TITUSVILLE — This city never wanted the space program. Fifty years later, Titusville is getting its wish.
The shuttle is ending, Constellation is canceled, the city is dying, and there is no Buck Rogers from Washington coming to the rescue.
"I don't know what the answer is going to be for Titusville,'' says Dave Curfman.
Dave has been operating his hot-dog kiosk in the Miracle City Mall, for 41 years. When he first opened, the mall was lined with stores and brimming with people.
"We were still going to the moon,'' says Dave. "Everybody had big incomes.''
Miracle City Mall began emptying out when the Apollo program ended.
Now all that remains are J.C. Penney, a GNC, a Prison Book Project collection site and Dave.
Dave is centrally situated in the main corridor. It's like a scene out of "The Twilight Zone." A man wakes to find everyone in the world has vanished. He runs through one empty building after another, and then in the last one he finds Dave, all by himself, quite serene, his hot dogs spinning slowly on the rollers as if nothing had happened.
For his lunch rush one day this week, Dave sold one man two hot dogs. A woman bought nachos.
"Business is slow in general,'' says Dave, who works seven days a week. "But it is particularly slow today.''
Will he survive?
"I raised my family,'' he says. "We have paid off the house and cars. My wife and I are conservative. So we can get by.''
On the outside, Miracle City Mall is a desert of barren concrete. It is on one side of U.S. Highway 1, and the Indian River Lagoon is on the other side. Beauty and the Beast …
Titusville — the gateway to the spectacular Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge — has squandered its scenic setting.
Florida never was known for planning, but Titusville took that shortcoming to an extreme.
The city looks as if it was put together by engineers, using duct tape to join pieces not meant to go together, oblivious to the aesthetic aftermath. Strip shopping centers of all sizes border rows of small brick homes. Neither are aging well.
The best view of the lagoon was blocked by a towering, ugly block condo during the speculation boom.
The highway splits before hitting the town center, enveloping the strip of shops in surround-sound traffic. About 40,000 cars pass through a day.
The Florida Department of Transportation is trying to help with a streetscaping project. It includes 21,000 plants, big palms propped up with wooden braces and a bike path that, to the chagrin of some merchants, has eliminated some street parking.
There are some nice touches, primarily the coffee and bread shops. Maybe these seeds will take root. Maybe beneath the old, tired storefronts there are the makings of a quaint shopping district.
I think Titusville would have been better off if those scientists never showed up in 1950 with a German V-2 rocket, looking for a deserted beach to launch it. The city had an economy based on blue crabs, mullet and oranges. And it didn't want to change.
"When space came, the city fathers said we don't want any part of it,'' says Lee Starrick, the administrator of the U.S. Space Walk Hall of Fame. He is a retired Cape firefighter who has lived in the city since the 1940s.
But Titusville could no longer duck the growth when the moon became the mission in the 1960s.
"It overwhelmed us,'' says Starrick.
Like others who lived through the Apollo layoffs, he tends to be pessimistic.
"After Apollo every third house was empty,'' he says. "Some people left the door open when they left. It's going to be bad again. People are leaving.''
Among them are his daughter, grandchild and son-in-law, who was laid off from his job as a butcher.
Starrick is staying put, but he can't say the same for his Space Walk Hall of Fame Museum. The rusty downtown storefront doesn't attract many visitors. Those who do come will find a very interesting and enthusiastic tour guide. The museum survives by selling shuttle souvenirs during launches.
The remaining launches promise to bring a windfall as crowds gather to witness the end of an era. After that, people will leave and the city will be on its own.
"We are going to try to survive,'' says Starrick, who hopes to move to a location by Space Coast Regional Airport. "If we have to stay here, I'm afraid we're doomed.''
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