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    Unhappy with Clearwater? Take time to look around you

    By DIANE STEINLE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 19, 2001


    This summer the Times has asked its readers in several North Pinellas communities a simple question: What do you think of when you think about your city?

    People in Largo, Dunedin, Palm Harbor, Tarpon Springs and Oldsmar wrote in by the droves, and nearly to a person, they had wonderful things to say about those places.

    The tone changed considerably when we asked people what they think of Clearwater.

    Some had good memories of Clearwater decades ago, and others mentioned beaches and sunsets and friendly neighborhoods as reasons they still live here. But many respondents had nothing good to say about Clearwater.

    A sample:

    "I think of Nazi Germany."

    "Continually misses the mark."

    "Scientology and more Scientology."

    "Intolerance and snobbery."

    "Poor man's Disney World of plastic and concrete."

    "Invaded by greedy politicians, merchants and developers."

    "A paradise lost."

    A few letters were too nasty to print.

    I read the letters and I was perplexed. How could it be that a city sought out by vacationers from all over the world is regarded as so awful by people who live here?

    Clearwater is a safe city to live in compared with many cities in America. It has good schools. It has nice neighborhoods. It has one of the best urban beaches in the country. It has a great library system, parks, busy community centers, good health care facilities, affordable housing and loads of entertainment opportunities in the city or nearby. It isn't plagued by organized crime or lots of gang activity, it doesn't have large slum areas, and it doesn't have high unemployment.

    When I moved to Clearwater in 1985, I was impressed by all those plusses and by how many Clearwater residents told me it was a great place to live.

    What happened?

    Granted, the traffic in Clearwater is bad, but it is just as bad in Largo and Palm Harbor and that hasn't soured the attitudes of people who live in those places.

    Scientology is a complication, but it is, after all, only one component of this multifaceted community.

    The city is experiencing some growing pains because it is now built out and redevelopment is beginning. That sort of change is difficult for some people, but surely few would prefer redevelopment's alternative: stagnation and decline.

    City government has had some problems, but most of those were confined to the decade of the 1990s. Before that, Clearwater's government was held up as a model.

    I have wondered if the phenomenon we are observing in Clearwater is similar to one we see among newspaper readers who say, "There's nothing in the paper but bad news." If we ask people who say that to point to the stories that are bad news, they soon discover that most stories in the daily paper aren't "bad news," but are just informational. But we humans, being the morbid folk that we are, are drawn to the "bad" stories like a moth to the flame. The crime stories, the sex stories, the corruption stories are the first ones we read and the ones we remember most.

    Could it be that in Clearwater, people have grown so accustomed to focusing on things they perceive as negative, such as the roundabout and Scientology, that they have stopped noticing the good stuff?

    In the interest of helping those people remember all that is good about living in Clearwater, I offer the following suggestions.

    A little while before sunset, go to Coachman Park on the downtown waterfront or to the beach. With that wide-open view of the sky, watch the fluffy clouds change color -- from bright-white, to pink and lavender, to gray and finally, to inky midnight blue.

    Open your windows on a Saturday morning and listen to the sounds of your neighbors getting up and starting work in their yards and in their garage workshops. They sound so . . . productive.

    Pick out a high school near your home and go to a Friday night football game. The games start at 7:30 p.m., and it will cost you only a few bucks for parking and admission. Buy a hot dog or popcorn at the concession stand. Listen to the band music. Watch the players' effort on the field and the fun in the stands. You may find yourself drawn back there next Friday.

    Go to Countryside Mall and buy a bag of your favorite candy from a candy shop, then sit on a bench beside the ice skating rink and watch the young skaters try to stay on their feet. Feeling adventurous? Try it yourself.

    After dark, walk to the end of Pier 60 in Clearwater Beach (stopping along the way, of course, to peer into anglers' buckets and ask them if they are having any luck). Turn around and look back toward the land. Looks cool, doesn't it?

    Go to Barnes and Noble Booksellers on a Friday or Saturday night. It is one of the most popular date spots in town for couples young and old. Drink a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, settle into a comfortable chair, read a magazine.

    Pack up some bagels and cream cheese and a Thermos of fresh-squeezed orange juice and have a breakfast picnic in a city park. I recommend Lake Chautauqua Park off Landmark Drive or Crest Lake Park. It will get your day off to a fine start.

    About 30 minutes before dusk, settle into a lawn chair in your yard. Sit quietly and listen to the frogs and insects starting their night music. It's the best time of the day.

    If you can spare an hour or two a week, go to a school near your home or workplace and ask if they need a volunteer. If you don't want to volunteer at a school, try the library or Meals on Wheels. Whatever you do, it will be important.

    Drive slowly across the Sand Key Bridge. At the top, where the view is best, look left and right. When you get to the other side, drive back. Just look.

    After you have done these things, if you don't feel that Clearwater is pretty fine -- well, maybe you are living in the wrong place.

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