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Paradise in a ‘place past its prime’

Anyone who’s vacationed in Daytona Beach can attest that it’s hard to scratch the sun-bleached surface of the Florida tourist mecca once known as “the world’s most famous beach.”

It’s a familiar routine for many: Drive your pickup onto the smooth, hard-packed sand, unload your cooler, chairs and beach tent, and hunker down for the next few hours. Maybe you’ll break up the day with a fried seafood platter before retreating to the pool for the afternoon to rest up for your next feeding time, followed by a stroll on the boardwalk or a round of mini-golf.

Daytona Beach hosts about 8 million visitors each year who come for the beach, NASCAR, and motorcycle madness, among other diversions, family-friendly and other, according to city statistics. But what about the 500,000 residents who call the Daytona Beach metro area home?

Spanish photographer Laura Silleras spent about two weeks in 2013 exploring life beyond the “illusion of paradise,” where the white beaches, seafood shacks and Putt-Putt courses yield to cookie-cutter suburbs, golf course retirement communities and trailer parks, with no sidewalks or town center, “where young people think they are in the most boring place on Earth.”

In other words, just another American community.

“I found that a lot people were living their lives much as they would in another American town, the same struggles etc., but they were doing so in a place that promotes itself as being an escape from all of that,” the 35-year-old photographer said.

“It also has the air of a place that is a little past its prime, which I like.”

Of course, its location lends itself to a culture centered on the same interests that draw tourists. People fish and swim. They also enjoy NASCAR and biker culture. Lives revolve around the tourist industry and the schedules that travelers keep.

Life goes on, the highs and lows. Silleras met a mother in her mid-twenties at an African-American church, where some women got together one afternoon to paint their nails and do each other's makeup. After church the next Sunday, Silleras says the woman invited her back to the apartment where she lived with her husband and their four children.

The apartment was in a public housing project and many of their neighbors were addicted to crack or involved in the drug trade, and she and her husband were struggling to give their kids a better life. The husband, until recently, had been selling drugs or had been part of that world, but he was now attending church and she was helping him get his life together – “a long way from spring break,” Silleras said.

“She is one of the people that I got to know quite well while I was there. Her story is certainly not something you would just find in Daytona and, unfortunately, is all too common. “

- Emanuella Grinberg, CNN