Campfire Magic in Seaside: Come as You Are, Draw Closer and Join In!

Posted on 07.21.13.

Every Sunday at 9:50 a.m. on the Florida Panhandle, a single harmonica, a folk guitar and the 2,500-pound bell of the Seaside chapel join forces to welcome residents and visitors to ‘come as you are, draw closer and join in.’ And though this unique trifecta is only heard once a week, it seems to be the mantra of Seaside, the New Urbanism* community created in 1981. Since then, the master plan has not only delivered, but it has also evolved in a very natural way. The very intentional foundation of this community seems to invite serendipity to happen, and the result is quite special, perhaps even magical.  But as we all know, magic is part intent and part serendipity, and also about being aware, taking time to pause, observe, and listen.

So as I sit here after the service has concluded, I am looking at the chapel and making time for that pause.  What comes to mind is the counterbalance between casual, easygoing feel of Seaside and the very specific vision that it sprang from — the overall layout, the scale of the streets, buildings and open spaces, the hardscape, the specification of only indigenous plantings, and the very intentional absence of lawns.  All these conscious decisions seem to have created fertile ground for serendipity to bloom.  Winston Churchill said, “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.”  The same is true for communities.

In the case of the chapel service, a pure and beautiful sacred space was built and graced with a simple altar and 3’ high, unadorned cross of sand and shells.  These are some of the elements that shape a very unique and special experience. But the magic lies in the unplanned.  As the service is now, each week Bill Evett welcomes people with his folk guitar as they enter.  When the moment seems “right”, Gary Wingo, the minister, makes his entrance — in flip-flops, of course.  And then, to open the service, Bill shifts from guitar to a harmonica solo.  So simple, so pure.  It wasn’t part of Seaside’s master plan, but it seems so right.

The packed pews are evidence, but so is the 11-week baby girl next to me in her dad’s arms and the docile toddler on his grandmother’s lap.  (I hear later that ‘docile’ is the last word his mom would use to describe him!)

As I walk and cycle around Seaside, in flip flops and shorts or sandals and sarong, I can’t help but appreciate the subtle elements, intentional and incidental, that make this place as alluring as a campfire.  Perhaps an unlikely analogy, given the omnipresence of sun, water and sand, but just for a minute, forget about the flames and logs…  and consider how campfires draw us in and how they make us feel — comfortable, content, connected.  Similarly and ever so gently, the magic of Seaside draws you into her own glow; her unique routines; her distinct rhythm.

In earlier days and in nomadic cultures, log-and-sticks campfires were a necessity for survival. In my approach to lifestyle, I talk about a different kind of campfire, one made up of intentional combinations of objects, people, places, memories, routines and even animals.  These campfires are just as important, but on a deeper level, because they strengthen the connections we have with other people, surroundings as well as ourselves.

From what I have experienced, Seaside is a place where newcomers, repeat visitors, homeowners and full-time residents can customize their experience to suit their wants and needs. There are as many Seasides as there are people who enjoy it each year, but a universal experience is bicycles, the ‘go to’ mode of transportation — in addition to flip-flops.

Seaside’s ‘campfires’ say ‘draw closer and join in’… at sunrise, when the birds begin their chatter… a bit later, when Amavida becomes the hotspot with their offerings of coffee, baked goods and the morning paper.  And of course, there is the beach, with crystal clear aquamarine water and sand so fine that it squeaks under your feet, accented by those signature nautical blue canvas Cabana Man umbrellas and chairs!  And no matter on what beach I am, there is something about that buttery afternoon light that washes the sand, the majesty of the sunsets, and even the intimacy of an afternoon shower… But here too, there is the amphitheater and its programming, both scheduled and ad hoc, thanks to the kids that gather there throughout the day.  There’s also the one-of-a-kind shops and galleries (no franchises here, that’s for sure!), Sundog Books, one of those near-extinct bookstores that simply exudes “soul”, and the very cool airstream trailers selling everything from beetlejuice (my drink of choice) to grilled cheese sandwiches (so far, I’ve managed to resist them…), and barbecue (definitely try the smoked turkey leg) – not to mention the Saturday (and summertime Tuesday) weekly farmers’ market that makes ‘eating local’ almost a given.

But as I make my way around the place, taking it all in over a period of days, weeks and seasons, I see deeper layers…  Though it was filmed here, Seaside is the polar opposite of the caricature  town that Jim Carey yearned to escape from in The Truman Show.

Seaside is actually a town full of self-expression, best appreciated on the meandering foot paths and tree-lined side streets (which I’m told, makes walking to the town center, from anywhere, take less than 5 minutes) — and did you know that every home here has a different picket fence?  Meanwhile, have you had Polly do henna for you at her location in Early Morning Hours, the area that connects the town center to Ruskin Square?  (btw, even though she calls them ‘tattoos’, they only last for 2-3 weeks.) And that magnificent grove of twisted oaks in Ruskin Square Park, (which predates Seaside, but was incorporated into the master plan) is the perfect place for any games that kids might concoct or a stolen kiss after dark.  All around this shaded paradise is a profusion of well-positioned benches, tables and chairs (I especially adore those coral red ones in the center) that make for ideal spots to enjoy a totally different kind of energy.

At night, a whole different ambiance emerges, with gently-lit trees and streetscapes pointing the way from the amphitheater to Ruskin Square Park. At either end are two beacons of light which form a north/south axis.  To the south is the tiny post office with its American flag flying high, and to the north is the chapel steeple, lit as well.  They remind me of two parents unobtrusively watching over their little ones.  It’s actually a fitting image for this place, which was named the “#1 beach for families’ by Travel + Leisure magazine in their first-ever “Best-Beaches-on-Earth” survey (January ’13).

Though Seaside was founded in 1981, the bell in the steeple was made in 1925 and was transported to 30A all the way from Elmira, New York.  The bell was definitely not serendipity.  It came from a desire to give a sense of time and place to the community, and every day at noon and at 6 p.m., it rings.  There is something about that constancy, that routine, which assures that this place is going to be continuing to evolve for a long time.  And judging from what’s happened so far, it looks like it’s going to keep getting better and better.

So, come as you are, draw closer — and join in!

* The 10 Guiding Principles of New Urbanism

  1. Walkability
  2. Connectivity
  3. Mixed Use & Diversity
  4. Mixed Housing
  5. Quality Architecture & Urban Design
  6. Traditional Neighborhood Structure
  7. Increased Density
  8. Green Transportation
  9. Sustainability
  10. Quality of Life

* For more on New Urbanism, visit

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2 Responses to “Campfire Magic in Seaside: Come as You Are, Draw Closer and Join In!”

  1. christine says:

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