Does a series of serendipitous moments orient a person’s future? The life of Raphael Clemente seems to support the theory. Behind the exterior of his success story as a community leader, husband, father, and friend, there are unexpected twists and surprising insights that shaped him into the person he is today.
A tall, lean man with impeccable posture, Clemente and his wife, lawyer Lois Clemente, live in West Palm Beach’s Grandview Heights historic district with their two young daughters. Clemente describes their home life as basic, with lots of playtime and a garage full of everything but a car. He’s not far from his childhood community of Lake Worth but quite a distance from the Bronx, where he was born. An urban planner, he’s now the executive director of the West Palm Beach Downtown Development Authority. During his tenure, he’s colored the streets with arts initiatives, linked cultural organizations through the Arts & Entertainment District, and made pedestrian life a little easier by helping to establish a bike-sharing program.
In a former life, Clemente was a professional athlete, first in competitive swimming and later in bicycle racing. After burning out on swimming, Clemente still craved an active lifestyle, so he bought a bike. Here’s one of those fortuitous moments: Shortly after, his girlfriend at the time wrecked his car. He was left with just his two-wheel transportation. Then, he took a job at a bike shop and met serious riders who pushed him toward competitions.
Clemente raced as an amateur, on several pro teams, and even competed twice for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in 1992 and 1996. The international competitions had a tremendous influence on him. “I saw things differently, from the perspective of being the average American who drives everywhere to being a guy on a bike traveling around the world, specifically in Europe,” says Clemente. “I was thinking about the quality of those places and why I liked them. I came back [to the states] and thought, ‘Why are we not designing and building cities in these ways?’”
Biking also brought Lois into his path. One of his cycling teams, Motivation, had local roots, and while training in the area, Clemente saw a woman biking and wearing Motivation cycling gear. “I did a U-turn, rolled up to her, and asked her if she was on the team,” he says.
Lois was not, but she did know the team mechanic and his girlfriend. A few months later (February 1997, to be exact) the same mutual friends initiated a gathering at O’Shea’s. Clemente describes the scene: “Her ex showed up, so I returned home. But I decided to call and tell her I’d love to take her out on a date. Three months later, she called back to say, ‘I’m ready.’” They married in 2000 at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens. That’s serendipity at its finest.
The couple moved to Hawaii for Lois’ law school. During that time, Clemente taught high school, surfed, and plotted his next move. “I settled on urban planning, really on [Lois’] advice,” says Clemente, who used Lois as his sounding board for his criticisms about urban issues. She advised him to either move on or be part of the solution. Once they decided to return to Florida, Clemente applied and was accepted into the fellowship program at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, which eventually landed him at the Palm Beach Metro Planning Organization, a transportation governing council.
In 2006, Clemente was offered a job at the DDA as the urban planning and services director. Today, he’s at the helm. The DDA is tasked with improving and enhancing downtown West Palm Beach by bringing in businesses, augmenting community aesthetics, and producing public art displays and cultural events.
Clemente counts collaborations with the arts community as a particularly transformative decision. It started off small, with the goal of beautifying unloved areas with original works. Eventually, larger projects—like the temporary Musical Swings and the Harmony arts exhibition featuring Ballet Palm Beach and the Palm Beach Symphony—followed suit. “Local artists started proposing all kinds of ideas to us, and we did our best to support them and get their work into the public space,” says Clemente, who credits street artist Eduardo Mendieta with convincing others to see opportunities in downtown. “Our role with the arts community has really been as enablers, helping to fund and execute projects.”
Simultaneously, the DDA began working more closely with local cultural institutions, such as Palm Beach Dramaworks, the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, and the Palm Beach Photographic Centre. In 2014, the DDA created an overarching brand for these businesses, joining them together as the West Palm Beach Arts Entertainment District and linking them via a free trolley service. Clemente believes this dedicated platform has led to more resources to promote these institutions on a higher level, paving the way for grander happenings and attracting global talent.
Last December, the DDA hosted the Hōokuūle‘a, the traditional Hawaiian canoe on a voyage around the world without modern instruments. After the boat docked in downtown West Palm Beach, Clemente’s friend and surfing buddy Nicholas Coniglio had a welcome dinner at his E.R. Bradley’s Saloon. “The Hawaiian navigators use a star called Arcturus, which passes directly overhead at Hawaii’s latitude, helping sailors find their island,” Coniglio says. “It’s cheesy, but that’s Raphael. He’s a guiding light for the businesses. He always has the residents in mind and makes sure we have charts and are plotting ahead.”
At the same time, Clemente is a family man who finds unique ways to bond with Kaia, 11, and Rell, 5. “They are two powerful, awesome, beautiful little creatures,” says Clemente. It took a year, but Kaia and Dad recently built a sailboat, the Artemis, together. Rell and Dad love to go skateboarding.
Lois describes him as committed, capable of preparing a delicious stone soup, and possessing the valuable ability to truly forgive. There’s a certain sacrifice that comes with her husband’s job, mainly time, but Lois, who also grew up in the area, remembers when Clematis Street was mostly shuttered due to construction. “I love seeing life and activity back in my hometown, and I’m very proud of [Raphael’s] part in making that happen,” she says.
“I consider myself [to be] the guy tasked with keeping things going in the correct direction,” says Clemente. “It’s easy to get up every day and feel motivated.”