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Destination Clearwater: Gnomes of Christmas Past

Santa and gnomes have given way to the real estate market.

Used to be, I'd laugh at the Santa in the rowboat every Christmas. With great disdain I'd make snarky comments about the little Santa set adrift on the manmade lake amidst the trailers. Every Christmas he made his appearance on a rowboat in the middle of the retention pond, where he would wait, alone in a red fluffy suit, for his big day.

I would laugh, too, at the mobile homes I called tornado magnets. These little trailers — gussied up with plastic deer and bright ceramic gnomes — represented everything I found wrong with the Sunshine State: cheap housing, easily destroyed by weather, stacking retirees next to each other and too close for my comfort.

I rode through the park only once, as a teenager. On that night I encouraged a friend to help herself to some of the gnomes standing sentinel over people's Florida dreams. We called it "gnoming," a memory of which I am not proud.

After a fashion, it turned out that the largest threat looming over the heads of this trailer park community was not a hurricane, tornado or other act of a less-than-benevolent god. The true threat, it seemed, was an act of real estate. As part of the ever-repeating cycle of Florida real estate, the trailer park sold to a developer with big plans. The Florida dreams of those residents became a casualty of the market as the new property owner forced the retirees out, one by one. In a sad slash of karma, his actions, it seems, were for naught. As part of the same cycle, the economy went bust before the developer could cash in on his own Florida dream.

This afternoon the gated empty grid of crumbly paved roads, collapsing shuffleboard courts, and a lake surrendering to the Florida dreams of the vegetation surrounding it catches my eye. The gate, it seems, is unlocked. With only a moment’s thought about trespassing, I climb out of my car, edge the gate open, and steer my cherry-red Volkswagen around downed palm fronds, potholes, and the odd chunk of concrete.

Every empty lot weaves itself into a cross-stitch of dashed dreams. The only signs of human life are depressingly vacant ones — stripped junction boxes, the shells of lights over shuffleboard courts now separated by Brazilian pepper, and asphalt pads that once served as foundations of homes in paradise.

Looking down each lane at the empty black paved holes dotting each corridor, I can almost picture the way it used to look: white aluminum trailers, decorated in shades of adorable with a hint of cutesy. Ladies in housecoats, watering their daisies and remarking to their neighbor about the mild winter. Men with dark socks under their brown sandals walking to the clubhouse, laughing at their friends stuck shoveling snow in Peekskill. Gnomes, winking in the sunlight and smiling at the flurry of activity from their posts behind azaleas and cabbage palms. Santa, smiling benevolently at the traffic passing him on Gulf to Bay and on Belcher, doing a fine job of ignoring bratty teenagers sneering at the Florida dreams he represents.

I blink my eyes and the gnomes disappear, along with the ladies in their daffodil housecoats and the pudgy, happy grandfathers talking about their slab of paradise. It’s just an overgrown, abandoned lot, waiting for the next economic push to eradicate the shadows of the retirees and grandchildren and yard ornaments. I drive out the warped metal gate and stop to push it shut behind me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a flash of red and a fluff of white. I’m sure it was the blur of a car, or a piece of trash.

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