GULFPORT, Fla. -- It used to be that locals avoided this rough-and-tumble fishing center wedged between St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach. But that was then. For the past decade, Gulfport, a city of 13,000 residents, has been steadily transforming itself into an arts community, attracting visitors from Tampa Bay and faraway.
Along the way, it has drawn so many gay and lesbian year-round and winter residents (an estimated 30 percent of the population) that it is also known as Provincetown South. The downtown merchants' association is involved with regional gay/transgender pride festivities, and late last year Gulfport became one of the few Florida municipalities, and the first in the Tampa Bay area, to adopt an ordinance that protects not only gays and lesbians but also transgendered people.
But what Gulfport really has become is a place for everyone, a place where ''diverse" is not a buzzword.
During a stroll along the mostly commercial Beach Boulevard on a Saturday afternoon in early February, there were children playing in front of a worn duplex, 20-somethings shopping, traditional families with children, bikers, grandparents, great-grandparents, and gay couples. And don't forget the dogs. Every other person had one, with Labrador retrievers and Chihuahuas leading the pack. Most seem to know one another.
''We at the chamber call the community 'bohemian,' " said Greg Stemm, executive director of the Gulfport Chamber of Commerce, and also a gay man and the owner of two dachshunds. ''There's a real desire not to make this a gay ghetto. We very much value an eclectic mix. For a small town, we have a remarkable blend of people."
Frank Hibrandt feels the same way. ''It's the reason I live in Gulfport. It's like Mayberry, updated for this century," said Hibrandt, who is an artist and art consultant. He recently opened Frank Edward Contemporary Art, a gallery for rotating art installations. (Hibrandt goes by Frank Edward because everybody botches his surname, he said.)
Hibrandt compares Gulfport to 1970s Key West. Several years ago he and fellow community activist Marlene Shaw started City of Imagination, an arts group promoting Gulfport artists and events. There is also the popular Gulfport Art Walk, from 6 to 8 p.m. on the first Friday and third Saturday of every month (information and a map are available online at www.gulfportchamberofcommerce.com).
Many artists live in the area, including several with ties to P-town, such as painter Hilda Neily, a winter resident, and folk artist Hugo Porcaro, a year-round Gulfporter who shows in P-town and is a member of its art association. Mailboxes painted by the Reverend Hugo, as he's called, add to the flavor of several cottages and bungalows lining brick streets in the historic downtown arts district.
Other Gulfport artists and artisans include glass blower Jackie Ballard; metal sculptor Joe Levy; and painter Keith Stillwagon, a longtime resident whose fanciful murals have turned plain buildings into lovely creations. Singer-songwriter John Prine recently bought a home here.
The commercial part of the downtown historic district consists, for now, of two three-block-long streets, Beach Boulevard to Boca Ciega Bay and Shore Boulevard alongside it. A free trolley travels through Gulfport on Friday and Saturday evenings. The area, lined mostly with shops, cafes, and businesses, is in transition, with some homes and buildings needing face lifts. Their renaissance will almost certainly come.
''We're classing it up here," said Diane Yokom, 35, who was hanging out on a Saturday afternoon with Zaba, her Chihuahua. Yokom extols the laid-back lifestyle here.
''If you want a faster pace, you can go to St. Pete, Tampa, and Clearwater," she said of the neighboring cities.
One place recently classed up is the bayside Gulfport Casino, a historic building that was never a gambling hall but a place for socializing. The most recent renovation to the 1934 city-owned structure came in 2002 and included a refurbishing of its huge wooden dance floor.
The Casino abuts Gulfport Beach and a waterfront park, where you usually find folks on benches and swings, women playing volleyball on Sundays, and people fishing from the two small piers. The bay bottom is silty, not sandy. A true beach experience is only a couple of miles away on St. Pete Beach.
Beach Boulevard is home to the Art Village Courtyard, a cluster of historic cottages brightly painted and turned into shops. Weekends bring art and craft vendors and musical performers.
The Courtyard's veteran shopkeeper is Nancy Gable of Makin' Art. Her store is crammed with paintings, painted objects, collage and mixed-media pieces -- all made by Gable, a former art teacher. With several landlords and rent rising over the last five years, Gable hopes she can stay put.
''We've had a lot of people come and go. Behind me has been everything from a bonsai garden to an art gallery to a massage therapist, and now Dollylocks," she said of the dreadlocks hair salon that moved to Gulfport from New York.
Along with the art walk crowd, Gable gets customers who are waiting for tables at Backfin Blue Cafe across the street, which draws diners from miles around. The restaurant, which specializes in crab but serves many outstanding dishes, is housed in a 1920s Florida Cracker house.
Another piece of history sits next door, at the Peninsula Inn & Spa. The 1904 building, decorated in British Colonial style, adds a touch of elegance to this casual spot. Its wide front porch is the best place for people-watching.
Even though Stemm's job as the chamber director is to promote Gulfport, he admits it is tempting to keep quiet.
''We walk the line between letting people know what a wonderful community we have and wanting to keep it to ourselves," Stemm said.
Contact Diane Daniel at email@example.com.