Trayvon Martin case reveals undercurrent of racial tension, distrust in Sanford

"Sanford never moved out of the '70s," Francis Oliver said. "There is still an invisible line between the blacks and the whites." (Gary W. Green, Orlando Sentinel)

Sanford has none of the million-dollar residential subdivisions, corporate offices and business complexes of other Seminole County cities. Sanford's most valuable real estate — the waterfront — is lined with tax-exempt property including Sanford City Hall, Sanford Civic Center, the old Seminole County Courthouse, Fort Mellon Park, a municipal parking lot, the old post office and the nonprofit New Tribes Mission headquarters.

"It could have been better planned so there would be a real tax base for that property," said former Mayor Linda Kuhn.

Residents complain that Sanford is the county seat of Seminole that gets dumped on by the county. Sanford had the only public-housing project in Seminole before it was condemned as uninhabitable. It's the only city in Seminole with a homeless shelter.

"We're treated like the redheaded child of Seminole County," Kuhn said.

When school desegregation came in the 1970s, Sanford bore the brunt with the court-ordered integration of Seminole High School, said Bill Kirchhoff, 72, a second-generation Sanford resident and local historian.

"What they did in Seminole County is, in effect, they had two districts: one for the southern end of the county and one for Sanford," Kirchhoff said.

At Seminole High, the integrated school elected two homecoming queens — one white, one black — until the students themselves abolished the tradition in 1982.

'Bipolar community'

Proud of its isolation and independence, Sanford bristles at the idea of being considered a suburb of Orlando, a place that was once smaller than Sanford.

"Sanford was the gate city to the interior of the state," Kirchhoff said. "Orlando was a little dot down there."

Sanford, in many ways, views itself as superior to Orlando. Sanford has a waterfront; Orlando doesn't. Sanford has a historic downtown; Orlando doesn't. Sanford has a sense of place; Orlando doesn't. Sanford has a zoo; Orlando doesn't. Orlando has an airport. Sanford does also, which it grudgingly agreed to name Orlando-Sanford International Airport, instead of the other way around.

Similarly, Sanford once looked down its nose at Lake Mary, its next-door neighbor that experienced a growth spurt in the late 1980s, outpacing Sanford in affluence and prestige. Along the road that separates Lake Mary from Sanford, the subdivisions on the Lake Mary side call themselves the Hills of Lake Mary, Tuscany at Lake Mary, the Villas of Lake Mary. On the other side, no subdivision boasts of being the lakes, hills or villas of Sanford.

"I'm a Sanford resident. I pay Sanford taxes, but to be truthful if I was selling something on Craigslist, I'd say Lake Mary," said Greg Partridge, 40, who lives in a subdivision near the town houses where Trayvon Martin was killed. "There's less of a stigma attached to Lake Mary."

While other Seminole County communities have prospered, Old Sanford often gets the blame for turning its back on opportunities for growth and change.

"There isn't any old guard stopping anything," Kirchhoff said. "The guard left the gatehouse a long time ago."

What is left are factions of competing interests — what Jacobson describes as Sanford's "bipolar" personality. This is a city where the Greater Sanford Regional Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofit Historic Sanford Welcome Center exist almost side by side but operate independently of each other.

"A bipolar community — that's always been Sanford's story," Jacobson said. "It's this bipolar split of egos fighting against leadership to try and gain a stance or position."

Part of history

Old Sanford argues that what happened to Trayvon Martin could have happened anywhere. Sanford is the stand-in for all of America, and in that way serves as a lens for introspection on the issues of race, profiling, selective law enforcement, crime and self-defense, independent of where the killing took place.

New Sanford agrees: Sanford is Anywhere, U.S.A. But New Sanford also argues that there is something unique to the city that set the world on fire. At the core is the issue of race.