Ordinarily at this point in the slow, hot summer, American journalists would be out of stories and looking to Florida — my allegedly strange longtime home — for “weird news” inspiration. We don’t have that problem this year, because America elected a part-time Florida Man as president. But Floridians still have to deal with an unearned reputation as a nexus of the bizarre and the tragic. “Sometimes I think I’ve figured out some order in the universe,” Susan Orlean famously wrote, “but then I find myself in Florida, swamped by incongruity and paradox, and I have to start all over again.” Here are five common myths about America’s sun-soaked southerly proboscis.
Per Gawker, “The middle of the state is a cultureless void from which crystal meth (or, like, moving away) is the only escape.” One can find defenses of individual cities (for example, Jacksonville) or particular coastal hot spots, but one of the most-Googled questions related to Florida is nonetheless “Why is Florida so trashy?,” and that seems to reflect the nation’s general sentiment.
Sure, we’re the land of Disney World and Universal Studios and stucco and strip malls. We have that weird double existence that characterizes a lot of frontier or colonial destinations: We’ve been stereotyped as the exotic “other,” then we capitalized on the stereotype’s allure to drive the local economy, then we lost track of what was real and what was just a reductive stereotype. Now, it all blends together. As they said in our old tourism ad from the “Miami Vice” days, “The rules are different here.”
But Florida’s proud, contrived role as a lazy, breezy, escapist state of nature yields something nobody could have predicted: lots of cultural heroes, large and small. Consider these icons: Southern-rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd, Doors frontman Jim Morrison, Flo Rida, Johnny Depp, Tom Petty, Norman Reedus, Zora Neale Hurston, Tao Lin and Kate DiCamillo. Don’t say we never did anything for you.
It’s possible that we have more Mets fans than Queens, and it’s certain that we have more Mets fans than Marlins fans. But if you’ve ever traveled down the Panhandle’s Redneck Riviera to eat oysters in Apalachicola or made a pilgrimage to watch college football in Doak and the Swamp, you know there’s a lot of twang to go with the Tang. There really is a place called the Flora-Bama, situated exactly where you’d expect, and it really does host an annual mullet toss (the fish, not the hairdo, but you always see some of both).
The cliche about the differences between northern Florida (red-state rednecks) and South Florida (pasty invaders and “Latins”) aren’t right, either. Drive a few miles west of Fort Lauderdale, and your car will have to yield for horses. Remember Bob Graham , the soft-lilted cowpoke who served for decades as a left-center governor and senator? He’s a Miami native. Yes, you can grow up sounding like that in Miami. Even South Florida’s deep-blue urbanites can see social and cultural remnants of the South — for instance, the state park that used to be a blacks-only beach , and neighborhood divisions that persist years after Jim Crow.
That’s all of Florida, in its beauty, ugliness and guilt. We are completely Southern. We are also completely Yankee, completely Latin American and completely committed to believing in mathematical impossibilities.
“Cutler Bay Florida is hurricane ready!” declares one municipal ad; last year, Florida’s “top finance and insurance regulators” confirmed to the Miami Herald that the state was indeed prepared for another hurricane season. Oops.
Named storms are a seasonal fixture, but until Hurricane Matthew gave us all a serious scare last year, Floridians hadn’t had a real blow since 2004 and 2005, when they got blitzed by six hurricanes. Since then, the state’s population has grown by 15 percent — meaning at least 2.5 million new residents have probably never lived through a storm of significant size, much less a Wilma or an Andrew. And complacency abounds, even among old-timers. “That is a very scary thought from an emergency manager’s perspective,” Orlando’s emergency manager said, back in the middle of our mostly storm-free decade.
Gov. Rick Scott’s administration is light on real storm experience, too. Scott appointed an out-of-state Walmart executive as his emergency preparedness director in 2011 amid a push to privatize some of the state’s disaster response programs. (Little of that privatization has materialized.) Scott’s administration is also accused of barring state-employed scientists from discussing climate change or sea-level rise. It’s not easy preparing 20 million people for one disaster when you’re busy pretending another disaster doesn’t exist.
In 2015, southern Floridians threatened to secede from the rest of the state, citing political differences with northern Floridians. And prior to last year’s presidential election, pundits observed that the contest could be decided by Florida, “the Divided Sunshine State.” It has been conventional wisdom since the 2000 recount that Florida is hopelessly split along political lines. Apparently, we’re a purplish state with a reddish government and bluish social tendencies.
But both sides are united by a love of the market. Indeed, the pro-business tendency is no less powerful among liberals, from South Florida — where many a real estate developer, D or R, has had a historically easy path to a mayorship — to Tallahassee, where even deep-blue Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls are known to boast about the size of their business tax repeals . One party wants pro-business decisions made by bureaucrats, and the other party wants pro-business decisions made by transnational consortiums owned by shell corporations. Accordingly, Florida has been rapidly rising on lists of business-friendly states in recent years, even making the top 10 in a recent CNBC ranking.
That the Orlando Business Journal wants to let you in on “4 lessons learned” from Central Florida’s real estate bubble, and Florida Today is already advising caution for home buyers based on the last big real estate bust, might make you think Florida has learned its lesson when it comes to inflated markets. But it doesn’t look that way.
Between 2003 and 2007 was a hell of a time to be a Floridian: It seemed like everyone was a mortgage originator or a house-flipper. Obviously, that all ended, and a lot of people lost their butts on a “correction” in property values. Problem solved: Many Floridians don’t even have enough money to place another bad bet.
But once again, the Florida real estate market is doing great. There’s a boom in sales and prices, and buyers have a lot of options — if they have half a million bucks or more to spend. In South Florida, even modest, fixer-upper apartments in sad neighborhoods are getting plucked up by cash buyers looking for rental income. Big-money and foreign investors are bidding up prices, perhaps precipitously so, on luxury and high-rise properties. (Zdravstvuyte, Russian friends!)
What happens when the dollar strengthens, the Trump real estate name fizzles and those investors look to dump their stock? Oh, probably another implosion, and three and even four generations of working family members living under one roof.