Palm Beach, Invaded | City Journal


The civil war of Palm Beach’s first post-pandemic season began not with a bang, but a flyer. In January, an angry Palm Beacher left it on cars with New York license plates. “If you are one of those ‘woke people’—leave Florida,” the flyer exclaimed. “You will be happier elsewhere, as will we.”

With more than 140 cameras on the island and state-operated drone surveillance, the Palm Beach Police Department quickly identified the flyer “perp,” whom town police chief Nicholas Caristo described as “a person from the area who was not known to us prior to this.” Though the flyers were annoying, they were not a criminal matter, he said in an interview, declining to name the culprit. The matter was quickly settled, he added, “in a Palm Beach way.” Translation: one of the island resort community’s 67 sworn officers visited the offender at home and told him, politely but firmly, to “cease and desist.” Case closed.

The “woke flyer incident” reflected the growing tension between what Warren Belmar, a veteran Palm Beach resident, calls the island’s “old guard” and the flood of new full-time residents. These new arrivals, many from New York, moved here and to neighboring Palm Beach County communities during the pandemic, some for temporary stays, but many permanently. From September 2020 to March 2021, 14,045 New York State driver’s licenses were converted to Florida licenses in Palm Beach County alone. For the past two years, chatter at newly opened Palm Beach locations of such standout New York restaurants as Le Bilboquet, La Goulue, St. Ambroeus, and Almond resounded with people congratulating one another in familiar Big Apple accents on their escapes and swearing never to move back north—usually throwing in curses on former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and disgraced New York governor Andrew Cuomo for good measure. At Palm Beach Day Academy, the town’s only private school, applications for fall 2020 surged 105 percent over the previous year, with some 60 percent of the increase tracking from the New York City area. In 2021, the Day School, or just “Day,” as the old guard calls it, added another 87 students. Many of the newcomers were dropped off in a long line of Mercedes, Range Rovers, and BMWs sporting New York license plates that rapidly became temporary Florida tags and then permanent Florida plates.

Given the growing ability to work remotely and Florida’s sun, surf, and low taxes, many could not resist the move. Frightening New York crime rates, absurd wokeism in New York’s schools, and disastrously restrictive Covid policies drove even more New Yorkers to become Floridians, with many of the wealthier ones settling in Palm Beach. “The old guard are nostalgic for the way Palm Beach was, as they are used to a certain aesthetic,” says Belmar, a member of the town’s Shore Protection Board, one of many unpaid voluntary groups responsible for preserving the island’s exquisite beauty and environment. “Everyone is adjusting to the fact that things are changing.”

Palm Beach is indeed changing. The “exclusive winter home of billionaires and their poorer colleagues, the multi-millionaires,” as an online Florida guide describes it, now faces an unprecedented challenge to its exclusivity and cherished aesthetic—which includes the signature velvet slippers from Worth Avenue’s Stubbs and Wootton that every properly dressed Palm Beacher unabashedly wears. It was noisier this season, residents complained, with far more traffic, far fewer open parking spaces, and fiercer competition for memberships in the town’s elite private clubs. Some have now closed their doors to new members, while others have dramatically increased their membership fees. Joining Mar-a-Lago, former president Donald J. Trump’s palatial club, is now said to cost $1 million. Reservations at the island’s crowded restaurants have become hard to secure. Some of the glitzier New York locales have reportedly sold “secret” phone numbers that guarantee priority reservations, usually for hundreds of dollars. High demand for the island’s roughly 2,500 single-family homes and its posh condominium developments sent real estate prices sky high; they have more than doubled since the pandemic began.

Before the pandemic, the island’s population was roughly 9,250 residents, its ranks normally swelling to more than 30,000 during the traditional January-to-April season. Because Palm Beach itself is “built out,” says Margaret “Maggie” Zeidman, president of the town council, it has retained roughly the same number of full-time residents for the past 60 years. “But many more of them are staying here longer,” she says. October-to-June has become the town’s new “season”—and the concept of “season” may disappear altogether.

New arrivals shut out of the island sent property values soaring in neighboring West Palm Beach, or “Palm Beach West,” as entrepreneurial real estate agents call it. “That’s basically the problem,” Zeidman says. “West Palm Beach, in particular, just seems determined to grow and grow. And everyone there wants to come here. But there’s only so much our town can handle.”

Separated from Palm Beach by three bridges, West Palm Beach is always close, but forever too far. According to the Palmer, a new glossy magazine published by Michael Berman, real estate sales in West Palm this past year rivaled those on the island. First came the 25-story Bristol, a high-rise that sold one of its first full-floor condominium apartments in 2019 for a record price of $42.56 million. Regulars at Green’s Pharmacy, a classic drugstore/diner that draws in all types on the island, buzzed all season about Palm Beachers who had sold their homes to move to West Palm, following the path of notable old guard residents like the late Mildred “Brownie” McLean, who sold her South Ocean Boulevard manse to John Lennon shortly before his murder. “West Palm Beach is no longer déclassé. You no longer have to feel sorry those who live there,” says Juliette de Marcellus, a music critic, author, and lecturer whose parents, the late Count and Countess Henri de Marcellus, came to Palm Beach in 1946.

Much to the old guard’s horror, West Palm now offers residents a free shuttle to the island’s beaches and shops. While Palm Beach stores and restaurants welcome more customers—despite town rules that require retail establishments to make a certain percentage of sales to locals—island residents increasingly resent sharing their beaches with nonresidents, whom they often accuse of slovenly behavior, drug abuse, and the ultimate Palm Beach sin: littering. Securing beach access has led some residents to go back to land deeds from 1911, the year the town was incorporated, to settle disputes. Recently, locked gates appeared in one contentious part of town, frustrating even local residents, who could no longer get to beaches they regard as “theirs.” While no one knows how many nonresidents cross the bridges, Chief Caristo is determined to find out: he has been installing equipment to measure and monitor cross-bridge traffic.

“You can’t stop people from coming here,” Zeidman says. “But there is a need for thoughtful urban planning. How many restaurants can we allow? How many parks and where? While Palm Beach has always evolved, we must not permit the influx to destroy the civility that residents have long enjoyed here.” The island is already rife with stories of new neighbors duking it out with established residents, and each other, over construction, landscaping, property lines, habits, and attitudes. One new resident amused her old guard neighbors by showing up with a huge Mercedes G-Wagen that cannot fit into her pricy townhouse’s garage. Members of the Beach Club, which now reportedly has a two-year waitlist and a $220,000 initiation fee, were recently shocked by bumptious New Yorkers who simply knocked on the door and asked if they could join on the spot. Members of the ultra-exclusive Everglades Club, which has no sign identifying it and doormen known to wave away the curious, have expressed relief that few of the new arrivals even know about their building on chic Worth Avenue. Even calling the town “Palm Beach Island” can elicit a wry smile, since the discerning Palm Beacher knows that it is either “Palm Beach” or “the Island,” never both.

Palm Beachers also worry that the influx may mean more crime on an island that has virtually none. Last December, residents were shocked by two “smash and grab” robberies on Worth Avenue, one of the nation’s iconic shopping streets, resulting in the theft of 13 vintage Hermès handbags worth an estimated $1 million from Only Authentics, a boutique featuring a 30-year curated collection of high-end accessories. Two weeks later, a second theft at the same store resulted in the loss of eight more luxury bags. “This is not supposed to happen on Worth Avenue,” Virgil Rogers, the store’s owner, told the Palm Beach Daily News, universally known to residents as the “Shiny Sheet” because of its smudge-free paper. Chief Caristo noted that the thief was apprehended in March, adding that the Palm Beach police—20 percent of them New York Police Department veterans—boast one of the state’s highest crime-clearance rates at over 60 percent. “Cars are stolen here, but we are one of the few jurisdictions in the state that is persistent in locating and returning them back to their owners,” he said. “It would help if residents would listen to our advice to stop leaving keys in their cars.”

Caristo added that thanks to his department’s emphasis on proactive policing, data collection, surveillance, and strong community relations—an annual gala held at Mar-a-Lago supports the Palm Beach Police and Fire Foundation for the standard local gala price of $1,000 per ticket—property crime rates have actually fallen. Violent crime is rare. Palm Beach’s last murder victim, in 1996, was strangled with a landline telephone cord. In its entire history, Palm Beach has had only one unsolved murder—in the 1980s. Caristo and his investigators are still trying to solve it.

A major complaint about the newcomers is noise. “Why do they always have to scream in restaurants,” sniffed one long-time resident over lunch at the posh but sedate Bath and Tennis Club (or B&T, as the locals call it). “You can’t hear yourself think.” During the pandemic, outdoor seating at restaurants expanded. But that, too, created noise. “Covid seating was supposed to be a temporary measure that has now lasted two years,” says Zeidman. Restaurants, which benefit from the added seats, are responsible for keeping noise levels down, particularly those closest to residential areas. Violators face swift retribution. The town council revoked outdoor seating at the Meat Market, a new place popular for its bar scene, after residents complained about rowdy crowds. Among them was Zeidman, the council president, who once went by the restaurant at 10:30 pm. to monitor the level of noise. A recent “declaration of use” agreement between the town and the Carriage House, a new private club, lists over 30 line items aimed at protecting the tranquility of neighbors. One limits the club’s live music offerings to a trio. Earlier this year, the town extended its nighttime noise ordinance from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. to prevent such activities as leaf-blowing, phonograph playing, and “hooting” from disturbing island residents during those early morning hours. (The town takes no known position on hollering.)

Then there’s the driving. Horn honking, a deafening fact of life in New York City, is traditionally verboten in Palm Beach, though more than a few old guard residents will admit to blaring their horns at New Yorkers who still have not quite found their bearings or cyclists who veer too far into traffic lanes. “Honking is definitely not part of Palm Beach’s well defined, distinct culture,” says Kirk Blouin, the former police chief and now the town manager. “There’s a way to conduct yourself in this town. You don’t complain or throw your weight around. How rich you are, or who you think you know doesn’t really matter, because there are so many wealthy people here. The newcomers haven’t gotten it yet. But they will,” he predicts.

To help new residents absorb the unstated rules of the road, the Palm Beach Boys’ Club, an eclectic local store in business for almost 30 years, printed up bumper stickers this season saying, “We don’t honk in Palm Beach.” “They’re selling like hotcakes,” says an assistant to Rick Wentley, the owner. But few Palm Beach bumpers sported the stickers, thanks to another unstated rule here: “We don’t put stickers on our bumpers,” says another Palm Beach lifer. Indeed, one sees few stickers of any kind on the town’s many luxury vehicles.

Political lawn signs are scarce, too. Even during the hotly contested 2020 presidential election, Palm Beach residents tended to keep their (mostly conservative) political views to themselves. Unlike Palm Beach County, which sided mostly with Democrat Joe Biden, a nearly two-thirds majority of Palm Beach voters stuck with their neighbor Donald Trump, a delicious irony since Trump himself arrived in 1985 as a brash New Yorker. Poorly received by the old guard in those days—he started Mar-a-Lago as a private club that was not “restricted,” as some of the town’s other clubs are said to have been—Trump has frequently found himself at odds with the town. As recently as 2020, his lawyers had to find a loophole in town ordinances to argue that he could declare Mar-a-Lago, a commercial entity, as his permanent legal residence. But now the old guard has grown used to him and often fervently shares his politics.

Palm Beach’s Republican residents fear that the island’s political complexion may change due to the influx of New Yorkers, perceived, as the flyer-poster thought, as more liberal and Democratic than island natives. “The fringes on both sides are crazed—both Trump loyalists and those suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome,” says Blouin. As a result, dinner party conversation has increasingly avoided not only religion but also politics. “The town has become so politically divided that you can’t even talk about Melania’s shoes,” one Palm Beacher complains. “You’re left with discussing nothing other than real estate, Netflix, and food.”

While the old guard often resents the newcomers, the area’s burgeoning cultural institutions are thrilled. “Our membership and subscriptions are at an all-time high,” reports David McClymont, CEO of the Palm Beach Symphony, entering its 49th season this fall. “Just under 1,400 people attended this season’s penultimate concert. While most subscribers are the local ‘old guard,’ there has definitely been an influx of new attendees.” And unlike so many orchestras in the northeast, the symphony’s subscribers are getting younger. Eight years ago, the donor’s average age was 78; today, the average age of those in the orchestra’s 50,000–strong database is just 54. McClymont attributes at least some of this to the newcomers. “The people moving here are rich in culture,” he says. “They’re used to it. They want it. They demand it.”

But the performing arts are outliers. More reflective of the disdain for the new arrivals is Shannon Donnelly, the Shiny Sheet’s society columnist who writes about the island’s social life, which revolves around charity galas, usually held at the famed art deco Breakers Hotel, and strictly guarded private events around town. In a column last March celebrating the publication of a photography book about the heyday of Mortimer’s, the famed but now-defunct New York restaurant, she denounced the arrivistes. “For the past two years,” she wrote, “as Palm Beach has become world headquarters for the S&C (i.e., “Strivers & Climbers”) and the streets get noisier and more congested and civility is circling the drain, nostalgia has become the thing.” But de Marcellus, for one, is not worried. “Yes, the noise and traffic are horrible,” she says. “But the cacophony is temporary. These men with their trophy wives won’t last. They won’t be able to join the clubs. They’ll be bored and go away.”

Maybe she shouldn’t be so sure.

Top Photo: Crystal Bolin Photography/iStock

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