By Ryan E. Little
The Associated Press
EAGLE LAKE, Fla. — In the heart of the city, there is love, even in the U.S. 17 median in Eagle Lake.
Hidden in the blur of a 45-mph trip on U.S. 17 through Eagle Lake — a blip on the road in its own right — is a tiny cluster of small apartments and houses where two handfuls of people have made a community.
Despite the U.S. 17 traffic, busy train tracks just 100 feet away and the whirl of sirens from the nearby Polk County fire station, children play with worn balls amid chicken coops and herb gardens. Front doors are mostly left open when home. Not always locked when away.
For almost 10 years, Ernesto Rebolledo, 35, has lived in a two-bedroom home with a wall that stands a mere 10 feet from the left southbound lane of U.S. 17.
In a rectangular conclave, behind a wooden privacy fence built 6 feet off his front door, and only about 10 feet long, Rebolledo, his wife, and their children, raise the hens for eggs and herbs to spice them up.
"In a very little space, you can put a lot of things if you use the right angle," Rebolledo, a Mexican immigrant, said through an interpreter.
Even a community can be fit into a median.
Residents say the biggest appeal is the rent and the city. Crime is so low in Eagle Lake that an update on two weeks of crime to the Eagle Lake City Commission is often done in 60 seconds or less. Sometimes, there's nothing to report.
It's a stark contrast from other low-rent neighborhoods in Polk County, where crime is often higher than average.
The noise isn't even all that bad.
Sitting on a worn plastic chair on the tiny wooden porch in front of her one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, Debora Reynolds, 49, is at peace.
Ask her about the noise during a lull in the traffic and she tells you to listen.
"It's peaceful like this most of the time," she said.
The apartments were built in 1932, Polk County Property Appraiser records show, when U.S. 17 was just a two-lane road that ran through Eagle Lake where the northbound lanes are now. For most of its existence, the apartments were a quiet place in a sleepy town.
That changed when U.S. 17 was widened in 1990 and 1991, with north and southbound lanes separated by a particularly wide median.
To fit three lanes on each side of the road, the Florida Department of Transportation had turn a local road into the other side of U.S. 17, creating the U.S. 17 median -- a 150-foot-wide conclave that includes mostly small businesses.
The complex's owner, Vickie Richardson, bought the apartment complex in 1997 for $75,000, about six years after U.S. 17 was widened.
She never worried about problems with the location. She always saw the upside: close proximity to Eagle Lake businesses and a bus stop right across the street.
"Some people like that it is right in town and they can catch the bus right there at the apartments," Richardson said. "Now that the dollar stores have gone in, they really like that."
Clark Lemieux, a 6-year resident of the complex, said it's like New York City living in a small southern town.
But don't tell his northern relatives, he said, they might ridicule him for it.
"Boy, would I never hear the end of it," Lemieux said laughing.
But in all seriousness: a public beach -- on Eagle Lake, the lake -- a park, two dollar stores, two restaurants and two gas stations are all within a five-minute walk.
The stop for the bus, which many of the residents use to get to work, is across the street.
"Even though you have traffic on both sides here, everything is kind of convenient," Lemieux said. "Yes, we don't have a Wal-Mart or anything like that, but that would take away from the characteristic of the town itself.
"(The complex is) not the best looking, but it's cheap and it's simple," he said.
Michelle Bowser, 23, moved to her apartment about six months ago, escaping some instances of crime in a Mulberry neighborhood she was living in.
"(The complex) is very odd," Bowser said. "Sometimes you get nervous because the cars sound so close that it sounds like they are going to come through it"
A car once did years ago, but no one was hurt.
"But we look out for each other," Bowser said. "The neighbors are very caring."
RYAN E. LITTLE, The Ledger