Local folklore has it that the first post office in the Lake Worth area was founded in the 1880s by a married African American couple who were freed slaves. The initial name for the post office was Jewel. The post office was located in a small dry good shop which the couple operated to serve the lake traffic which connected the small pioneer homesteads located along the banks of the Lake Worth Lagoon.
After Henry Flagler extended his rail line south from West Palm Beach to Miami in 1896, a land development scheme was created to plant a townsite between the railroad and the lake. Purchasers of lots within the townsite would also receive a larger plot of land west of town for agricultural use. The initial name proposed for the new town was Lucerne. However, the U.S. Post Office refused to accept the name because there already was a Lucerne, Florida post office. Therefore, the city fathers settled on the name Lake Worth, for the lake on which the fledgling town was sited. One of the main streets was named Lucerne Avenue instead. The city was officially incorporated in 1912. Many of the first residents were farmers from other parts of the American south and mid-west, looking to benefit from the growing winter vegetable market of the time. The city benefited with the rest of south Florida during the Florida land boom of the 1920's. A wooden automobile traffic bridge over Lake Worth was completed in 1919. The first casino and municipal beach complex was completed shortly thereafter. The 1920s also saw the completion of the Gulfstream Hotel, which is presently be renovated and is on the National List of Historic Places.
The city was severely damaged in the 1928 hurricane, toppling the bell tower on the elementary school (today the City Hall Annex) and destroying the beachfront casino and automobile bridge over Lake Worth. This led to a severe economic decline within the community which was the sole cause of the Great Depression. Things were so dire in the city in the 1930s, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration built a striking, moorish-styled "City Gymnasium" on the corner of Lake Avenue and Dixie Highway. The building today serves as City Hall.
Development started again after World War II with many modest pensioners, especially from Quebec, Finland and eventually Germany, moving to the city and building cottages. These new immigrants brought their industrious nature with them as well as their native customs, restaurants, shops, and churches and for decades the town flourished. To this day one can find an unusual abundance of beer halls, chocolatiers, Bavarian delicatessens and Lutheran churches, which stand out in the semi-tropical urban sprawl of south Florida.
After a short period of neglect and decline in the 1980s and 1990s, the downtown area has seen a huge resurgence in interest and development and once moribund property values have soared. The city's charming main street, Lake Avenue, contains some of the oldest commercial structures in south Florida, including the Lake Worth Play House. The re-discovery of this unique charm has spurred new interest in the city.
The city was hit especially hard by Hurricanes Frances, Jeanne and Wilma in 2004 and 2005. Their famous fishing pier was the most damaged and with the help of FEMA it is now being repaired; it is anticipated to reopen in the summer of 2008. The decaying Casino Building (no gambling) is also in the process of being rebuilt in the style of the historic Casino Building of the 20's. Lake Worth famed public swimming pool has been restored and will host competitions as well as become a valuable resourse in teaching Palm Beach County residents to swim and exercise.
Lake Worth is located at ,bordering West Palm Beach to the north, and Lantana to the south. north of downtown Miami. According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of . of it is land and of it (12.69%) is water.
Several geographical features in Palm Beach County confusingly use the words Lake Worth. The city of Lake Worth is named after a lake now usually called Lake Worth Lagoon. This lagoon opens to the Atlantic Ocean at the Port of Palm Beach via the Lake Worth Inlet. Another inlet exists further south at Boynton Beach. The port and two inlets are all distant from the city of Lake Worth. The lake is a long channel that spans much of Palm Beach County; indeed the Intracoastal Waterway traverses the length of the lake. The man-made inlets to the ocean have replaced the natural freshwater with saltwater, such that the lake is actually now a tidal body, instead of a true lake.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has mapped most of Lake Worth in the Southern Florida Flatwoods land resource area.
Deep, poorly-drained acidic sandy soils are typical for the area; they have gray topsoil, white subsoil, and a dark hardpan. Much of Lake Worth is built on a rapidly drained white or gray sand which is too dry and infertile to support vigorous plant growth. The western outskirts of Lake Worth are in the Southern Florida Lowlands area. Topsoils there are sandy, but the subsoils have a much higher content of clay and the soils are relatively fertile. As in the flatwoods, these soils are poorly drained for many purposes unless drainage systems are installed.
Lake Worth bills itself as "Where the Tropics Begin." Many tropical plants grow in the city; among the more prominent examples are mahogany, royal poinciana and many species of palm, including coconut palm. African tulip tree, avocado and many species of eucalyptus may also be found, although they are on the city's list of trees to avoid. Temperate-zone trees native to Lake Worth or Palm Beach County include American elm, live oak, red maple, red mulberry and slash pine. Species which are grown south of their native areas include American sweetgum, Shumard oak and tulip tree.
Although the incorporated city of Lake Worth is small geographically, as is common in Palm Beach County, a large unincorporated urbanized area with a Lake Worth postal address lies to the west of the city, and includes the census-designated place of Lake Worth Corridor, as well as neighborhoods such as The Fountains, Lago Lucerne, Lake Osborne Estates, Melaleuca Lane Corridor, Lake Charleston, and Palm Beach National. The 2006 Census estimates this urbanized area's population as 154,892. The total population of both incorporated and unincorporated Lake Worth is estimated by the 2006 Census to be 190,377.
As of the census of 2000, there were 35,133 people, 13,828 households, and 7,688 families residing in the city. The population density was 6,225.5/mi² (2,405.1/km²). There were 15,861 housing units at an average density of 2,810.6/mi² (1,085.8/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 65.12% White (48.1% were Non-Hispanic White,) 18.86% African American, 0.78% Native American, 0.75% Asian, 0.11% Pacific Islander, 9.57% from other races, and 4.82% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 29.71% of the population. 12.3% were of West Indian, 7.5% German, 7.0% Irish and 5.6% American ancestry according to Census 2000.
There were 13,828 households out of which 26.0% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 36.9% were married couples living together, 11.5% had a female householder with no husband present, and 44.4% were non-families. 33.6% of all households were made up of individuals and 11.4% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.49 and the average family size was 3.19.
In the city the population was spread out with 22.9% under the age of 18, 10.6% from 18 to 24, 32.6% from 25 to 44, 19.6% from 45 to 64, and 14.3% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 35 years. For every 100 females there were 108.9 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 110.2 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $30,034, and the median income for a family was $35,374. Males had a median income of $24,862 versus $22,971 for females. The per capita income for the city was $15,517. About 15.8% of families and 20.0% of the population were below the poverty line, including 24.1% of those under age 18 and 12.7% of those age 65 or over.
Lake Worth has a large Finnish expatriate population, and Finnish is spoken by 2.57% of the city's residents as their native language. Other languages spoken by residents of the city include French at 1.96%, Mayan languages were spoken by 1.11% (primarily spoken by Guatemalans of Mayan descent,) and German as a mother tongue was spoken by 0.52% of the population.
As of 2000, Lake Worth had the twentieth highest percentage of Guatemalan residents in the US, with 4.87% of the populace. It had the twenty-first highest percentage of Haitian residents in the US, at 8.10% of the city's population, and the eighty-third highest percentage of Cuban residents in the US, at 3.47% of the it's population. It also had the twenty-third most Hondurans in the US, at 1.59% of all residents.. According to Census 2000, people of Finnish ancestry were 3.4% of the population.
With 1,026 people claiming Finn descent in 2000, Lake Worth boasts the second largest Finnish diaspora in the world. In addition, Lake Worth has a large population of new immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, though the downtown area has become increasingly gentrified in recent years. Some of South Florida's most attractive architecture can be found in College Park, an affluent neighborhood in the northeast corner of the city. Lake Worth's Bohemian atmosphere attracts many artists and musicians and the city has a large gay and lesbian population. Since 2000, each March, Compass, the largest gay and lesbian community center in Florida and the Southeast United States partners with the city to host one of the largest gatherings of gay and lesbian people in the state at downtown's Bryant Park. The festival is an annual fundraiser which supports an array of social services for low to moderate income individuals and families.
Lake Worth Community High School, the second-oldest high school in Palm Beach County, established in 1922, is in the city, as are Lake Worth Middle School and several elementary schools. John I. Leonard Community High School is located in neighboring Greenacres. Park Vista Community High School opened in 2004 and has magnet programs in health occupations, information technology, automotive, and film and TV production.
The main campus of Palm Beach Community College is located in unincorporated Lake Worth. It is the oldest community college in Florida, founded in 1933 as Palm Beach Junior College. It was at one time located on the campus of Palm Beach High School, at the present day Dreyfoos School of the Arts in downtown West Palm Beach. The school moved to its present location in 1956. The name was changed to Palm Beach Community College in 1988.
Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church also runs a separate private school (pre-K through 8).
Lake Worth contains a bounty of public parks and open space. The Municipal Beach is one of the last remaining large tracts of open, public space on the ocean in southeast Florida. Historically, it has always been a destination complete with a Casino building with retail shops. Currently, a proposal to renovate the beach park is underway and represents an innovative public/private partnership. The City Pier, jutting into the Atlantic, was once a proud symbol of the city. However, much of it was destroyed by Hurricane Frances in 2004. It is currently being rebuilt and raised . Bryant Park, downtown on Lake Worth, has a 1920s bandshell which is used for festivals and events year round. The nearby municipal golf course offers low cost golfing with spectacular views of Lake Worth and Palm Beach beyond. On the west side of town, the County owned John Prince Park follows meandering shores of Lake Osborne and offers miles of bike and walking trails as well as hundreds of acres for picnicking, volleyball and even overnight camping. In 2009 the Snook Islands Recreation Boardwalk and Fishing Pier should be complete, where county residents will have access to Lake Worth and the Intracoastal Waterway for fishing and nature walks to view the mangroves and manatee.