Old Sanford eats at the Colonial Room. The menu hasn't changed in 30 years and, despite new owners, is unlikely to change much in the future. Old Sanford likes predictability, familiarity, tradition and meatloaf on Mondays, fried chicken on Thursdays. Old Sanford remembers when the high-school class ring had celery stalks on the sides and Pete Knowles was city manager for 32 years.
Hollerbach's Willow Tree Café is New Sanford. The German-themed restaurant relies more on out-of-towners than locals for its business. New Sanford moved in from somewhere else, drawn to the preserved downtown, the historic district of old homes, the renovated riverfront, the strong sense of place and community.
The two restaurants are a block apart, each catering to a different — yet sometimes overlapping — clientele that represents a city in transition. In the middle of this transformation, while factions competed for control, the world set siege to the city of Sanford.
The shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman brought national and international attention to the oldest city in Central Florida, along with busloads of protesters, high-profile civil-rights activists, cable-television satellite trucks and newspaper reporters from across the country. The city — which has worked hard to overcome its reputation as a poor, rural town — was now being compared to Birmingham and Selma. A bad image was being replaced by something worse.
Old and New Sanford, black and white, newcomers and old-timers, agree that the labels slapped upon Sanford by "outsiders" are untrue and inaccurate. Sanford is a friendly, close-knit, hospitable city of 54,000 people who get along reasonably well, they say.
Where they are as different as the Willow Tree's Wiener schnitzel and the Colonial Room's country-fried steak is on whether Sanford has a racial problem.
Old Sanford says no, that individuals may have experienced prejudice or racism, but the city as a whole has never been racist.
"Sanford has never, and still to my knowledge, does not experience racial prejudice as a community. Sanford never has had racial problems," said Sara Jacobson, 74, a third-generation Sanford resident and downtown-business owner.
New Sanford says the racial tensions unleashed by Trayvon's shooting death are real and deep-seated. They need to be acknowledged and addressed.
"Yes, we had a problem with how black people were treated and how things haven't been equal. I'm not going to say it's a good thing Trayvon Martin died, but it's a good thing it's out there and we can make it better," said Theo Hollerbach, 54, an Orlando native who opened his Sanford restaurant in 2001.
The black community's grievances include a long distrust of the Sanford Police Department. Black residents complain they are viewed as suspicious by police for doing things that whites take for granted: driving a new car, sitting on bus benches after dark, talking together inside a parked car.
Cindy Philemon said she and a friend were questioned by a police officer while sitting on a bus bench at night, talking.
"He said, 'Get up from here. The bus isn't running at these hours.' So we got up, but we felt defeated. It was like the days way old," said Philemon, 48, who was born in Sanford. "They can do you wrong, but you can't speak out. They can hit you, and you can't fight back because they will take you to jail."
Old Sanford, in words that echo from the civil-rights era of the 1960s, blames outside agitators for making race an issue in Sanford. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are accused of provoking a national outrage directed at Sanford for personal aggrandizement and profit. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown is a troublemaker. Those who marched down Park Avenue from Centennial Park to the Civic Center were outsiders bused into Sanford, not local black residents.
"We wouldn't have had this reaction without Corrine Brown calling in Jesse and Sharpton," said Barbara Chapman, 82. "I don't think they [Sanford blacks] were involved in it."
Sanford's black residents dispute that version. Members of the Seminole County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and local black activists say they raised concerns about Trayvon's death and the decision not to arrest Zimmerman soon after the Feb. 26 shooting. They say the city was unresponsive.
"Before Jesse Jackson, before Al Sharpton, before any of them came in here, we tried to talk to chief of police [Bill] Lee, we tried to talk to [City Manager Norton] Bonaparte, we tried to talk to [Mayor] Jeff Triplett, we tried to talk to the commissioners," said Francis Oliver, 68, founder of the Goldsboro Westside Historical Museum.
"When you can't talk to your city leaders," Oliver said, "you have to do what you have to do."
'Don't change anything'
IN THE SHADOW OF RACE: FIRST IN AN OCCASIONAL SERIES
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