MANATEE -- The Old Farmer's Almanac refers to an azalea as the "royalty of the garden."
Its flowering cycle lasts more than most, and it prefers to live under the shade of trees.
The residents of Azalea Park in Northwest Bradenton have a lot in common with its stable namesake, considering the picturesque, almost Old Florida atmosphere for those who have lived there for decades, raising families and living life under a variety of tall, cooling shade trees.
Rounding out the atmosphere is the soft and steady noise of a fountain splashing the surface of a pond next to the community pool near the entrance, making it sound like a babbling brook streaming through a community that fewer than 90 families call home.
Pat Richmond has called Azalea Park home for 25 years, and although she and her husband entertained the idea of moving when they retired, the thought of leaving didn't last long.
"We looked all over the state and even considered Key West," said Richmond. "We thought it would be nice to live on the water somewhere, but when you look around at everything that is close by and how this neighborhood has always been safe and quiet, we decided we aren't going anywhere."
Anna Maria Island is but a mere five miles away, and even closer is De Soto National Memorial Park along the Manatee River, Robinson Preserve and the Palma Sola Botanical Park.
The neighborhood has a reputation for its annual Halloween festivities that draw children from all over the area. To make sure everyone has fun and remains safe during the event, the homeowners association hires law enforcement officers to monitor the festivities. It's just another aspect of keeping the neighborhood safe that Richmond said makes it worthwhile to stay.
"It's a good, safe community and I love it here," she said.
The community was new when Richmond and others moved into the neighborhood. Most of the houses were built in the 1980s-90s, although some are newer, according to James Markey, of Markey Realty and Associates in Bradenton.
"It's a solid neighborhood and one of the newer neighborhoods in that area of Northwest Bradenton," he said. "But even though it's considered to be a newer community to that area, it's an established community. Most of the people who live there have lived there a while. People don't buy there as an investment. They buy to raise families there."
Raised would be a more appropriate word for Richmond. She said there are several children in the neighborhood, but the majority of people who moved in when the park was still new have watched each other's children grow up and leave to start their own lives.
Richmond said if there was one word to describe the community's overall personality, it would be, "Maturing."
And that's just fine by her.
"I love it here and want it to stay exactly the way it is now," she said. "It's quiet and safe. I can walk my dog at night around the loop and not worry about a thing."
An eclectic mix
Azalea Park is considered to be an "affluent" neighborhood, according to some real estate websites, with home prices leveling off around $350,000. The architecture of the houses are eclectic in nature but largely follow a Colonial or Mediterranean design.
It is a deed-restricted community, meaning there is a homeowners association. Richmond said it's a fairly typical HOA.
She painted her house yellow several years ago and wants to put a fresh coat on her home.
"I started to paint and was told that I didn't have permission and that I needed to go to the board," said Richmond. "That kind of thing can be an issue because it is my house and I should be able to paint it purple if I want to. At the same time, they are very respectful of everyone's concerns and do a really good job making sure the neighborhood does what it is supposed to do by keeping their yards clean and things like that."
Board secretary Doug Hall has lived in Azalea Park for 19 years. He said there are still a lot of younger families in the community, but the neighborhood has a good variety of adult professionals and retirees of many different professions.
"When we first moved to Florida around 1996, we began looking for a home, and the thing that drew us to the neighborhood was that there was a lot of outside activity," he said. "You go to some neighborhoods and you won't see anyone outside, and we didn't want that. We wanted an active community. That's what we had, and that's what we still have."
The community remains active and interactive with one another through the Halloween event and other community events. The occasional block party will take place -- and not many communities still partake in the block party concept that once thrived across America's suburbs decades ago before cable TV, the Internet and video games began to trap people in their homes, according to Markey.
"You just don't see that anymore," he said. "It shows what kind of neighborhood it really is."
Hall said it's more about neighbors getting together.
"I wouldn't go so far to call it a block party, but yeah, people will start putting out some tables and before you know it, everyone is involved and having fun," he said.
When asked how Hall would describe his community's personality, he didn't hesitate.
"It's a friendly neighborhood in the Friendly City," he said.