Hangout Heaven: The story of the Naples Pier

The scene at the Naples landmark offers a glimpse of just about everything Southwest Florida offers


It’s just after 8 on a Monday morning, and Southwest Florida is in its usual scramble: commuters rushing to work, school buses delivering children and even retirees hustling to their obligations—the tennis court, the supermarket, the coffee shop.

Except at the end of 12th Avenue South, where the Naples Pier begins and life’s frenzy abruptly halts.

It happens with a single step from pavement to boardwalk. You involuntarily exhale, relax the tension in your shoulders and lift your chin slightly toward the sun. One thousand feet long, 126 years old, the Pier both defines Naples and defies it—at least the fast-moving, commerce-heavy lifestyle that too often dominates these days.

The Pier captures all that Southwest Floridians come here seeking—sunlight, nature, small-town atmosphere. It knits together everyone who makes this region distinct, from the native-born to the global tourists to the northern transplants and snowbirds to the ever-growing youth population. Grab a seat and listen—their stories will unfold all around you.

Brad Harvey (right) snares a 46-inch king mackerel while Joel Taylor Duerr poses with double bonitas.


“This is a cemetery.”

Lazaro El Cid’s fishing line is in the water, but he’s relaxing on a bench and not bothering to do anything besides let it dangle into the Gulf. He grins, pleased with his colorful word choice, and in his still-heavy Cuban accent continues his analogy. “It’s the Dead Sea.”

There is but one topic dominating the conversation among the fishing crowd—the retirees who gather each weekday morning—and that is the lack of fish.

“Where is the mackerel? Where is the sheepshed? The whiting? The pompano?” El Cid shakes his head. Once upon a time he would have caught his daily allotment within an hour and a half at best. Over the past decade or so, the population has waned, and then, last spring…

“It’s like someone poisoned the water.”

That’s Ned Dotter, 74, an Ohioan who’s been coming to Naples since 1983 and moved here permanently in 1995. “Since they reopened the Pier (in November), I’ve caught one pompano.”

He says this in mid-December. Last year, Dotter and fellow regular Jim Renfro together hauled in some 70 of them. The usual rule—if Dotter doesn’t bring a cooler, Renfro and his wife, Lynn, get his fish. He does not have a cooler today.

Conspiracy theories abound. Maybe it had to do with last year’s beach renourishment, which used sand mined from Immokalee to replenish the shoreline. Maybe it’s the lack of seagrass or the gradual removal of groynes—those narrow structures that jut into the surf to prevent sand erosion. The fish seemed to like them. Perhaps the problem stems from overdevelopment and increased freshwater discharge. And certainly the dolphins did not help. Those pesky mammals will snatch your catch faster than you can reel it in, leaving the head, “just so you’ll know what you caught,” Lynn Renfro says. The anglers have dubbed them “welfare dolphins” for their reliance on human providers.

For the record, no city of Naples administrators, Florida Fish & Wildlife researchers or Conservancy of Southwest Florida experts were aware of any such fish disappearance and could offer up an explanation. FWC’s research division postured it was a seasonal shift. Renourishment projects generally don’t mess with fish populations.

Back when the fish were abundant, the Pier would be elbow-to-elbow with anglers. These days, the morning crowd has thinned to a few dozen, and that’s OK; sparse numbers make for a more intimate, town square kind of feel and reinforces the sense that for all the griping, these anglers aren’t really here for the fish.

“It’s a wonderful place to try to get away from everything you’re trying to get away from,” says Bill Merritt, who’s been coming to the Pier since 1959. He moved to Naples permanently from upstate New York three years ago and spends some six hours a day, pole in hand, at the very end of the Pier where some of the most die-hards like to convene. It’s a psychological thing, he explains. “I like to come all the way to the end and cast as far as I can.”

Lazaro El Cid

Bill Merritt


Merritt serves as something like the Pier’s ambassador. He’ll take the tourists’ questions—or on this morning, the reporter’s—when others might glower instead. “I understand the importance of tourism to Naples,” he explains. He chuckles thinking about the questions he’s been asked. The most preposterous: “What body of water is this?”

A friend, Clare Kwant, claps Merritt on the shoulder. “I heard Jersey Nick fell again and didn’t want to go to the hospital.” Merritt nods. Nick, who’s in his 80s, is the unofficial Pier mayor.

Miss a few days, and your absence is felt. It can be worrisome, Lynn Renfro says. No one knows each other’s last name, making inquiries impossible. Like a bunch of neighborhood kids, they go by nicknames. Her husband is “Tennessee Jim.” Once, they had a whole slate of Pauls: Tall Paul, Pompano Paul, Gringo Paul, Little Paul.

And a Whitey.

“I’m Whitey Bulger.”

At the Pier’s end, Massachusetts transplant Jimmy Contini grins. In a white baseball cap and dark, wraparound sunglasses, he indeed looks like the last-known photo of South Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger taken before his 2011 arrest after 16 years on the run.

Contini wanders off to try his luck. Some 20 minutes later, he returns: “I got a shark!” A 3-inch “shiner” flaps on his line.

And then, suddenly, a burst of excitement. A young man in long pants and big boots suddenly feels a tug on his line. “Everyone off the rail!” someone shouts. Anyone within earshot rushes to the Pier’s end, cell phones and cameras ready.

The man strains; his pole bends into a tight “C.” “F-ing dolphin,” he curses, fearing one of those moochers is about to steal his catch.

But man prevails over beast, and he hauls up a king mackerel. The crowd cheers.

“That’s a miracle,” says El Cid. “What you did?”

The man, who identifies himself as Cameron—no last name, please—shrugs. One of the regulars measures his catch at 43 inches.

“Live bait on top,” Cameron, who is 20 and grew up fishing the Pier, says later, as onlookers wander away. “They hit ’em almost every time.”

Maybe they’ll all start having that luck again, but until then, there are other perks to life on the Pier. Jim Renfro smiles. At 82, his eyes sparkle and his body is taut and ready to reel in whatever takes his bait.

“My doctor says, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing Jim, but keep doing it.’”

His friend, Ned Dotter, echoes his sentiments.

“It’s beautiful out here in the sunshine. Even if the fish aren’t biting, you still have your friends.”

The pier, of course, isn’t all about the fishing.

As the sun starts to climb one December morning, Naples resident Monet Layton unpacks her camera gear and waits for her in-laws.

“We love it,” says Layton, 40, who lives nearby and likes to take her 11- and 7-year-old daughters there weekly.

She’s been coming here her whole life. “In high school I was on the swim team. We would dare each other to jump off the end.” She didn’t but grins remembering classmates who did. Layton photographs at the Pier regularly, which is why her sister-in-law Roslyn Layton; Roslyn’s husband, John Strand; and their two children, Thomas, 14 months, and Annastasia, nearly 3, met up with her that morning.

“We’re sending Christmas cards to people all over the world with a photo from the Naples Pier,” says Roslyn Layton, whose family splits time between her husband’s native Denmark and Naples.

“I like to come all the way to the end and cast as far as I can.” — Bill Merritt

Memories of all kinds are made there.

The most vivid for City Councilman Bill Barnett was the day Hurricane Wilma approached Naples in 2005.

“I was mayor at the time. I was standing on the Pier. It was a sunny day, beautiful.” The broadcaster from The Weather Channel had arrived—a bad omen. Barnett remembers trying to shoo people off the beach, off the Pier and seeing the you-must-be-nuts looks reflected back at him.

“I’m standing on this Pier and wondering if I will be able to stand on it tomorrow,” he remembers. 

The Pier weathered the storm—a relief to residents.

“It really is the soul of Naples,” Barnett says. “If you remember anything about Naples, you’ll remember the Pier.” 

Sherry Kong of St. Louis poses for a photo while on vacation with her family.


The Pier itself has a story—an important one.

It was born out of a need to get people and freight off the steamship Fearless and onto shore. Construction started in 1888 on a 600-foot, T-shaped wharf. Along with that came the construction of The Naples Hotel, located at the end of 12th Avenue South, then called Pier Street. Passengers would disembark and walk in a straight line down the Pier to the hotel.

“The outside world was connected through the Pier,” says Elaine Reed, president and CEO of the Naples Historical Society. “The Pier is what allowed commerce and travel to begin.”

It carried in the wealthy northerners who helped shape Old Naples. It brought in merchandise and building materials and the mail. It carried in famous guests, including Rose Cleveland, the president’s sister, actress Hedy Lamarr and less famous but no less influential people such as former Louisville Journal editor Henry Waterson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose editorials encouraged U.S. involvement in World War II.

The Pier was damaged and repaired during the hurricanes of 1910 and 1926. It weathered another one in 1935. The hurricane of 1944 forced it to be rebuilt to sturdier standards—only to be decimated by Hurricane Donna in 1960. Philanthropists Lester and Dellora Norris paid some $130,000 to rebuild it.

The Pier’s most recent incantation came in the last year, in a $2.4 million renovation project that featured the installation of Brazilian ipe wood planks, one of the densest hardwoods available. As with other renovation projects, the original look was preserved. Architect Matthew Kragh redesigned new restrooms, replicating the original ones as closely as possible.

Regular visitors call the results “beautiful.”

Artists and photographers continually seek new ways of capturing the Pier and its moods.

“(The Pier) says, ‘Naples, Florida.’ It’s a place everybody goes to. They go to celebrate the sunset. People go there to get married. People go there to get engaged. When families come from up north, people take them to the Pier,” says photographer Jack Megela, whose many images of the Pier look more like paintings than photography.


Naples High School students


You can understand why photographers like Megela keep going back, at sunrise, sunset, midday, middle of the night. It is a place continually morphing, though forever grounded by that sense of tranquility.

Toward sunset, the light softens, as if someone has put a filter over the scene. The faces change. The crowd grows. Teenagers on skim boards glide over shallow water; parents treat children to ice cream; amateur photographers dangle cameras around necks; the more serious ones tote tripods across the sand.

Underneath the Pier, Alejandra Saaverda sits, legs outstretched, one hand on her cell phone, the other on her belly. The 29-year-old Naples resident is expecting her first baby, a girl, this spring.

“It’s quiet. It’s relaxing,” she says. Her second cousin, Jocelyne Andrade, 18, has positioned herself just outside the Pier’s shadow, soaking in the sun before her return to Chicago.

Up on top of the Pier, it feels like the whole world has descended on Naples. There’s a middle-aged couple conversing in German, a woman on her cell phone chatting in what must be one of the Asian tongues, any number of Spanish speakers. This should not be surprising—the city estimates some 1.1 million people visit the Pier each year.

“It’s so interesting culturally,” remarks Deija Morgan, 29, a first-time visitor from Missouri where most people—83 percent according to the U.S. Census—are white.

She surveys the crowd, the horizon, the shoreline. “The wildlife is different. The plants are different. It’s a much more diverse group of people.”

Friend Chris Ortecho, 34, who’d taken her to see the Pier, comes frequently. “You get away from all the noise.”

He grew up in Naples, left for a few years and returned newly appreciative of his hometown. “It’s beauty,” he says. “It’s peace and beauty.”

A few paces away, David Barreto, 20, and his girlfriend, Bianca Perez, 19, pose for a selfie. Barreto, who lives in Miami, had immediately grasped what makes the Pier so special.

“It brings people together, I think,” he says.

Shea Nyhus, 4, of Minnesota