Archive for August, 2012

The Evolving Identity of Orlando's Little Vietnam

In the 1970s, thousands of Vietnamese war refugees fled their native land, desperately seeking a new beginning, free of political persecution for themselves and their children. Many of those refugees settled just north of downtown Orlando and began opening businesses and revitalizing a fairly lackluster part of the city.

Now, dozens of Asian restaurants, shops and markets line a 10-block stretch of Orlando’s Colonial Drive near Mills Avenue. Though most of the storefronts are decorated with Vietnamese characters, there is no shortage of Chinese, Thai, Korean and other Asian establishments. A stroll through the area also reveals an impressive number of Asian-owned medical and dental offices, nail salons, travel agencies, health food centers, martial arts studios, Boba tea shops and music and video stores. There's even a karaoke bar and a martial arts weapons store.

This area, home to the largest Vietnamese community in the state, once was called “Little Vietnam” by locals and visitors. Recently, however, the neighborhood was rebranded the “Mills 50 District,” as part of the Orlando Main Street Program. The new name reflects the major intersection here – Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive (SR 50) – but it doesn't quite capture the essence of the area.

It is a place that beckons to visitors, a genuine and real-life attraction just a short drive from the nearby theme-park wonderlands.
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The Orlando Main Street Program was designed to spur economic development in and attract new residents to some of Orlando's commercial districts. Mills 50 plans to achieve these goals by helping new and existing businesses resolve permitting and other issues and by promoting those businesses through the use of social media, according to Joanne Grant, executive director of Mills 50 Main Street Co.

Mills 50 also is busily improving the district's visual appeal by commissioning local artists to paint utility boxes at intersections throughout the district. Next on the agenda are murals for the sides of some of the area businesses, Grant says.

While this seems wholly beneficial on the surface, some residents of Little Vietnam are concerned that not enough is being done to highlight the distinctive culture and history of the area.

Tony Nguyen of Tien Hung Jewelry has some concerns. He says that while the rebranding has not directly affected his business, he thinks more could be done to draw attention to the area and bring in tourists interested in experiencing what he considers the only Asian destination in Central Florida.

Nguyen worries that the Asian character of the area has “gotten a little dim” since the rebranding, but he thinks the painted utility boxes and other artistic enhancements are beautiful and give the area a “nice twist compared to other Asian areas around the U.S.”

Grant believes that any improvements to the area make the district more inviting and result in increased car and pedestrian traffic. And she has a point: More traffic means more business for everyone in the district.

But one central concern seems unrelated to any potential loss of business – and more related to potentially lost identity. Little Vietnam represents one of the oldest Vietnamese communities in the United States and is a rare example of a predominantly Asian-American community in Florida. Perhaps more Asian-themed art and community events would ease concerns of the Vietnamese business owners and other local residents.

At least one Asian event organized by the district has been a huge success, according to both Grant and Nguyen. In February 2012, an estimated 3,000 people lined up to watch a dragon-led lunar New Year parade and festival organized by the Mills 50 District and the Chinese American Association of Central Florida. Grant says the district intends to make it an annual event. Also being discussed is an Asian mural to adorn the side of a prominent building at the intersection of Mills and Colonial.

And some visitors say Little Vietnam is impossible to obscure, no matter what changes are made to the area around it.

“It's like a scaled-down version of New York's Chinatown,” says Stephanie Sterrett, a graphic designer and frequent visitor to Little Vietnam. “You can't miss the brightly colored signs and Asian characters, or the delicious smell of Chinese and Vietnamese food as you drive or walk by.”

Sterrett recommends dinner at Little Saigon or Anh Hong and banh mi at Boston Bakery & Cafe. If you want to buy authentic Vietnamese ingredients to make your own dinner, Saigon Market and Phuoc Loc Tho Super Oriental Market have an impressive inventory. Or, head up Mills Avenue and wander inside Dong-A Supermarket for a great selection of Asian foods, including fresh meat, seafood and produce.

Don't forget to peruse Little Vietnam's fashion stores and collectible shops – you won't find more authentic goods at better prices anywhere. Plus, many of the markets carry sake flasks and novelty items that make unique gifts for loved ones. Finish your day with a delicious Boba tea or smoothie from Lollicup Coffee & Tea.

And remember: As is the case with most Chinatowns and other Asian-American areas, many of Little Vietnam's greatest treasures are hidden from the main street. Tien Hung Jewelry, for example, is easy to miss as part of the larger Tien Hung Market on Colonial. So, if you really want to explore the neighborhood, wander the side streets and look inside every building before you leave.

To sample some of Mills 50's other offerings after exploring Little Vietnam, enjoy some live music at Will's Pub on Mills and then visit Bananas Modern American Diner for a tasty late-night milkshake. And while you're there, consider the contrast between what was and what is becoming.

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Photo: Dining at Orlando’s Little Saigon Restaurant

Two diners enjoy their meal at Little Saigon Restaurant, found in Orlando’s Little Vietnam district.

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Photo: Health Food City Store

Two women at work in the Health Food City Store, one of many shops located in Orlando’s Little Vietnam neighborhood.

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Photo: Shopping at Orlando’s Dong-A SuperMarket

Shelves are crowded with everything from fresh fish to flowers, dried fruits and medicines at Dong-A SuperMarket in Orlando’s Little Vietnam.

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Photo: Orlando’s Dong-A SuperMarket

Shoppers browse for a plethora of items inside Dong-A SuperMarket, part of the Little Vietnam district in downtown Orlando.

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Indian Temple Mound & Museum: A Part of the Past in Fort Walton Beach

When you drive along Highway 98 in Fort Walton Beach, there's a chance you may miss something that is really something.

On the north side of the 100 block of the Miracle Strip Parkway (aka Highway 98) is a large earthen mound built by the Pensacola culture, Indians who lived here and built this around 800 CE (or perhaps 1600 CE, no one knows). Either way, this was a center of religious, political, and social activity and is still considered a sacred burial ground. One of the largest mounds found by saltwater, this has a footprint of about 50,000 square feet, a width of 223 feet, and a height of 12 feet.

I think most of us have driven by a place we’re familiar with, see that it’s gone, and then remember that and the other places that preceded it. Here that feeling is a little different. When you come here you’re in the middle of a trendy retail district and then you turn around and see evidence of Florida before it was Florida. The people that lived here were 1,000 years away from electric light and cars and airplanes and radio and television. They were completely unaware that Spanish explorers would arrive in 1513 and that wars would be fought for possession of their land (and all the land to the Florida Keys) and that a new nation would be created from this shore to the Pacific Ocean. Can you imagine them seeing that the place where they lived and worked and worshipped and hunted and fished is in the center of a commercial district?

It’s a strange juxtaposition, and it fascinates me.

When you come, the Indian Temple Mound and Museum showcases prehistoric American Indian artifacts and weaponry as well as a few hands-on exhibits on later Native American and Floridian history. The museum is part the Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park & Cultural Center (850/833–9595), and your admission ($5) also includes the Indian Temple Mound Museum, Camp Walton Schoolhouse Museum, and Garnier Post Office Museum.

This is one of three surviving mound complexes in the panhandle, the others being Tallahassee’s Letchworth-Love Archaeological State Park and the Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park.
 

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Tavares Takes Off with Seaplane Base, Festivals & Boutique Hotel

Have you been to Tavares? It’s a point on the Golden Triangle of Tavares, Eustis, and Mount Dora (where I live) which is in Lake County, about 40 minutes northwest of Orlando.

For the longest, Tavares was just a quiet town, the county seat, where government workers and attorneys and such would show up in the morning and then leave in the evening. Then in 2006 they looked around, noticed 4,500-acre Lake Dora in their backyard, and a few smart people got some really good ideas. They worked with the Sunnyland Antique & Classic Boat Society to relocate the popular Antique Boat Show (March) away from Mount Dora, they began to host speedboat races (also March) and dragon boat races (April), and entrepreneurs arrived and opened waterfront restaurants where diners sit outside (or inside) – Ruby Street Grille, O’Keefe’s Irish Pub and Al’s Landing (which is actually three restaurants) – and enjoy lake breezes and sunshine. Notably, part of the Al's Landing complex is the new Lakeview Inn, a boutique hotel that opened this week.

You know what else? Tavares had the smarts to invest $8 million on a seaplane base and proclaim itself America’s Seaplane City. As I understand it, some smart people (maybe the same ones) realized there wasn’t a full-service seaplane base between Atlanta and Key West and so they created one. Come here on any weekend and you’ll see pilots landing their Cessnas, Gooses, SeaRays, Caravans, Twin Bees, and Cubs, grabbing a bite to eat at Al’s Lakeside Landing, checking in at the Woodlea House (affectionately called ‘The Nation’s Smallest Airport Terminal’), then flying off again. In adjacent Wooten Park, families are picnicking and kids are playing and splashing in the seaplane-themed Splash Park. The town also has seaplane training, ghost tours, boat tours, steam train rides, fishing tournaments, and more than a dozen major events annually.

The best thing about writing about off the beaten path Florida is that there’s so much of it, and sometimes I forget that I live right in the middle of it. So if you’re in my neighborhood, drop by Tavares. If your desire is to discover new off the beaten path destinations, the town is a great stop.

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Sept. 2 Gainesville Blues Competition To Find Contestant for Nationals

There’s a ton of musical talent in Florida and next Sunday – Sept. 2 – the North Central Florida Blues Society is hosting the Annual Gainesville Blues Challenge at the Dirty Bar (2441 Northwest 43rd St., 352/373-1141) from 7 to 11 p.m.

This is an annual competition and on this evening it’ll determine who represents the NCFBS at the 2013 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. If you love the pure, authentic, unfiltered sound of the blues, here’s an opportunity to listen as local bands crank it out.

But the music doesn’t stop there (follow me on this one).
 
Aside from Neil Armstrong, one person I always wanted to meet but never had the privilege was musician Bo Diddley, who called Florida home. He lived in Archer, which is about 15 miles southwest of Gainesville, which at long last brings me to my point. Well, the city fathers had the good sense to name a performance venue the Bo Diddley Downtown Community Plaza (corner of University Ave and SE 1st Street) and it’s where the R. Mutt Blues Band will perform on Saturday, October 13 at 7 p.m., preceding the recently-chosen winner of the Blues Challenge who are followed by headliner John Nemeth.

It’s a free show and if you’re not a fan of the blues now, you will be.

And I bet you'll also become a fan of Gainesville.

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Sept. 2 Gainesville Blues Competition Determines Who Goes to Nationals

There’s a ton of musical talent in Florida and next Sunday – Sept. 2 – the North Central Florida Blues Society is hosting the Annual Gainesville Blues Challenge at the Dirty Bar (2441 Northwest 43rd St. 352/373-1141) from 7 to 11 p.m.

This is an annual competition and on this evening it’ll determine who represents the NCFBS at the 2013 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. If you like the pure, unfiltered sound of the blues, here’s an opportunity to listen as local bands crank it out.

But the music doesn’t stop there (follow me on this one).
 
Aside from Neil Armstrong, one person I always wanted to meet but never had the privilege was musician Bo Diddley, who called Florida home. He lived in Archer, which is about 15 miles southwest of Gainesville, which at long last brings me to my point.

The city fathers had the good sense to name a performance venue the Bo Diddley Downtown Community Plaza (at the corner of University Ave and SE 1st Street) and it’s where a former Gainesville Blues Challenge winner, the R. Mutt Blues Band, will perform on October 13 at 7 p.m., opening for headliner John Nemeth.

It’s a free show and if you’re not a fan of the blues now, you will be.

You'll also be a fan of Gainesville.

Continue reading Sept. 2 Gainesville Blues Competition Determines Who Goes to Nationals »

Organic Americana Concert Celebrates Real Florida Music – Sept. 22.

I’d imagine roots music is still called roots music, but I also like it that someone came up with the phrase ‘Organic Americana’. Just maybe that person was Floridian Fran Litton, because she’s the person behind String Lily Presents, the group that will present Organic Americana on Saturday, September 22, at the Crystal River Preserve State Park, Eco-Walk Trailhead at 5990 N. Tallahassee Road.

When you live in a place, sometimes the things that surround you seem commonplace. Organic Americana addresses that by giving a name to music that reflects a sense of the region and grew naturally from the musicians’ love of their home. The three Americana music acts that’ll be performing in Crystal River recognize the magical qualities of the state and the beauty of off the beaten path Florida that inspired them to sing and play.

Kelly and Danny Goddard and Brian Durham, of Tallahassee’s The New 76ers appeared at the Florida Folk Festival, have their own CD (Superhighway), and a sound that seems like it would have been right at home on the Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

The four members of Sabal chose the name (and I like this) because “it takes its name from and represents the people and places of Florida.” Not just their name, mind you. Their songs, too, celebrate their north Central Florida heritage. You can follow them on facebook.

Also on the lineup is guitarist Hardee Myer. The gates open at 1 p.m., performance take place between 2 and 6 p.m., and tickets are only $11 ($12 at the gate) which you can buy online or pick up at the Inverness Farmers’ Market on Saturday, September 1. Kids six and under are free. A portion of the proceeds will go Friends of the Crystal River State Parks, Inc.

It’s easy to assume what we have here is ordinary – but it’s not. Florida is extraordinary and thanks to shows like this we’re reminded of the talent and the beauty that surrounds us.

For more information, contact Fran Litton of String Lily Presents at fran@swampgroove.com or (407) 927-8032.

Continue reading Organic Americana Concert Celebrates Real Florida Music – Sept. 22. »