Last year was one of great change for Sarasota. Our population swelled with newcomers, our buildings got thicker and taller and our intersections got rounder. We continued our march to develop our little coastal getaway into a premier destination for wealthy retirees, entrepreneurs and ideological refugees.
Perhaps we can look back at 2022 the way fortune tellers look at tea leaves in an attempt to make out what lies ahead. What will Sarasota look like in 2023 and beyond?
A possible metaphor for where we're headed may have come with the changing of the seal of the City of Sarasota.
Last November, the City Commission unanimously approved a new city seal. Gone is the original seal from 1902, depicting a mullet and oysters drawn like an unsophisticated cave painting. It has been replaced by an image of a bridge, palms, birds and sunshine in the style of a social media infographic.
Former city commissioner Hagen Brody proposed revamping the new seal back in May 2021. At the time, he said, the move was needed because he felt both the seal and the logo looked dated. The city paid DreamLarge, a registered benefit corporation, to lead a process to redesign the seal that included more than 100 submissions from members of the public. Most of the commissioners weren’t fans of the old seal and the city's logo, which is the David silhouette. Then-vice-mayor Kyle Battie said, “It looks like a seal—like a dead seal.” Battie also said that the David logo looked like “a naked dude looking over your shoulder.”
But updating the seal is deeper than just a shift in art. It is a reformation of memory. The mullet and oysters in the original seal represented popular industries in Sarasota at the time of the city's founding by Hamilton Gillespie. It’s hard to imagine that we once ate oysters out of Sarasota Bay, but it’s nice to remember that our water was once pure and clean enough to eat from—even if that reminder is from a crudely drawn cartoon.
We sacrificed the quirkiness and character of the old seal for a more common millennial aesthetic. The new seal has the same kind of flat pastels you see in the imagery of a Silicon Valley company. It could be the avatar for an app on your phone, and could represent just about any city with a bridge, palm trees and sunshine.
This might sound pedantic, but, as an example, the palm trees used in the new seal are the wrong kind for our area. Jono Miller, author of The Palmetto Book: Histories and Mysteries of the Cabbage Palm, voiced his frustration over the final design.
“They used pinnate leaves instead of palmate,” says Miller. “The cabbage palm is the native palm to this area. Those are the leaves of coconut or royal palms.”
Miller says he reached out to the city commission, hoping they might correct the inaccuracy. In his email, he included a picture of Hamilton Gillespie standing in front of a large cabbage palm and reminded commissioners that the palms on downtown’s Palm Avenue are cabbage palms and that it is the most common tree in the downtown area. The commission, however, went with the pinnate leaves.
“Having the right tree in the seal is a way of honoring our history and reflecting this part of Florida,” says Miller. “I don’t know why people tend to prefer the pinnate aesthetically, but if you don’t do your homework, you get this: style over substance.”
In the same October 2022 meeting at which the new seal was approved, the City Commission also passed updates to the city's comprehensive plan. The plan was met with considerable pushback because some feared it may change the character and affordability of Sarasota. One of the concerns raised about the new plan is that it may turn Sarasota into another Fort Lauderdale-type city, full of empty high rises.
Can we continue to grow and change without losing the very charm that people move here for? We'll see. We have to decide which parts of our history we want to remember and embrace.
If you still want to see the old city seal, it is memorialized in terrazzo in the lobby of the Federal Building near the intersection of Orange Avenue and Ringling Boulevard. When asked if there were any plans to replace that, city manager Marlon Brown said, “Not at this time, nor in the foreseeable future.”