandchildren and have not yet visited this delightful haven with them, you should. Better yet, you should loan them to me so I can take them.

What else? A stunning yard of flowers, a colorful aerie with an exotic bird and beckoning steps and a bed of pottery posies. Each one made me wish I owned the home it was attached to.

As I headed back to where I’d begun, I heard someone call out, “Hello young lady!”

The gentleman was sitting on his porch, trying to fold a voluminous paint-speckled drop cloth without rising from his chair. I looked around for the “young lady” and, seeing no one, decided he must mean me.

“Come on over here,” he said, waving me closer. “I don’t bite.”

He said his name was Jessie and he’d lived in Gillespie Park for 30 years. “This is low-income housing,” he said,nodding over one shoulder to the modest home behind him which looked badly in need of TLC. “I finally paid it off.”

His cousin, Vernice, who was helping with some ceiling repairs, came over to help fold the dropcloth. She urged me to come closer too, saying, “It’s OK. He don’t bite.”

We talked for a while — well, Jessie talked — and then I asked for a picture. They posed awkwardly a foot apart. I suggested Vernice move in a little closer. “It’s OK,” I told her. “They tell me he doesn’t bite.”

When I asked Jessie how his neighborhood had changed over those three decades, his volubility suddenly disappeared. Just when I’d concluded he wasn’t going to answer he finally said, “Everything’s changed.”

I thought about that as I walked past one of the newest additions to the neighborhood. With its sharp angles, muted palette and boxy structure, it looked a lot like a doctor’s office. It made me worry about what Gillespie Park was going to look like in another 30 years.

Just before I got to my car, I spied this sign. If only for a moment, it made me feel a little more optimistic.

I’ve decided what we all need is a little more color in our lives.