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History of West Palm Beach, Florida
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History of West Palm Beach, Florida

The first indigenous people arrived in West Palm Beach, Florida, more than 5,000 years ago, marking the beginning of the city’s history. The region was home to indigenous tribes, including the Jaegers. Although Spain, England, the United States, and the Confederate States of America alternated as the state’s rulers, Florida remained mostly undeveloped until the 20th century. Non-Native American residents had moved into the West Palm Beach area by the 1870s and 1880s; they called the community “Lake Worth Country.” But until Henry Flagler arrived in the 1890s, the population stayed quite low. Starting in 1894, Flagler built hotels and resorts in Palm Beach to develop the area as a vacation spot for wealthy tourists who could access it via his railroad.

When Flagler built his hotels in Palm Beach, he originally intended for the staff to live in West Palm Beach. The first 48 blocks of the city were surveyed and laid out by George W. Potter in 1893. On November 5, 1894, West Palm Beach would be founded as a town. A city would follow in 1903. West Palm Beach was chosen as the county seat when Palm Beach County was created in 1909. The population of the city nearly quadrupled between 1920 and 1927 during the land boom of the 1920s, which also saw the development of many of the city’s historic structures and neighborhoods. However, the area entered a period of economic decline just before the start of the Great Depression as a result of the 1928 hurricane, which wreaked havoc on the city, and the end of the land boom.

Just before incorporation (before November 1894)

According to archeological findings, the Jaegers may have arrived in what is now Palm Beach County 5,000 years ago. Juan Ponce de León’s landing in the Jupiter Inlet in 1513 marked the beginning of European contact with the local Native Americans. While the Jaegers and Ais lived east of Lake Okeechobee and along the east coast north of the Tequestas, Europeans discovered a thriving native community, the Mayaimi, in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. There may have been 20,000 Native Americans in South Florida when the Spanish came. When the English took over Florida in 1763, the native peoples had all but been wiped off due to conflict, slavery, or European diseases. Early in the 18th century, additional indigenous people from Georgia and Alabama migrated to Florida. Although they had diverse ancestries, they were always referred to as Creeks by Europeans. They were referred to as Seminole and Miccosukee Indians in Florida. Due to land disputes and conflicts over runaway slaves who were given protection by the Seminoles, American settlers and the Seminoles clashed. The government tried to relocate them to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi, but they resisted. Between 1818 and 1858, there were three conflicts waged between the Seminoles and the US government.By the end of the third war, very few Seminoles remained in Florida

When the English took over Florida in 1763, the native peoples had all but been wiped off due to conflict, slavery, or European diseases. Early in the 18th century, additional indigenous people from Georgia and Alabama migrated to Florida. Although they had diverse ancestries, they were always referred to as Creeks by Europeans. They were referred to as Seminole and Miccosukee Indians in Florida. Due to land disputes and conflicts over runaway slaves who were given protection by the Seminoles, American settlers and the Seminoles clashed. The government tried to relocate them to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi, but they resisted. Between 1818 and 1858, there were three conflicts waged between the Seminoles and the US government.The area around Lake Worth, a freshwater lake that was contained at the time and was named for Colonel William Jenkins Worth, a soldier in the Second Seminole War in 1842, was home to the first non-Native American immigrants in Palm Beach County. The first log cabin is thought to have been built on the western bank of Lake Worth by Reverend Elbridge Gale and his son, close to where Poinsettia Avenue and 29th Street currently meet. The majority of the settlers engaged in the cultivation of tropical fruits and vegetables for export via Lake Worth and the Indian River.

Over 200 individuals were residing near Lake Worth in the neighborhood of what would become West Palm Beach in 1890, according to the United States Census. The “Cocoanut House”, a hotel, a church, and a post office were also present at this period in the neighborhood. Henry Flagler, who played a key role in Palm Beach County’s growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, paid a visit there for the first time in 1892 and called it a “true paradise.” The Gazetteer, the first newspaper in the area, started printing issues in 1893 but stopped after a fire in the city in 1896. In addition, Dade County State Bank and Lainhart and Potter Lumber Company were both founded in 1893 as were West Palm Beach’s earliest businesses.That year, Flagler began planning a city to house the employees working in the two grand hotels on the neighboring island of Palm Beach.

For the original town site, Flagler paid two local residents, Porter and Louie Hillhouse, a total of $45,000. In order to set aside 48 blocks for development ranging from Clear Lake to Lake Worth, an area that would later become West Palm Beach, Flagler employed George W. Potter, Dade County’s first surveyor. While some of the north-south roads were named Lantana, Narcissus, Olive, Poinsettia, Rosemary, and Tamarind, the east-to-west streets were named alphabetically from north to south: Althea, Banyan, Clematis, Datura, Evernia, and Fern. Today, most of these names are still in use. On May 1, 1893, work on the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach started. On February 4, 1894, an auction for the West Palm Beach properties was placed in the Royal Poinciana’s ballroom. one week before the hotel opened for business.In late March, Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway reached West Palm Beach

Incorporation and early years (November 1894 to 1909)

Residents gathered on November 5, 1894, in the “Calaboose,” which functioned as the town’s first jail and police station. The structure was once located at Poinsettia and Clematis Street, which is now Dixie Highway. A motion to incorporate was voted on by the 78 attendees, with 77 voting in favor and 1 against. They also chose to keep the town’s original name, “West Palm Beach,” for the municipality. As a result, West Palm Beach became the county’s and Southeast Florida’s first municipality to be established. 78 people gathered the following day to elect the new town officials. Henry J. Burkhardt, E. H. Dimick, J. M. Garland, H. T. Grant, J. F. Lamond, and George Zapf were elected as the town’s first aldermen, while John S. Earman was chosen as the city’s first mayor. The candidates for town marshal and clerk were Eli Sims and W. L. Tolbert, respectively. The Flagler Alerts, the city’s first fire department, was founded later in November 1894. It was an all-volunteer organization.

Although Flagler planned for the West Palm Beach region to be the railroad’s southern terminus, the track was extended further south to Miami as a result of two extremely cold winters in 1894–1895. On December 29, 1894, and February 9, 1895, the Jupiter Weather Bureau office recorded temperatures of 24 and 27 °F (4 and 3 °C), respectively. Flagler and his employees continued to erect buildings in the early years of Palm Beach and West Palm Beach even while the railroad went south to Miami and eventually to Key West. In 1895, a railroad bridge over Lake Worth was finished, enabling travelers to go straight from West Palm Beach to Palm Beach. In accordance with a census taken that year, there were 1,192 people living there. However, due to harm to the citrus sector brought on by the aforementioned freezes, a brief halt in construction activities, and nationwide recessions, the town’s population fell by more than half during the second half of the 1890s.

The “City Park” (later known as Flagler Park) was built at the V-shaped split at the east end of Clematis Street and featured a bandstand, a field for spontaneous baseball games, and by 1896, a free “reading room.” Early in 1896, two significant fires decimated downtown West Palm Beach. On January 2, a fire started at Midway Plaza Saloon and Restaurant and quickly spread down the whole length of Banyan Street. The following fire started on February 20 when a guy unintentionally knocked over an oil light. The building where The Gazetteer was housed burned down along with much of Narcissus Street, and it was never again published. Building regulations were tightened as a result of the fire, and brick construction became the standard. From 1898 to 1899, Wilmon Whilldin spearheaded the transition away from shantytowns and tent cities. Additionally, he emphasized the value of more homes, parks, trees for shade, and sanitation.

West Palm Beach had paved roads, a library, a sewer system, a pumping station, and a telephone service before the turn of the century. 564 people were counted in the population in 1900. That year saw the opening of the library. The owner of the Palm Beach Yacht Club, Charles John Clarke, donated the two-story structure for use as the library. Other contributions made it possible to barge the structure across the Lake Worth Lagoon. The City Park reading room was replaced by the structure. The Florida Legislature accepted the town council’s 1903 submission of a city charter on July 21.

A hurricane touched down close to Fort Lauderdale in September. West Palm Beach residents boarded up buildings when bad weather started to hit the city; companies ceased regular operations as a result. Many structures suffered roof losses, and the streets were covered in a lot of trash, including roofing materials, twigs, paper, and driftwood. Late on September 11 and early on September 12, when northeast winds were at their strongest, pieces of structures were destroyed. Several structures were destroyed in the city’s African-American neighborhood. After the hurricane, just one of the four churches survived. The city grew despite the hurricane, with more people moving there and new businesses opening up.

Initially, the sole site where alcohol could be purchased, Banyan Street developed a notorious reputation for its brothels, casinos, and saloons. In one such event in 1895, Mayor Earman was detained and accused of public intoxication while accompanying a prostitute. Of the accusations, he was cleared. By 1904, some local women had made contact with Carrie Nation, a militant temperance activist known for striking alcoholic businesses with a hatchet. However, there is no proof that she ransacked the bars on Banyan Street. The route was renamed First Street in 1925 due to its persistently bad reputation over the years; it was later changed back to Banyan Street in 1989. City Hall and the city’s first fire station debuted in 1905 at the northeastern corner of At the northeast intersection of Datura Street and Poinsettia Street, the city’s first fire station and city hall were inaugurated in 1905. (modern-day U.S. Route 1, also known as Dixie Highway). The northern part of Dade County was divided up by the Florida State Legislature to create Palm Beach County in 1909. The county seat was moved to West Palm Beach. The West Palm Beach Telephone Company, the region’s first telephone service, was established in the same year and had 65 customers.

1910–1927

West Palm Beach had 1,743 people living there in 1910, per the US Census. Prior to the 1910s, the “Styx,” a segregated district of Palm Beach with a peak population of 2,000, was home to a large number of African Americans in the region. However, African Americans were expelled from the Styx between 1910 and 1912. According to urban legend, Flager’s white workmen set fire to the Styx because they thought the shanty village was an eyesore. However, there is a lot of data that contradicts this notion. The majority of the evacuated residents moved to West Palm Beach’s northernmost communities, which are now called Northwest, Pleasant City, and Freshwater.

Florida established its own National Guard in 1903, the first state to do so after the Dick Act was passed. In 1914, a unit was established in West Palm Beach. From July 1916 to March 1917, members of this regiment were sent to the border with Mexico, and in October 1917, they were sent to serve in Europe.

A neo-classical county courthouse was inaugurated in 1916. County business was handled at a school building at Clematis Avenue and Poinsettia Street prior to the courthouse’s opening. The 1950s and 1960s saw improvements to the structure. Up until a new courthouse was completed in 1995, it served as the county’s administrative center. The historic courthouse will be restored to its original style, as the Board of County Commissioners decided in 2002. The restoration project cost a little over $18 million and was finished in March 2008. The Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum and the Historical Society of Palm Beach County are currently housed in the historic courthouse.

Since its founding in 1909, The Palm Beach Post has published weekly editions. It changed to a daily publication in January 1916. The newspaper is based in West Palm Beach and is the county’s oldest daily newspaper still in operation. The Palm Beach Post came in at number five in terms of circulation in the state of Florida as of November 2017, trailing only the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, and Tampa Bay Times.

In 1917, the West Palm Beach Canal was inaugurated. From the Lake Worth Lagoon, the canal extended west to Twenty Mile Bend, then north to Canal Point, where it entered Lake Okeechobee. The canal decreased Lake Okeechobee, facilitated agricultural land drainage, and made it simpler to convey crops to the ocean. The city took advantage of this growth and constructed a new canal branch, as well as boat slips, a turning basin, and warehouses. The county’s primary source of winter vegetables, sugar cane, and pineapple was shortly West Palm Beach.

A proposal to switch to a council-manager system gained enough traction by the 1910s to enable a referendum in 1919. Citizens would elect members of the municipal council, who would then choose the mayor, under the proposal. Voters accepted the measure on August 29, 1919, 201-82. Also included in the proposal was a deadline of three weeks for the primary election of city commissioners. The top three vote-getters in the primary were supposed to be elected to the municipal council, according to the regulations. Using this procedure, David F. Dunkle was inaugurated as the first mayor on September 22, 1919.

Although construction drastically decreased during World War I, West Palm Beach and the state of Florida, in contrast to the majority of the country, were not as hard hit by the Post-World War I recession because middle-class tourists were drawn to the area by the completion of major highways like the Dixie Highway and the milder climate. Florida living and vacationing were widely marketed by investors and realtors. In the 1920s, the city expanded quickly as a result of the Florida land boom. Between 1920 and 1927, West Palm Beach’s population more than doubled, and businesses and government services also experienced rapid expansion. From $13.6 million in 1920 to $61 million in 1925, property values increased dramatically as well.

By 1927, every part of West Palm Beach east of Australian Avenue had been platted, but the regions to the north and south of 36th Street were still largely undeveloped. 13 In the 1920s, many of the city’s iconic buildings and well-preserved neighborhoods were built. For instance, during this time the Alfred J. Comeau House, American National Bank Building, Comeau Building, Dixie Court Hotel (demolished in 1990), Guaranty Building, and Pine Ridge Hospital were all designed by the Harvey and Clarke architectural firm, which was founded in 1921 by Henry Stephen Harvey (the Mayor of West Palm Beach from 1924 to 1926) and L. Philips Clarke. In the 1920s, a number of waterfront hotels were constructed, including the Pennsylvania, El Verano, and the Royal Palm. The Good Samaritan Hospital and the Seaboard Airline Railroad Station were two other major enterprises built at this time. In addition, on January 26, 1924, the city opened its first permanent library, which was given the name Memorial Library in memory of those who lost their lives in World War I.

1928–1939

The Okeechobee storm of 1928 wreaked havoc on West Palm Beach. At least 10 inches (250 mm) of rain fell throughout the city. A furniture store, pharmacy, warehouse, hotel, school, ironworks, and fire station were among the structures that were destroyed. The city’s theaters were all severely damaged or destroyed. The few structures made of concrete survived, whereas most other structures lost their roofs and wood-frame buildings generally did not fare well. At the county courthouse and city hall, skylights broke, causing damage to records and documents. Due to the flimsy construction of the commercial buildings in that area of the city, just one business on Clematis Street avoided major damage, while two structures stood on the north side of Banyan Boulevard (then known as First Street) between Dixie Highway and Olive Avenue. According to The New York Times, the latter, which was once known as West Palm Beach’s “car row,” was turned to “a jumble of trash.” When the hospital was partially destroyed, a temporary hospital was established at the Pennsylvania Hotel, which was also damaged when the chimney burst through 14 floors of the building. The city library’s floor was covered in nearly 2 feet (0.61 m) of water and muck, and more than half of the books were damaged. Mounds of sand and debris were carried by the waves across Olive Avenue, Clematis Street, and Banyan Boulevard.

The Palm Beach Post and Palm Beach Times’ offices were housed in severely damaged structures, but neither company’s newspaper production was significantly hampered. The city’s sole bank, the Central Farmers Trust Company, was flooded and had its roof torn off. The American Legion building was intended to serve as the Red Cross’s headquarters before the storm, but because of the structure’s significant damage, the Red Cross was forced to find a new location for its relief post. The clock tower at Palm Beach High School, which was once situated where the Dreyfoos School of the Arts is now, collapsed. Most of Saint Ann’s Catholic Church’s structures were deroofed by the storm, although Bradley Hall Towers was completely destroyed. Numerous homes were damaged at Flamingo Park, one of the most affected neighborhoods of the city, while a commercial mall on Lake Avenue was nearly completely destroyed. The El Cid and Northwood neighborhoods, on the other hand, typically only saw a little impact. Many Vedado streets were obstructed by downed pine trees. West of Parker Avenue at Bacon Park was a barren wasteland. 

The African-American neighborhood of the city, where the majority of the homes were constructed from salvaged materials, also saw extensive damage to many residences. Only two homes on one street managed to keep their roofs and walls. Cars and fences were blown down the streets by strong gusts. About 100 individuals rushed to a concrete-reinforced facility known as a rubbish incinerator during the storm. Black churches in the area sustained substantial harm. The roof, a large portion of the metal grillwork around the doorways, and numerous bricks from the front facade of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church were also lost. Payne Chapel AME Church was completely destroyed by the storm, while St. Patrick’s Catholic Church sustained damage worth roughly $40,000. T. M. Rickards, the county coroner, claims that the streets were “a foot or more of debris. The pain felt throughout was indescribable.” The storm in the city caused 6,369 residences to be damaged and 1,711 to be demolished, displacing around 2,100 households. In addition, 268 businesses were destroyed by the hurricane, while 490 more were affected. Eleven people died and there were a total of about $13.8 million in damage.

In places farther inland, particularly in Bean City, Belle Glade, Chosen, Pahokee, and South Bay, and to the southeast of Lake Okeechobee, the hurricane is thought to have killed at least 2,500 people. At least 743 remains were transported to West Palm Beach for burial after the hurricane. All but eight of the victims who were properly buried at Woodlawn Cemetery because of racial segregation were white. The city’s paupers cemetery was the location chosen for the mass burial of the remaining 674 remains that were black or of an illegible race. This location was close to the intersection of 25th Street and Tamarind Avenue. Mayor Vincent Oaksmith declared an hour of mourning for those who perished during the storm on October 1 after the funerals were finished. A funeral service for Mary McLeod Bethune was held at the pauper’s graveyard, attended by roughly 3,000 people, including several local clerics. When the storm’s 75th anniversary rolled around in 2003, a memorial was erected at Woodlawn Cemetery on behalf of the storm’s victims,[59] but one wasn’t erected at the mass grave site in the pauper’s cemetery. 

Potential investors and land buyers in the region became even more skeptical as a result of the storm and the region’s economic downturn. Property values fell as a result. Several banks and hotels throughout the county filed for bankruptcy during the end of the 1920s, or they were bought by new owners of Palm Beach Bank and Trust. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 occurred in October, ushering in the Great Depression. Between 1929 and 1930, the price of real estate in West Palm Beach decreased by 53% to $41.6 million, and by 1935, it had decreased even more, to only $18.2 million. In Palm Beach County, twelve banks failed by 1930. Nevertheless, the private sector carried on building homes. The population continued to grow despite the economic crisis, but much more slowly than in earlier decades. The city’s population increased by 207.3%, from 8,659 to 26,610, between 1920 and 1930. However, the city’s population rose by 26.6%, from 26,610 to 33,693, between 1930 and 1940. 

The first junior college in Florida, Palm Beach Junior College (PBJC), was founded in 1933 in what is now Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. The development of the college was greatly assisted by Palm Beach High School Principal Howell Watkins and County School Superintendent Joe Youngblood. Watkins was chosen to serve as the college’s inaugural dean. When the Great Depression hit, the college’s first mission was to offer additional training to nearby high school graduates who were struggling to find employment.The college left its initial structure in 1948, and in 1956 it moved to its current main campus in Lake Worth. The PBJC subsequently grew to five campuses: Palm Beach Gardens (1972), Belle Glade (1972), and Boca Raton (1983). (1980). In 1988, the school was renamed Palm Beach Community College, and in 2010, it became Palm Beach State College.

Grace Morrison started working to get support for a public airport in Palm Beach County in 1932, the same year she had her first flight lesson. Midway through the 1930s, construction started, with a total price tag of roughly $180,000. A few months ahead of the airport’s 1936 debut, Morrison was killed in an automobile accident in Titusville. The airport’s original name, Morrison Field, was in recognition of her. Dick Merrill was in charge of the first flight out of Morrison Field. The plane had to make a crash landing close to Matamoras because of the bad weather in Pennsylvania. [64] Moreover, West Palm Beach’s first radio station, WJNO-AM 1290 (originally WJNO – 1230 AM), debuted in 1936.

1940–1979

Florida’s lengthy coastline became exposed to attack during World War II. Near Palm Beach, which was in a blackout to reduce German U-boat eyesight at night, scores of merchant ships and oil tankers were sunk by German U-boats. At Morrison Field, the U.S. Army Air Corps, the country’s first air force, set up an Air Transport Command station. For the purpose of housing around 3,000 soldiers, the army built barracks, hangars, and other structures. Over 45,000 pilots trained at or took off from the command post throughout the course of the war, many in advance of the Normandy invasion. In April 1942, the 313th Material Squadron relocated from Miami Municipal Airport to Morrison Field, where almost 1,000 men worked nonstop to fix and test aircraft before they were sent into action. Morrison Field was decommissioned and given back to Palm Beach County in 1947. Later that year, Morrison Field was renamed Palm Beach International Airport (PBIA).

A Category 4 hurricane hit Lake Worth late on August 26, 1949. The hurricane brought sustained winds of 120 mph (190 km/h) to West Palm Beach and gusts of up to 130 mph (210 km/h) at PBIA. 16 planes were destroyed, and 5 more were damaged, causing the airport’s overall damage to be roughly $1 million. Furthermore, 15 C-46s were damaged. Out of the roughly 7,000 homes in West Palm Beach, nearly 2,000 were damaged. In West Palm Beach, it was estimated that the hurricane had cost more than $4 million in damage.

Due to the Korean War, PBIA was once more made into a military outpost in 1951. Nearly 23,000 Air Force members received training at the post during the Korean War, which was then temporarily renamed Palm Beach Air Force Base. In 1959, Palm Beach International Airport was given the name it had previously had under the federal government’s proposal to keep Palm Beach Air Force Base as a permanent military installation.

Another population boom occurred in the 1950s, in part as a result of a large number of soldiers and airmen who had trained or fought in the region during World War II returning home. The development of air conditioning also promoted expansion since northerners began to tolerate year-round living in a tropical climate. In the 1950s, West Palm Beach’s borders expanded to the west of Military Trail and the south to Lake Clarke Shores, making it the fourth-fastest growing metropolitan area in the country. Property values climbed from $72 million to $147.5 million between 1949 and 1962, while the population went from 43,612 in 1950 to nearly 30% more in 1960. The City of West Palm Beach upgraded its sewer system and acquired the water treatment facility (then owned by Henry Flagler’s estate) and land to the west of the city’s boundaries in 1955 using a $18 million bond issue. This land included wetlands measuring 20 square miles (52 km2) and an additional 17,000 acres (6,900 ha) that had previously belonged to Flagler’s Model Land Company.

About two years later, the city paid $4.35 million to Perini Corporation of Massachusetts president Louis R. Perini, Sr. for approximately 5,500 acres (2,200 ha) of that land. Perini hired Gee and Jensen Engineers to convert the marshes into dry ground, and they used about 30,000,000 cubic yards (23,000,000 m3) of fill to do it. For middle-class African-Americans, Perini built the community known as Roosevelt Estates. In addition, Perini extended 12th Street westward and gave it the new name Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard. To finally join Okeechobee Boulevard, the route was curbed southwestward. In addition, Perini built the first stretch of I-95 in Palm Beach County, from Okeechobee Boulevard to 45th Street, in 1966.

Perini returned a large portion of the land to the city of West Palm Beach in the 1960s. In response, the city constructed the Palm Beach Mall in 1967, the West Palm Beach Auditorium in 1965, and the West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium in 1963. The Palm Beach Mall opened on October 26, 1967, between Congress Avenue and Interstate 95 on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard. Mayor Reid Moore Jr., Miss USA 1967 Cheryl Patton, and Governor Claude Kirk all participated in cutting the ribbon during the opening ceremony. On the mall’s debut day, some 40,000 people went there. When it first opened, the mall’s 1,000,000 sq ft (93,000 m2) floor space housed 87 stores. Especially when Burdines left downtown in 1979, the mall started to steadily entice businesses and customers away from the downtown area.

The Palm Beach Zoo (formerly known as the Dreher Park Zoo) and the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium both debuted in the 1950s and 1960s. The Palm Coast Plaza, the first shopping center in Palm Beach County, debuted in 1959 close to the southern edge of the city along Dixie Highway. It was regarded as “the largest and most comprehensive shopping center between Miami and Jacksonville” at the time. On April 30, 1962, a new library was established by the city of West Palm Beach to take the place of the Memorial Library at the east end of Clematis Street. Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBA), a private, accredited Christian university, was founded in 1968 in a downtown church and later established a campus.

West Palm Beach experienced its first snowfall event ever on January 19, 1977, as a result of a cold wave outbreak. Between 6:10 and 8:40 in the morning, snow fell, although there was virtually any accumulation recorded since it melted or was blown away practically immediately after the touchdown. PBIA additionally noted lows of 27 °F (3 °C).

1980–1999

Downtown West Palm Beach had a reputation for violence, destitution, and abandoned and run-down buildings by the 1980s. During his visit in September 1987, then-Senator Lawton Chiles of the United States described the area as a “war zone,” and local politicians were pessimistic about the future of downtown. In the late 1980s, the city had the highest crime rate among cities of its size. West Palm Beach served as the location for the 1989 documentary Crack USA: County Under Siege, which was about the crack epidemic.

Private businessmen David C. Paladino and Henry J. Rolfs proposed a $433 million, 20-year proposal to redevelop downtown’s western flank in 1986. 3,700,000 square feet (340,000 m2) of office space, 1,900,000 square feet (180,000 m2) of retail space, 800 hotel rooms, and 700 residential units were all included in the concept. For around $40 million, Paladino and Rolfs bought and demolished more than 300 homes on 77 acres (31 ha) of land close to Okeechobee Boulevard, with the exception of First United Methodist Church, which eventually changed its name to the Harriet Himmel Theater. For the construction of the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 1992, the couple contributed 5 acres (2.0 hectares) of property. But by the early 1990s, the project had been abandoned because of failed loans, foreclosures, lawsuits, and a recession, as well as because Rolfs had spent all of his personal wealth.

By the early 1990s, popular sentiment had changed in favor of choosing a powerful mayor and establishing a mayor-council government after several decades of the Council-manager administration. The mayor would share administrative responsibilities with the city manager and be granted the right to veto commission votes, which could be overruled by a 4-1 vote under one plan. The mayor would also be elected to a four-year term and be eligible for reelection once. The mayor would also have the power to veto specific budget items, launch inquiries, and oversee any contracts or purchases that cost more than $5,000. [89] This proposal would be placed on the ballot as Question 2 following a successful petition drive. The city commission’s solution, Question 1, essentially adding a weak mayor, was provided. In contrast to Question 2, this plan would allow the city manager to retain administrative control, the mayor to join the city commissioners in voting only in ties, and the mayor to not be able to veto decisions made by the city commission. Voters had to choose between answering “yes” or “no” to Questions 1 and 2 in the referendum for mayor. Both questions would pass if they garnered a majority of affirmative votes. The polls were open on March 12, 1991. A majority of people voted in favor of both proposals. 2,944 people voted in favor of Question 1 compared to 2,665 against it, a ratio of 52.6% to 47.4%. Question 2 was approved by a vote of 3,779 to 1,972, a margin of 65.7% to 34.3%. As a result, Question 2 was successful, enabling West Palm Beach residents to choose a capable mayor directly.

On November 5, 1991, West Palm Beach held its first general election since the late 1910s. Joel T. Daves, a lawyer, and former state representative, Jim Exline, Nancy M. Graham, Josephine Stenson Grund, Michael D. Hyman, the owner of a property management firm, and Bill Medlen, a former commissioner of Palm Beach County, were among the candidates. Graham and Hyman qualified for a run-off election on November 19 after receiving 34.3% and 24.9% of the vote, respectively. Hyman was defeated by Graham from 55.8% to 44.2%. On November 21, she took the oath of office as the city’s first powerful mayor.

Graham promised to make changes to downtown while running for office. [94] A large portion of the downtown renovations started when the city was given a $18.2 million bond in October 1992, with $4 million designated for the waterfront. One of the initial initiatives was the enhancement of Clematis Street, which was finished in December 1993. The trees, walkways, and benches had all been replaced in the previous six months. Several companies relocated to Clematis Street as a result of the project. A number of the waterfront projects, including the construction of an amphitheater, renovation of the library, and creation of an interactive fountain in Flagler Park, all involved the hiring of architect Dan Kiley.

The estimated cost of construction for the amphitheater, as well as the $171,400 cost of tearing down a Holiday Inn, would be borne by the city. The building was picked because attempts to sell it or rebuild it for a different use failed, and it has been unoccupied and gutted since 1986. The majority of the building’s purchase price was agreed to by a nearby bank, which allowed the city to buy the hotel for just $1,000. The demolition was planned for December 31, 1993, just before midnight, and Controlled Demolition, Inc. was engaged for the job. [98] The explosion event, which started with around 300 sticks of dynamite, was attended by more than 20,000 people. Graham offered $25 tickets to see the explosion up close. Nearly $1 million was made in ticket and donation sales.

CityPlace was one of the most ambitious initiatives to revive economic activity in downtown West Palm Beach. By using eminent domain and a multi-million dollar loan, the city reclaimed the land that had been intended for the Downtown/Uptown project in 1995, and then it started looking for big architectural firms to help develop the site. On October 9, 1996, the city commission chose CityPlace by a vote of 5 to 1 out of the three submitted bids. The historical First United Methodist Church, which later changed its name to the Harriet Himmel Theatre, was the focal point of the $375 million project, which also included a number of restaurants, upscale shops, apartments, and office buildings. The project also included an 18 to 24 screen movie theater. A total of 190,000 m2 (or 2,000,000 sq ft) of land development was authorized. With $20 million already financed for site acquisition, the city committed to contributing $75 million toward the building of streets, parking garages, and plazas in exchange. Although CityPlace would actually open in October 2000, construction on the project started in 1998 with retailers scheduled to open in November 1999.

2000–present

On October 27, 2000, CityPlace opened to the general public. The inaugural weekend saw the inauguration of 31 retailers and 1 restaurant. The original anchors were a Muvico Parisian 20 and IMAX theater, Barnes & Noble, and Macy’s, and. Attracting high-end retailers as tenants was CityPlace’s primary goal, but during the housing bubble, the focus turned to home furnishings. The focus shifted significantly toward food and entertainment establishments becoming tenants during the Great Recession. In April 2019, Related Companies changed the name of CityPlace to “Rosemary Square.” The business plans to spend $550 million to build new restaurants, a mixed-use luxury residential tower, a hotel, and an office tower with 300,000 sq ft (28,000 m2) of space, transforming Rosemary Square from a lifestyle center to a more urban-like setting. To increase the amount of room for pedestrians to walk, certain asphalt roads were converted and replaced with gray and white pavers.

West Palm Beach, the county seat of Palm Beach County, gained global attention during the 2000 presidential election. According to the results that Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris officially verified, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by a mere 537 votes to win the state of Florida. In order to receive at least 270 electoral votes and win the presidential election, both contenders needed to win the state of Florida. An infamous recount was prompted by the close results and Palm Beach County’s contentious butterfly ballot. Previously serving as mayor of West Palm Beach, Carol Roberts was a member of the canvassing board. Finally, on December 12, 2000, the US Supreme Court ruled in Bush v. Gore that Harris’s count would stand, giving Bush the 25 electoral votes from Florida and the presidency.

In 2004 and 2005, multiple tropical cyclones struck Palm Beach County, including hurricanes Frances, Jeanne, and Wilma. In October 2005, Hurricane Wilma mostly impacted West Palm Beach, with the eye of the storm passing the city at a Category 2 strength. At the Palm Beach International Airport, Wilma’s hurricane-force winds and gusts as high as 101 mph (163 km/h) were recorded. 1,194 establishments in the city had minor damage, 105 others received serious impact, and one was completely destroyed. The storm caused damage to 6,036 dwellings in total, while 16 of them were entirely destroyed. 20 city government buildings also sustained damage. Approximately $425.8 million worth of damage was sustained in West Palm Beach, including $153.1 million in home damage, $267.4 million in business damage, and $5.3 million in damage to public property.

At the intersection of Clematis Street and Dixie Highway, City Center began operations in the spring of 2009. The facility, which cost roughly $154 million to build, comprised a new library and city hall in addition to other governmental services moving there. On April 13, 2009, the city opened the Mandel Public Library of West Palm Beach in the City Center, taking the place of the previous library that had been located at the eastern end of Clematis Street. Later that year, the historic library was destroyed to make room for the erection of a waterfront park and pavilion, which became accessible to the general public in February 2010. Comparatively speaking, the Mandel Public Library is around 2.5 times bigger than the previous one. The library currently has over 100,000 registered cardholders and circulates over 800,000 items.

West Palm Beach’s population was 99,919 according to the 2010 US Census. Considering that the city would be eligible for further grants if it had a population of at least 100,000, then-outgoing mayor Lois Frankel suggested that the number, which was 81 short of 100,000, would be subject to challenge. In addition, the city’s population was estimated by the US Census Bureau as 100,665 on April 1, 2010. The 99,919 population figure, however, appears to have been accepted by the municipal administration as it is still listed in the official census records.

Despite the fact that CityPlace boosted downtown, it also aided in the decline of the Palm Beach Mall. It was demolished in 2013 following a sharp fall in foot traffic and tenants, as well as failed efforts to entice large box retailers like Bass Pro and IKEA to the mall. In February 2014, Palm Beach Outlets, which was created and is run by New England Development, opened nearby. Saks Fifth Avenue serves as the anchor of the more than 100-store, 460,000 sq ft (43,000 m2) outlet mall.

After the municipal stadium was shut down in 1997 (and later demolished in 2002), West Palm Beach was no longer able to host Major League Baseball’s spring training. But after a 20-year absence, spring training was brought back to the city in 2017 with the establishment of the FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. The Houston Astros and Washington Nationals hold their spring training games in the 6,500-seat facility. 55,881 individuals attended Astros training games in its first season. However, as a result of the Astros winning the World Series in 2017, the attendance grew to 67,931 spectators in 2018.

In January 2018, the high-speed train Brightline debuted in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. A Miami stop followed in May of the same year. By 2022, Brightline wants to provide high-speed train service between Miami and Orlando.