Snow-haired drivers in vehicles that sport Michigan and New York license plates creep down the shady streets of Cortez. These visitors are seeking one of the historic fishing village’s seafood restaurants, but first they must pass the timeworn single-family homes, their yards decorated with crab traps, floats, and decayed wooden boats.
Near the water, they pass chain-smoking fishermen in white rubber galoshes yucking it up as refrigerated trucks are loaded with their morning catch. These men carry on a tradition stretching back to the 1880s, when Cortez was settled by North Carolina fishermen on Hunter’s Point, a peninsula where Sarasota Bay meets Palma Sola Bay. Today the fish are fewer and the regulations are stronger–the gill net ban in 1995 was particularly devastating to the industry–but Cortez remarkably still remains an active commercial fishing community.
Thanks to the fishing families that still inhabit their ancestral homes and the artists who find inspiration in the atmosphere, a pocket of Cortez has managed to thwart much of the post World War II development that has transformed Florida’s waterfront into homogenized mansions, condos, and hotels. Cortez’ connection to the past and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico has made it a popular destination for those seeking an old Florida experience, evidenced by its packed restaurants and annual fishing festival, which draws tens of thousands over a weekend in February.
But Cortez’ popularity has also eroded its quaintness. Some of the nearly century-old frame cottages have been replaced by significantly larger buildings. A 50-acre patch of the village south of Cortez Road is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but this distinction does nothing to prevent destruction of historic homes.
So what is Cortez’ future? It’s unlikely to remain a commercial fishing haven much longer; it has already transitioned to a tourism and recreational economy, and those areas will only expand. But for now it remains a base for a few rugged individuals to ply their trade.