Along Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach

Dixie Highway is a long stretch, with lots of Florida history and lots that needs work for the future. It’s my favorite strip to drive up and down, passing vintage motels and their retro neon signs, Antique Row, shopping districts, and many of the more unusual businesses in town.

Created around 1910, and inspired by the burgeoning automobile industry, US business leaders began pressing for better and more far-reaching roads and highways, including roads to the uber popular tourist destination of Florida. It was inspired by an earlier road called the Lincoln Highway to run south from the Great Lakes all the way to Miami. When it was finally finished in 1927, Dixie Highway stretched an astonishing 5,700 miles from Ontario in Canada all the way to Florida City in the Everglades.

These days “Dixie” is sometimes seen as linking to the old Confederate state era, so much so that the Mayor of Riviera Beach, Thomas Masters, thinks Florida should swap “Old Dixie” for the name of America’s first black president, and that would be a fitting gesture in the predominantly black city. Masters said the idea is just in the “conversation stage” now, but he plans to present it to the city council in the near future.

“We’re in the Dr. Martin Luther King celebrations,” he said, “What better way to celebrate his legacy than to get rid of what he died for, which was getting rid of old Dixie,” Masters said.

Masters noted that Old Dixie Highway intersects Martin Luther King Boulevard in the city, and “this may be one of the few places in America where you would have a Barack Obama intersecting with Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard.”

A name change would require county approval, but in the meantime neighborhood groups and shopkeepers along the West Palm section of Dixie have commissioned professional planners to redraw the mile-and-a-half stretch of South Dixie Highway from Okeechobee Boulevard south to satisfy the escalating, conflicting needs of car and pedestrian, commerce and community.

One of the biggest changes being considered would be to turn the four often very busy lanes into three. The middle section would be used for turning lanes, which could also reduce rear-end and lane-change accident, as well slow traffic down.

“It’s always been an issue for people who live off of South Dixie,” said City Commissioner Paula Ryan, who, when she was president of the El Cid Neighborhood Association, was instrumental in pressing for the redesign. “By us taking the initiative and agreeing to raise money and working in a collaborative partnership, we are able to get a solid plan, so when people are coming to the community and deciding if they want to buy a house or do business here, Dixie Highway is not always going to look the way it looks today.”

The committee reports that the highway is in pretty good shape, with a stretch between Belvedere Road and Southern Boulevard having been rebuilt over the past five years. But it said traffic and parking, as well as aesthetics like the lack of trees and many parking lots, dampen its value for people who live, work and play along it.

Dixie, the committee says, is a mishmash of shops and restaurants; service stations and auto repair garages; large and small offices and storefronts; with a mix of high and low end apartments, condos, and single-family houses.

The main issue aside from traffic is how the corridor looks. Improving the lighting along both the street and crosswalks would make a big difference, perhaps adding more decorative vintage looking lamp posts and historic street signs. They should plant a consistent line of shade trees, palms and bushes. The street is very hot to walk along, particularly along Antique Row where the only shade is sometimes awnings from the shops.

The best suggestion being made is for more public art, particularly at main intersections at the two ends of the committee study area; Okeechobee Boulevard and at the Lake Worth line. Murals, statues, and artwork in parks and plazas would highlight the neighborhood and the community of artists that live and work here.

And, ever mindful of public image, the committee called on the city to consider designating the stretch as “the South Dixie Historic Corridor,” complete with attractive vintage signs. It worked well for Antique Row, which has been revitalized by creating the block of Villas that give a unified look to the designated area.

There are some great restaurants in addition to the magnificent shops like Belle & Maxwells Café at 3700 S. Dixie, that is celebrating two decades in West Palm Beach. This award winning European-style café opened in 1995 and is still going strong. Known for sourcing local produce and supporting area farms, this little powerhouse eatery has an elegant look and garden out back.

Rhythm Café at 3800 S. Dixie is a fun and funny place, fine dining in a converted 1950’s drugstore, this throwback café favorites include duck breast with blackberry cabernet sauce, and crabcakes with Cajun sauce.

Long time favorite City Diner at 3400 South Dixie Highway is a classic vintage American diner filled with 30’s, 40’s and 50’s authentic antique memorabilia, with original soda jerk fountain and working Wurlitzer juke box.

For the punk rock, tattooed and piercing set, Ink & Pistons is a hardcore “artist driven” shop at 2716 S. Dixie. This unique multi-purpose space houses a tattoo parlor up front, an art gallery/gift shop called The Slushbox Gallery in the back and a hot rod/motorcycle show once a year. The tattoo parlor has a full time staff of artists who work to develop original designs or help those going under the needle select from their extensive catalog of classic images. The day I stopped by there were 2 guys getting some large work done on their chests and back. It’s a fascinating process but not for the squeamish. Each tattoo artist has a portfolio of their original work online. It’s some pretty wild imagery ranging from Sci-fi to fantasy to religious to monsters.

The Slushbox Gallery is curated by JR (one of the tattoo artists) and Amanda Linton, whose imaginatively put together shows merge the worlds of tattooing, high and lowbrow art and hot rods. The Group show up now through May 2nd, is called “Candy Coated Dreams” that they says is “a dreamy art show featuring all things sweet, sugary, sparkly, extra fluffy and of course super kawaii!!” by more than a dozen artists. The installation is great, the little ghoul/unicorn artworks are framed by pastel painted wall clouds and pompoms. The next show is “The Geek Strikes Back – Nerdcore III” which opens May 9th. Ink and Pistons is a Doc Marten booted step into another world, merging the style and vroom of the 1950s with the punk vibe of the 70s.

Hand-painted Canoes and Signs
Hand-painted Canoes and Signs

Another new world to dive into on Dixie is created by Culpepper Nautical at 1619 N. Dixie. The block long warehouse/showroom is open to the wholesale trade only but free for the public to walk through, Culpepper has a large unusual selection of salvaged maritime and seafaring objects and collectibles from around the world. In addition to the ship wheels, portholes, doors, ship lights, anchors, brass signs, rope covered glass floats, cannons, flags, battered liferings, hand carved figureheads, and buoys, they carry many items by local artists such as Davis Murphy. Murphy creates one of a kind copper fish and mermaids. They have an unusual collection of brightly hand painted rudders for canoes from Borneo that have aged into a sculptural beauty.

These are just a few of the Dixie delights, a historical street with traveling designs on the future.

Learn More About the History of the City as We Drive Along Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach Through its Stores, Art Galleries, Restaurants and Other Places

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