DUNEDIN, Fla. — The term “founding fathers” generally applies to those gents in powdered wigs and breeches seen in cracked oil paintings adorned with gilded frames. But there I was sitting with a notebook and a growling stomach as a founding father of a small Florida city made me spiced poached pears with homemade cranberry relish, gorgonzola, and walnuts.
I made a quick notation that he was wearing pants, not breeches.
The founding fathers (and mothers) of the west coast city of Dunedin (pronounced done-ee-din) are not the early settlers who officially incorporated the Scottish outpost as a town in 1899. The true founding fathers and mothers arrived in the 1980s and 1990s and placed a defibrillator on the ramshackle downtown until they heard a pulse.
But here’s where the story of Dunedin’s rebirth gets colorful. Many of those founding fathers are gay, and their mark is seen everywhere from the devil-may-care eggplant, acid orange, and bright green buildings that line Main Street, to the annual Mardi Gras parade which draws more than 25,000 revelers. Aside from the party at Universal Studios, Dunedin hosts the largest Mardi Gras celebration in Florida. Bonus: Miss Mardi Gras in Dunedin is always a drag queen.
“There were 11 gay businesses downtown when we moved here in 1997,” said Meranova Guest Inn owner Frank Baiamonte as he cleared away the poached pear plates and turned his attention back to the stove where he was making a second course of egg white omelets with Sicilian eggplant, tomato, and olives. “Isn’t that crazy? It’s so unusual to find in a place like this.”
The city’s 1980s gay roots didn’t just lead to the multihued downtown architecture or the Tuesday night bingo game hosted by bearded drag queen Traila Parks. The unique aesthetic (and one-time low rents) drew merchants who now sell art, vintage goods, home décor, and clothes. With the retail came restaurants, bars, and a very necessary ice cream parlor. There are no chain stores on Main Street. It’s a charm-laden stretch ideal for dilly-dallying on sunny afternoons.
“Who was it who said ‘Gay people didn’t create the world, they just decorated it’? It’s really the truth,” said Gregory Brady, another founding father who heads the city’s merchants association. “There’s no cookie cutter look to our town, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it special.”
Some city officials and residents draw comparisons between their town and Provincetown, or a low-key and much more sober Key West, but neither quite fit. Dunedin has its own off-beat personality, and it’s much more grounded and diverse than either of the aforementioned towns. It’s filled with Canadian families who arrive to watch the Toronto Blue Jays spring training camp, along with Midwestern lesbian snowbirds, and young parents who may be turned off by the frantic pace on Florida’s east coast.
Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski provides insight into the Dunedin mentality when she tells the story of mysterious graffiti artists who started painting oranges on buildings in 2009. While neighboring municipalities were passing ordinances to ban graffiti, Dunedin’s residents were thrilled with the mysterious oranges. The city’s Chamber of Commerce even put a sign on its building reading “Please paint oranges here!”
The identities of the mysterious muralists were soon revealed and they continued to field requests for more oranges. Those oranges have since become a symbol for the town.
Step away from the home décor stores, elaborate planters, and the Friday farmer’s market for a moment and you can see the natural attractions. Honeymoon Island, a 4,352-square-mile state park with four miles of shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico is a short drive from downtown, but its soft sand beaches and deep blue waters look as if they belong in the Caribbean.
From the park it’s a quick ferry ride to Caladesi Island State Park which has even more beautiful white sand beaches, because I honestly believe you can never have enough white sand beaches.
A former railroad corridor is now a 38-mile bike path that runs through Dunedin and other west coast towns forming an extensive trail. It’s also one of the reasons why Dunedin keeps collecting “most walkable city” honors.
After a day communing with nature, I was itching to sample Dunedin’s nightlife. I missed Tuesday bingo, and wasn’t particularly keen to sit in a bar that night. I asked around until I found an activity that sounded as if it were created just for me: Gay bowling.
A more accurate description would have been “everybody bowling.” A cross section of the town was there for cosmic bowling and $1 drinks. It was the first time I had ever seen a drag show at a bowling alley. Those queens worked every inch of the lanes. Monica Moore started twirling around in a bright green fringe dress that make her look like a spinning car wash brush in heels and false lashes. Beverly Wilde wore a massive headpiece that turned her into a disco peacock.
I applauded and yelled for more, all as I said a silent thank you to Dunedin’s founding fathers and mothers for re-establishing a town where rowdy and ribald gay bowling can thrive on an otherwise sleepy Thursday night.Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.