Palatka Pride

On the surface, Palatka, FL appears to be an antiquated town that time has left behind. As the county seat of Putnam County, there is legal commerce aplenty,

Putnam County Courthouse1 (2)

but Main Street bears the battle scars of a once-vibrant retail scene.

Offices for Rent

Far too many vacant store and empty sidewalks along St. Johns Avenue suggest that downtown Palatka’s panache has been replaced by big-box retailers like Wal-Mart (only three miles away)–jokingly confirmed by a hand-painted directional crossroads sign…

Walmart sign

beside an empty storefront.

In fact, it would seem that much of Palatka is FOR RENT…

Kiddie Kampus

or simply un-rentable…

Texaco Service Station

Palatka sits on the west bank of St. Johns River offering strategic access into Central Florida, which is what made Palatka a once-thriving pre-Civil War trading post after land-hungry American settlers eliminated the Seminoles, driving them west of the Mississippi.

Bird's-eye_View_of_Palatka,_FL (2)

Equally important to Palatka’s economy at the time was its mild sub-tropical winters–extending farmers’ growing season and making the area a popular tourist destination for the hoi polloi, whose wealthier counterparts enjoyed a luxury haven in nearby, coastal St. Augustine (read The Poshest Campus in America, and Otto’s Collections).

Unfortunately, a historic fire in 1884 and deep-freeze in 1894 sealed Palatka’s fate as a favored destination, as most tourists migrated South. The city rebuilt, and eventually re-emerged as a manufacturing hub, with Georgia Pacific currently holding title to the largest private sector employer.

But what of downtown today for its nearly 11,000 residents, and how can they possibly compete with St. Augustine to the North, Orlando to the West, and Daytona Beach to the South?

The city, when considering its redevelopment needed a gimmick–something to breath new life into it.

Dragon on a roof

It needed a serious makeover, or maybe some divine intervention.

St. Mary's Church

Driving traffic back to the beat of the city was important. The Bingo Palace added some well-deserved blue-collar cache and shabby chic to the area,

Bingo Palace1

and preserving Angels Diner for future fans of Guy Fieri has also become a go-to venue.

One look around the interior of Angel Diner, and it defies the gravity of its standing as Florida’s oldest diner.

Angels Diner exterior

By any law of nature, it shouldn’t be standing, but this tin-skin dive is a testament to the wire and glue that seemingly holds its walls from caving. Stepping through its Hobbit-like entrance is like being transported back to a time when shiny greasy spoons offered up Happy Day burgers and shakes, while we listened to the jukebox soundtrack of our Growing Pains.

Angels Diner interior

Leah and I shared a hefty order of Fish and Chips. The check came to eight bucks, and it was tasty! 

fish and chips.jpg

A walk around downtown after our meal left the impression that Palatka is much like a collection of rusty charm pieces; although it boasts a historic district with a melange of classic architectural styles, it’s still fighting to remain relevant.

While there is ample nostalgia here, and a story to tell of old Florida, perhaps all that’s really needed is a broom and a fresh coat of paint.

Enter the Conlee-Snyder Mural Committee in 1998, which has opted to:

…accurately depict the historical, cultural, and natural riches of Palatka and Putnam County in larger-than-life murals.  In sharing these pictorial renderings with visitors and citizens, appreciation of the heritage of the community will be enhanced and developed.

The city’s plan of commissioning a plethora of tribute murals over the past twenty years has given rise to a tourism rebirth, notwithstanding the city’s longstanding and dedicated art scene and attention to local culture.

Arts Center

Self-described as the City of Murals,

City of Murals legend (2)

Palatka now boasts a swath of bright colors depicting lively time capsule markers, and always helping to defib drab building back to life.

What follows is a photo essay of just a few of them in no particular order:

William Bartram
William Bartram, c. 1774

on South Third Street at St. Johns Avenue

Putnam Treasures 

on South Seventh Street at St. Johns Avenue

Tightrope Walker
High Time in Palatka, c. 1872 

on South Seventh Street at St. Johns Avenue

Those Who Have Served
War Veterans Memorial

on North Eighth Street at St. Johns Avenue

Palatka Station
Old J T & K Railway Station, c. 1886

on City Hall, Reid Street at North Second Street

Native Flowers
Putnam County Wildflowers

on South Third Street at St. Johns Avenue

Mary Lawson Hospital
Mary Lawson Hospital

on Ninth and St. Johns Avenue

Night Passage, c. 1884

on North Fourth Street at St. Johns Avenue

Harlem Nights
Harlem Nights in Palatka

on North Seventh Street at St. Johns Avenue

French Balcony
Bygone Days, c. 1880

on South Fifth Street at St. Johns Avenue

Cowboys on the River
Cattle Drive to Paynes Prairie, c. 1930

on North Tenth Street at St. Johns Avenue

Battle at Horse Landing, May 23, 1864

on South Third Street at St. Johns Avenue

Billy Graham
To God Be the Glory, 1937-38

on South Fourth Street at St. Johns Avenue

Bill Pearce Highway
Senator B.C. Pearce

on St. Johns Avenue between North Tenth and Eleventh Streets

Annie Oakley
Annie Oakley

on South Eleventh Street at St. Johns Avenue

All Hotels Depots
The Putnam House, c. 1891

on North Second Street at St. Johns Avenue

Other merchants have joined in, beautifying the exteriors of their retail establishments…

Peace mosaic

with mixed messages.

Pizza Boyz

After canvassing the town with my camera for the afternoon, I dropped my work façade,

3-D Saloon.jpg

knowing it was definitely time for a drink!


8 thoughts on “Palatka Pride

  1. We are trying. I painted the cowgirl riding the guitar on 3-D saloon. I have also replaced the Mug Race mural that was painted over by the Cricket Phone shop. I also painted the directional sign that points to “Walmart 3 miles”. The purpose of the sign was to remind customers that they were not walking into Walmart. At the time you took that photo, it was not an empty storefront! It was an art studio where we gave about 50 children per week painting lessons and created canvas prints and gallery quality giclée reproductions for other artists. I just finished repainting another mural that you photographed, The Putnam House Hotel. We have a wonderful non-profit mural committee (Conlee-Snyder Mural Committee, Inc.) that operates within the CRA district that you toured. Not only do they continually add murals, but also maintain them. Many shops are opening and closing all the time. Covid gave everybody quite a hit, but the shops continue to increase in numbers. We have a great revitalization effort in progress and organizations such as Revitalize Historic Palatka, Inc. who contribute to events and helping new businesses find available retail space that matches their needs. The Arts Council of Greater Palatka, Inc. is our county’s Local Arts Agency (LAA), and operates out of the Larimer Arts Center (the old library when I was a child), putting on free concerts at the riverfront park, live music at the Arts Center, art and drama classes for youth and adults, among other things. We have not been left behind by time. We are a growing community with a downtown that is in the process of becoming vibrant again, rather than the way you have presented it. We have new restaurants downtown since your tour and plans for a new steakhouse with a river view and tiki bar on the roof. Our water and sewage infrastructure has been, and still in the process of being completely upgraded and replaced where needed. Our roadways are under constant improvement and district zoning has been reworked to help growth. Much of our downtown real estate has recently been bought by new and diverse groups and individuals after many years of a small group of owners “sitting” on the property. I see new construction crews downtown almost every day fortifying the interior of commercial buildings while retaining the historic facades to prepare for new businesses to move in. You did not see a crumbling town that needed a “broom and fresh coat of paint” rather, you saw us with the broom and paintbrushes in hand building back our main-street that had seen unfortunate decline in the era of shopping malls. Despite the advent of on-line shopping, we are growing as we retain our historical small town look, feel, and attitude- unlike St. Augustine. We are relevant and flourishing here in Palatka and the quality of life is unmatched.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking time to comment. It’s very clear how passionate you are about Palatka, and the town is very fortunate that your enthusiasm and civic pride is shared through your volunteerism.
      I apologize if my observations may have come off as overly judgemental, but I never intended to disparage your town–only shine a light and point my camera lens on what was so evident at the time of my last visit.
      It’s good to know that there is a strong network of concerned townsfolk who share your vision for a revitalized downtown. Palatka still has a part to play in NE Florida as the county seat for Putnam County. And its relevancy should direct the need and effort to resurrect Palatka’s commercial vitality.
      I’m happy to read that construction crews are active up and down St. Johns. Getting vacant storefronts rented is imperative for delivering a satisfying shopping experience to its residents, but also necessary to attract desirable tenants and attract future tourism.
      Investing in Palatka may still seem risky to many (as opposed to St. Augustine), but affordable housing may lead the charge toward a healthy economic engine, and Palatka will certainly benefit from an infusion of new blood and money.
      The painted murals may be a sign of Palaka’s comeback, but real proof comes from busy streets and sidewalks.
      I’ll be interested in seeing the difference during my next visit.

      Liked by 1 person

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