Think Daytona Beach and what comes to mind is the Daytona 500. That may be its signature event, but there’s more to the city than a car race. In its long and storied history, the town has given the world such notables as Duane and Gregg Allman (the Allman Brothers), Jackie Robinson, and Denzel Washington. Cuban President Fulgencio Batista holed up there for 8 years before returning to Cuba to seize power in a 1952 coup. Ransom Eli Olds (Oldsmobile), and educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune both called it home; as did novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who lived and wrote in a houseboat on the Halifax River.
Daytona is home to a number of highly regarded museums, and has a boardwalk and pier that rival those of Atlantic City. Six colleges and universities (okay, one of them is a beauty school), are located there, as is the international headquarters for NASCAR.
The city is situated on Central Florida’s “Fun Coast,” approximately one quarter of the distance between Jacksonville to the North and Miami to the South. With a population of just over 61,000, it gives the impression of a small town. There are no tall buildings in its downtown core, which consists of three blocks of 19th and early 20th Century buildings that overlook the Halifax River.
The city’s vermiform contour was of course dictated by its proximity to the beach, which runs its entire length. What tall buildings there are consist almost entirely of hotels and beachfront condos built to accommodate the area’s annual invasion of sun seekers; eight million strong and counting. Major thoroughfares like Atlantic Avenue, Ridgewood Avenues, and Nova Road all run parallel to the beach. Driving the city feels like one long north/south migration.
On the first night we were there, I asked my Cousin Ray’s fiancé Leesa if she could describe for me the city’s ethos. Leesa is a Florida cracker who now lives in Orlando but who owns a beachfront condo in Daytona where she spends a good deal of her time. “Working class,” she said. “Mostly the people who live here are employed in the tourist industry as cooks, maids, hotel staff and so on. Or else they work in shops that cater to tourists.”
Real estate here is surprisingly cheap. A two bedroom house with attached garage within walking distance of the beach will run you somewhere in the vicinity of $125 Large, which is nothing compared to the prices in cities like Houston, Denver, or San Francisco.
Every year in March, Daytona Beach becomes ground zero for bike shows, races, and a biker reunion that rivals the annual blow out in Sturgis, South Dakota. There’s a second such rally in October known as “Biketoberfest,” and on Thanksgiving weekend, the hosts the Turkey Rod Run for hot rod and custom car enthusiasts.
We, however, were not there for anything related to motorcycles or custom cars. We had come to attend a memorial service for my cousin Richard which I wanted to attend because it would offer an opportunity to reconnect with a whole passel of cousins I hadn’t seen in years. The service was scheduled for Saturday in the Community Room of the Daytona Beach Drive in Christian Church, conveniently located directly across Atlantic Ave. from our hotel.
I don’t plan to say much about the service other than that in talking to my cousin’s best friend, I learned that he had once owned a helicopter that he flew single-handedly all the way from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale way back in the early 1960s. Who knew?
The other thing that intrigued me was the setting. I mean, a “drive in church?” I’m not a church-goin’ guy but this was definitely something I wanted to look into. So I made up my mind to attend the 10:00 o’clock service the following morning. Stay tuned for more on that in my next post.