There is a sleepy historic Florida town off of a swollen part of the St. John’s River in Seminole County known for decades simply as Celery City. As the biggest supplier of celery to most of the country for much of the 20th century, most of the “city” was actually rural, rectangular farms blanketed in a sea of celery green for most of its history. Eventually, those farms gave way to residential homes, each subsequent decade’s distinctive architectural trends radiating out from the city center like rings from an old live oak. By 1974 the celery farms were gone, and the city’s official moniker reverted back to its original name: Sanford.
Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Outside of Central Florida, when I mention I live in Sanford, the response is the same—a look of surprise, like “That Sanford? The one from the news?” And then a pitiful nod. Admit it. You just did it, the pitiful nod. Maybe followed by another nod of acknowledgement, like “Yeah, I did nod pitifully.” Well, stop it. I always wonder whether people pity us because of the bad reputation, the perceived racial unrest, or the fact that I am too proud to know that I live in a town where “stand your ground” forever lives in infamy.
Before it became synonymous with the death of Trayvon Martin, Sanford was where my wife and I had searched for over two years to find a house for sale. We met in Sanford as many as three times a week when we were dating years ago, she coming from Ormond Beach and I from Orlando, and as we’d fallen in love with each other, we also fell in love with Sanford. We even got engaged right outside of the folk art gallery.
Downtown today looks much like I would imagine it did almost 100 years ago—two- and three-story brick buildings and glass storefronts in a thoroughfare dominated by an antique street clock demarcating the center of town. We have an eclectic mix of ethnic restaurants and old-fashioned diners, second-hand and antique stores, and more unique offerings, like a store that sells gourmet marshmallows and a folk art gallery whose exterior walls are an art installation, embedded with toys, knickknacks, and pieces of handmade art. Sanford’s main draws were all quaint, small-town attractions: river cruises on Sanford’s authentic sternwheeler riverboat, the schnitzels at Central Florida’s preeminent German restaurant, Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, and our historic, award-winning homes and sites. Or at least that’s what we thought.
When we finally bought an historic Queen Anne house a few blocks from downtown the day it was listed for sale, people kept telling us it was the “My Girl” house. For months, we were introduced as the people that just bought the “My Girl house.” With the house’s prominent, steeply pitched third-story room not much bigger than a cupola, I assumed that “My Girl” referred to an architectural style. But then one day while I was waiting on the porch for someone from the gas company to come out and run tests so we could move in, I saw a car pull up out front. Three teenagers hopped out. One had a camera and filmed the other two as they acted out a scene of some kind. That was peculiar enough, but then one of them ran screaming while the others giggled. “The bees! The bees are getting him!”
Eventually I connected the dots and asked a neighbor.
“Oh, yeah. Your house was featured in the movie My Girl. It was Macaulay Culkin’s house.”
In fact, much of My Girl was filmed in and around Sanford. I know this because I sped away from my new neighbor to buy a copy of the My Girl DVD, and then took it home and watched it until the scene where Macaulay-Killed By Friggin’ Bees-Culkin showed his face in our new house. I then rewound the scene and re-watched it dozens of times, giggling that a cultural icon of my childhood once acted in our house and, strangely, rubbing my inner thighs in some sort of misguided pop culture ecstasy.
Over the next few weeks, I noticed and sometimes talked to people with maps who were looking for My Girl filming locations. The free-market part of me started brainstorming ways to monetize our newfound glory. My best idea was also the most perverse: The Macaulay Culkin Memorial Bee Garden. I started flagging people down that seemed lost, hoping they were just looking for our house. I remember one guy in particular who had driven down from New York to see all of the filming locations he could find. With a tear in his eye, he told me, “You don’t even know how lucky you are. You’re living in history, man.”
Turns out, we were. But it had nothing to do with an ’80s movie where a boy is killed by bees.
The day we—my wife and 6-month-old daughter, who is now five—moved into our house with the help of some friends, I could hear the echo of some sort of speech or sermon. It came in waves, beckoning me like some distant voice from the past. I took a break from moving boxes and walked toward the sound. The closer I walked, the louder and clearer that voice became. It was Martin Luther King. It wasn’t just the voice that was familiar. It was the speech too. Soon I could hear a crowd cheering and clapping as Dr. King’s deep vibrato thundered forth.
While we knew that George Zimmerman had killed Trayvon Martin weeks earlier, we also knew that it was on the far side of incorporated Sanford, a few hundred feet from Lake Mary, a town that had recently been voted the #1 place to live in the country by some magazine–and not anywhere near the city of Sanford. But as I walked, it occurred to me that I had heard about protests planned for Sanford, and that must be what I was hearing.
When I got to the source of the sound, I found a crowd of people at a park three blocks from our My Girl house. There were lots of people standing around talking, working on huge banners and signs, and organizing newcomers in preparation for, as some of the signs informed me, the arrival of Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton and a scheduled march later that day. Virtually everyone was African American or of color, and there I was, walking unseen like some white ghost through the crowd toward Dr. King’s voice. His voice had become so loud and distorted as to be ubiquitous, surrounding all of us. There were large standing speakers, but the voice didn’t seem to be coming from them.
Then his voice started to move. A skinny, older black man in a tank top, mirrored, over-sized sunglasses, and baggy jean shorts emerged from the crowd on his pimped out red bicycle, which was outfitted with two large wooden boxes that featured two large woofers. On top of the boxes, bookshelf speakers blared Dr. King. The man had what looked to be tin foil wrapped around his wrists and streaked in his high-top fade and some sort of lightning bolt design made of the same tin foil on each box. He slowly rode on the street, circling the park a couple of times, before pedaling off and carrying Dr. King’s words with him.
We are a town living in our own history. A town with churches of all stripe on every other block. We have furniture stores that turn into liquor bars at sundown. We have 4×4 trucks with Confederate flags and vintage Cadillac Broughams with 22-inch rims. We have restaurants that close at 2:30 p.m., monthly street festivals, and almost a dozen craft breweries in a quarter square mile. We have vestiges of native American settlements, Fort Monroe, and historic Goldsboro, once a bustling African-American community. And two theaters, a dance studio, and an annual film festival. And we have a lot of good people—and at least one that has a badass roving Dr. Martin Luther King speech bike.
We are also where a black boy once reacted to being stalked by some wannabe security officer with a gun and didn’t live through it.
We are Sanford.
You can keep the celery.