By Thomas Swick
“Nooks and crannies,” my friend Don said, in the tone of someone imparting a secret. “Boca is all about nooks and crannies.”
It certainly sounded revelatory, if not revolutionary, to me, who had always thought of Boca in terms of wide open boulevards and showcase public spaces. In the early ’90s I would drive up to Mizner Park, the instant downtown of shops, restaurants, and residences that had recently been built (a good few years before the term “mixed-use” began tripping off of urban planners’ tongues). The pink walls overlooking green lawns gave the place a Lilly Pulitzer feel, while the bookstore Liberties served as a gathering spot for the well-read of at least two counties. Mizner Park became an evening destination, a less frenetic alternative, for people in Broward, to the walkability of South Beach.
Liberties eventually closed while, at the other end of the Park, an amphitheater was built for concerts and events.
The great Boca landmark, of course, is the Boca Raton Resort & Club, which, while tucked away, hardly qualifies as the occupant of a nook. Not long ago Don had given me a tour of the grand hotel – designed by Addison Mizner (as the Cloister Inn) as if inspired by Wes Anderson – leading me through the elegant public rooms, past the cozy Monkey Bar, and around the lush grounds where we walked in a glory of pink and green. Boca took storybook colors and made them everyday.
Today, Don asked if I’d like to start our tour at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center by the beach. The naturally preserved shoreline is one of Boca’s great achievements and assets – environmental, scientific, scenic – but it’s visible to everyone who drives A1A. I wanted to see what I hadn’t seen in a quarter century of visiting the city.
We turned south off of Palmetto Park Road into Royal Palm Place, the “other” downtown. If the two were gardens, Mizner Park would be French – with its formal elegance – while Royal Palm Place would be English, with its planned “haphazardness” of curved walkways that turn into hidden courtyards. Though now, along Palmetto, new condos are going up and giving the north end of the complex straight lines as well as a true city feel. The Mark, with 208 residential units, is due to open this summer.
I had eaten lunch here a few days earlier – a delicious kale and cauliflower salad at the Farmhouse Kitchen – and attended a Monday night jam session at the Funky Biscuit, where musicians wandered in with instrument cases, greeted friends and conjured images of Nashville or Austin. Appropriately, the Funky Biscuit seemed a more down-home version of Jazziz Nightlife in Mizner Park.
So I knew the place, or thought I did, until Don drove me to one section I’d overlooked and pointed out The Breakfast & Lunch Club, a popular spot, he told me, for locals to gather.
We continued south on Federal Highway, past the new Trader Joe’s, and then made a right to see the old offices of Addison Mizner that have been turned into a banquet facility. (Called The Addison and not, thankfully, Architect Add’s.)
Don continued west to the entrance of the Camino Gardens development, explaining that it occupied the site of the old wildlife tourist attraction, Africa USA. Heading north, we passed City Hall, bulked up banyans shading the parking lot, and then got onto Dixie Highway until we came to a sign that read “Pearl City – Est. 1915.”
We turned into the historic African-American neighborhood, which I had never seen (despite driving by an identical sign on Federal Highway dozens of times). I recognized a church, from pictures in a book back at Don’s house, as the old Macedonia A.M.E. church. A few blocks away stood Ebenezer Baptist Church; a plaque on the wall noted that the church was organized in 1918 and that the current sanctuary was built in 1954. The small enclave, with its modest houses and its Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, sat like a venerable, unvarnished island in the middle of the manicured city.
Don headed into a warehouse district and stopped in front of the Warehouse Pub. The patrons, he assured me, were as direct and unpretentious as the name. Then he asked: “Do you want to see the Muslim area?”
I knew Boca had a sizable Jewish population. Out west on Yamato Road (Yamato being the ancient name for Japan, and the name that early Japanese settlers to the area gave their farming colony) you pass the Congregation B’nai Israel synagogue which, along with St. David Armenian Apostolic Church, St. Mark Greek Orthodox Church, and the First Baptist Church, forms an eclectic Religious Row. But I had never seen the city’s mosque.
“There are two,” Don said, as we drove in the direction of Florida Atlantic University. Soon a green and white minaret, and a brilliant green dome, came into view, part of the Islamic Center of Boca Raton. The grounds, on this Friday afternoon, were filled with parked cars.
Don knew this area well because he is an active participant in the university’s Lifelong Learning Society. For years I have heard him rave about his professors (a retired high school teacher, he can recognize excellence in the classroom). This past semester he came three days a week to the campus (home of the Army Air Corps during World War II) and took courses with titles like Religious Pragmatism; A Sociological Look at Modern Economics, Politics and Psychology; Critical Challenges to American National Security; and William Faulkner. The professor teaching this last course had written his dissertation on Faulkner at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. When the football stadium came into view, Don mentioned that he had attended this past December’s first Boca Raton Bowl. (Boca now has a bowl in addition to a burger.)
The Boca Corporate Center and Campus stretched along Yamato Road, a little west of I-95. This, too, I had passed numerous times, but had never turned in because I hadn’t known that it was the former headquarters of IBM, the place where the first personal computer was created. The buildings, with their fancifully brutalist façades, encircled a lake in a scene out of a mid-century World’s Fair. Even now, they looked like worthy witnesses to a major achievement.
Back on Palmetto, heading toward downtown, Don made a left turn in front of a historical sign that identified the place as Old Floresta. This was getting ridiculous; how many signs had I missed in 25 years? Reading, I learned that the neighborhood had been established by Mizner in 1925 (the same year Boca was incorporated as a city) to house executives in his company. The streets were shaded, some by live oaks, and many of the houses were Mediterranean in style. It reminded me of a smaller, more modest Coral Gables and was a welcome corrective – like this tour – for someone who’d always thought of Boca as new.
“Now we’ll go to Bibletown,” Don said, as if we were driving in east Tennessee. His ability to astound seemed to know no bounds. The official name, Don explained, had been the Winter Bible Conference Grounds, and it served as an Evangelical winter retreat. “It’s on the highest ridge in probably all of South Florida.”
We actually did climb Northwest Fourth Avenue. “You’re probably feeling holier already,” Don said. The Boca Raton Christian School appeared on our right, and then, on our left, the Boca Raton Community Church. “This was the auditorium,” Don said, pulling into the church parking lot. “It was the biggest auditorium in Boca. There was an orchestra that put on concerts. I was a teenager living in Pompano and I’d come up and play the trombone. You’d go to Boca, you’d go to Bibletown.”
Coming down Northwest Fourth Street, Don pointed out one of the original buildings, a low, barracks-like structure redeemed by a long, ground-level porch. An old sign hanging from the roof read “Wesley Hall.” (A new sign on the wall read “Iglesia Hispana de Boca Raton.”) It was easy to picture good, God-fearing couples sitting in rockers on warm February evenings.
The tour had now taken on the semblance of a dream, the one that finds you in a well-known place where all the familiar landmarks have been replaced by unrecognizable streets and buildings.
Down off the ridge we came to the Tim Huxhold Skate Park and Shuffleboard Courts, catering admirably to young and old (though empty of both this afternoon), and then passed the Children’s Museum which occupied, Don said, one of the oldest houses in Boca.
We made a right turn and emerged back into the city I knew, the one of wide boulevards and meticulously landscaped grounds. I recognized a parking garage and realized that Bibletown was only four blocks west of Mizner Park. As we cut through, I thought I caught the reassuring sparkle of a sequined sweater.
IF YOU GO
The Boca Raton
Resort & Club
501 E. Camino Real,
1801 N. Ocean Blvd.,
399 SE Mizner Blvd.,
303 SE Mizner Blvd., 561-395-2929, funkybiscuit.com
Ebenezer Baptist Church
200 NE 12th St., 561-391-7357
Islamic Center of Boca Raton
3480 NW Fifth Ave., 561-395-7229, icbr.org
Lifelong Learning Society,
Florida Atlantic University, 777 Glades Road, CEH 31D, 561-297-3171, fau.edu/divdept/lifelong
498 Crawford Blvd.,
One-stop luxury shopping, now under one roof
Boca Raton is now home to a store where one can purchase rare timepieces, fine diamonds, exotic cars, or arrange for an excursion on a mega-yacht or private jet – all under one roof.
The 4,500-square-foot store, ECJ Luxe Collection, the retailer’s third location, opened in February in Mizner Park. ECJ Luxe Collection, which also has showrooms on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach and Sunny Isles Beach, is an expansion of East Coast Jewelry, a family-owned firm that has been in business in South Florida since 1986. The owners wanted to create a one-stop shopping destination for luxury buyers, so they partnered with the Fort Lauderdale Collection and Apollo Jets to also offer customers luxury automobiles and private flights, respectively. Yachts can be booked right there at the store by any of the associates, too.
“In building ECJ Luxe, our goal was to create something that has never been done, an ultimate luxury shopping experience,” CEO Bobby Yampolsky says.
ECJ Luxe is an authorized dealer for brands such as Audemars Piguet, Ulysse Nardin, Casato, Chimento, Daum Crystal and Lalique.
For more information call 800-329-8463 or visit ecjluxe.com.
– Robyn A. Friedman