March 30, 2016
Florida: The Fool's Golden State
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors.
The circus is in town.
-- Bob Dylan | Desolation Row
The frozen rain that would not stop drove me out of Seattle a few weeks ago. I took shelter at a friend's house deep in the Florida Keys. No rain. No chill. Turquoise waters. Long bridges and longer sunsets. A half an hour north from Key West. Fish sandwiches, large flocks of snowy egrets, Tiki bars specializing in Rumrunners with a dark rum float. Hammocks and sunshine. Powerboats and new yachts and boat drinks and running up on plane past Little Palm Island and out into the Gulf Stream with twin Cats putting out a perfect wake.
In a word, "Paradise." Right?
Yes. If you don't track in for the close-up.
Because, as much as the boosters of Florida want you to believe it, Florida is no longer "ready for its close-up." Florida is still pretty from the air and also in the middle-distance. But a close up examination of Florida, in the Keys or elsewhere, is like a close-up of a once beautiful woman that time is beginning to dissolve into age lines, lank hair, and too many calories in too many visible places.
Like that fabled great beauty, Florida is going to great lengths to keep anybody from noticing. The brochures have increasing amounts of make-up slathered on in the form of retouching. The flab is being trussed up in Spandex or draped with new clothes cleverly cut for the "ample." Most of all, the fact that large sections of the Keys and the Florida coastline are really quite dead is being hushed up at every opportunity, and new shades of rouge are being applied to the corpse to keep the money rolling in.
But close up, the truth is still visible. Very, very visible. Even in the soft and lambent hues of yet another Tequila sunrise it can't be hidden. In the words of one man gazing across the bar to the person walking in from the beach, "No way I can drink her to a 10. Can't even get to 3."
During the storms of a season or the storms of life itself, I've been retreating to the house on Little Torch Key for well over a decade. Despite the rising toll of hurricanes all around it, it has remained surprisingly untouched. It's a fine house. Comfortable and quiet even if the hum of the Highway One reaches it on days when the wind is right.
The dock behind it has a new Sea-Ray fueled up, spotless, and ready to run over to the Bahamas and the Sea of Abaco on a whim. The house has a hammock, a good stereo system, and the furniture is comfortable. A table out on the screen second-floor veranda invites writing, reading and reflection. The owner of the house wisely purchased the two lots across the canal so that no houses could block his view on the long sunsets. When I'm there, I know I'm a lucky man. But these days even though my luck is holding, I can see that the luck of the Keys and the luck of Florida is running on empty.
Less than a decade ago, the water in the canal in back of the house was like that of an aquarium. Colorful fish. Waving fronds. A crystal clear prospect down to the bottom at 12 feet. Today it still has that same turquoise tint but it is murky at 2 feet and the fish are few and far between. Unless they're dead.
In the harbor beyond the canal there were once very rigid navigation lanes where boats could come and go, but that's been let slide now that the entire harbor area (some 25 square miles of coastal ocean) has been declared a "dead zone." Little Palm Island, a private millionaires' retreat just off the coast where rooms start at $800 a night and where I once had a sunset dinner with a doomed love, is struggling to replant the scenic palms that give it is name as the old ones die off or are blown away by the Wilma's of our time.
The dive shops of Key West are friendly and engaging and full of good humor when you book one of their reef scuba dives. I imagine that's because they are hoping that, when you actually dive on the reefs they promote, you will fail to notice that you are diving on a dead reef and swimming in slime amongst grey coral and chunks of dead sponge spinning slowly in the turbid current.
You see these same sponges elsewhere in the state parks along the coast that are desperately trying to protect things long past protecting. There large chunks of sponge are spewn onto the sand by the waves. When you first see one, it's enchanting since you can get a close look at the fascinating structure of the sponge. Then it dawns on you that there's not just the odd chunk of sponge on the show but whole shoals washed in from where they can no longer exist. Dead.
Other things in the Keys are not quite dead, but they are getting there on the express train.
Out on Big Pine Key there is a famous herd of tiny Key Deer, the last of their kind. They're very small and very tame. Coming into their last remaining habitat, the law slows the road to a crawl and patrols it heavily. Large fences line the road to keep the deer off it and pathways have been put in below the highway so they can cross it safely. It is a massive and expensive effort and it is failing mightily. The numbers of this species decline every month.
They decline for the simple reason that everything else in Florida is declining. Development powered by corruption.
Of course, development in league with corruption is the entire history of Florida for the last several centuries. Corrupt development and shady land scams founded the state and remain its core tradition. Corrupt development is, indeed, the main industry of Florida now as it has been in the past. Aside from cops of every class and insane condo speculation, it is the only growth industry of Flordia.
Don't like a law or a regulation? Is it getting in the way of your second billion dollars? Take a council member to a long lunch and show him or her how much you'd appreciate an effort to loosen the regulation "just one time." A nudge, a wink, a fat unmarked envelope under the table and the thing is done. You are only surprised at how cheap the cost of the whole thing is.
The fences and the fines protecting the Keys deer stay in place, as do the underemployed hordes of law enforcement people hanging about. What disappears under a rising cliff of condos is the actual habitat that the deer live in and need to survive. That's going condo. In a place where the most broken down chicken shack brings in half a million dollars for the land alone, the deer really don't stand a chance.
This month, for example, I discovered that the entire city of Marathon had pretty much revamped their entire zoning structure to allow high-rise condo developments to burst out of the marl like dubious mushrooms wherever the funding could be found. Marathon's going to the Full Miami plan for the future. Marinas close down. Low cost housing is a joke. And anything resembling what was once the culture of the Keys is being washed out into the salt flats like the hundreds of rotting hulks of boats relocated there during the annual hurricane festivals. How all the people now in the Keys plus all those coming soon are going to evacuate the area during the next Wilma is no longer a mystery. With one road north that is mostly two lanes, they aren't going anywhere.
In short, those hordes moving into the Keys in search of the Hemmingway / Parrothead / Jimmy Buffet moments of deep alcoholism to warm their declining years are going to find nothing other than old geezers pretty much like all those old geezers they left in the Northeast. It's good they've got plenty of booze piled up because they'll need it.
And, as below so above throughout the entire state of Florida.
Simply put, Florida is full. Chock full of every urban ill you can think of with more on the way.
The roads are wedged in every direction with traffic in the Miami region that's rising up to compete with the full horror show of Los Angeles.
Sprawl continues leak out into the remaining realms of the Everglades and burst up into the sky along the beaches.
The new default state of the state seems to be that nobody except the very rich get to live next to or even near the ocean. The rest can live in the swamps or the expanding prisons. Florida's very big on prisons and laws these days and over-supplied with the men and material to support them.
The aged to very aged demographic of the state ensures that no expense will be spared when it comes to heaping law enforcement resources up to the sky -- brand new million dollar boats and brand new 12 million dollar helicopters all around --, but that nothing that has to do with education will see more than dime one.
Road repair? It is to laugh.
Upgrading fresh water resources and sewage treatment to match the hundreds of thousands of new inhabitants annually? Tell me another howler?
Yes, Florida is full. The people keep a comin' but the train done gone. And now we are on the cusp of the retirement years of the baby boomers, many looking to at last take some time off in the golden state of dead reefs, dead deer, dead water, and traffic stopped dead.
Too bad. She was, once upon a time, beautiful. Oh well, there are still plenty of places in Florida to shop.
If you can get into the parking lots at the malls in less than an hour. They're full too.
Posted by Vanderleun at March 30, 2016 2:42 AM
What a black mood in a sunny place. Oh well, it's 44 below zero here in Northern Maine.
As my husband says "Things change, people adapt".
Before they can adapt they have to be able to adapt. Sometimes the ability just isn't there. Sometimes conditions are just so bad nobody can adapt.
The more I hear the more I become convinced that we are heading for civil war. Our drug policy has murdered Mexico, and crippled other nations besides. Our tolerance of soft corruption -gifts and considerations instead of hard cash- means a deteriorating infrastructure. Think the economic downturn is bad, wait until the big cities and a state or two declare or are forced into bankruptcy. When future generations teach about the United States; her death will be attributed not to ideology, but to greed and cupidity.
One day you will see aerial pictures from the U.S. Navy showing the damage done by some hurricane or another to the Keys. One day you will hear and see reports concerning the deaths and damage inflicted upon the Keys. Billions -tens, maybe even hundreds of billions- of dollars in damage. Thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands or millions, of deaths. Stories of tragedy, despair, even cannibalism. A scenario most likely in the Florida Keys thanks to their peculiar physical situation, but reproducible most anywhere in Floria. And reproducible in other states.
We have gotten to the point where a Dies the Fire (cf. SM Stirling) scenario can look to some as an improvement. A point where the Man on a Horse has become President Elect and in a few days shall be President. We've fed the goose to death, and now the bloated corpse is about to burst.
Adapt? Can we?
Beautifully, if tragically put. My dream for 25 years was to retire to Islamorada. I've moved from Florida to the foothills of Appalachia in North Georgia instead. Cold? Yes, at times. But development sputtered out before the economy sagged, and with any luck it will stay that way. Oh, I'll still hit the Keys any chance I get, but I won't retire there. It's simply too sad.
At one point, my husband was told to consider a move to Jacksonville, to support the Navy ships at Mayport. I began to look for houses in the area. My jaw dropped at the price of housing there and the cost of living. (And the crime rate, of course.) After I told him about what I found, we concluded we'd rather stay here in TX.
FL is populating itself to the point of disaster, yet no one there dares to stand before it and yell "Stop!" (I'm afraid to say that my own home island of Puerto Rico is facing the same fate as FL.)
If you haven't been to the Hemingway House in Key West yet, please do. And pet the kitties for me.
We have a nine-year-old tortoiseshell cat, which we named Bangles. She's polydactyl: she has an extra toe on each of her front paws, which make them look like mittens. Some cat aficionados have another name for cats like her: Hemingway cats.
Good to hear from you again, even if the news you bring is depressing. I'm sure you don't overstate the case; apparently John D. MacDonald was absolutely prescient.
Illegitimati non Carborundum, bud. All we can hope to do is outlast the bastards.
I just turned 40. The Florida you described is the only "Florida" I've known in my lifetime.
Someday the last baby boomer will purchase the last condo and eventually it will be a ghost town, overrun with Key Deer and sponge--it's not like anyone is having kids except the illegal aliens and the illegals still can't afford it down there. There aren't any more people coming.
The world has always been a boom--bust kinda thing. We are seeing the beginning of the bust, but if I stay in shape, God-willing, I'll see the end of it....
So you're saying that Carl Hiaison is right.
Hustlers, and grifters, and goniffs, Oh My!
continuing my previous thought: I've got a stay-at-home wife and two kids. I make very good money building better weapons for Uncle Sam.
Do you have any idea how much the economy will have to crash before I can afford to 'retire' to the Keys, let alone 'retire' at all!?
Crash, baby! Crash!
The development you see is the high-water mark. Who will live in those condos after the owners start to die? Cheer up: There's no one else coming. Everyone who could go is already there....
Here in southern Arizona, its the same story. Sprawl choking out the last of the cheap water.The cartels are throwing grenades at Federales right over the border just waiting to spill over, for sale signs and foreclosures all around. I'm old and have survived Viet Nam and the dope years, but I fear for my children. There's a slow train coming.
All things of this world are corruptible. It is sad to see a place you once loved turn shabby and rotten, but even at it's best, it was a mere shadow of what will be given to those who stand.
God wins in the end.
Daddy won't you take me back to North Key Largo,
Down in the hammocks where paradise lay?
I'm sorry my daughter, but you're too late in asking.
Developers have come and hauled it away.
My grandmother was born in Key West. Her grandfather was a lighthouse keeper there. I once loved southern Florida so much I thought I could never live anywhere else.
But southern Florida is a prostitute who sells herself to every john that comes along.
You have very accurately described her.
I've only seen Orlando and Miami, thru Alligator Alley to Sarasota. I've really enjoyed my handful of trips there but have been spoiled, like Gerard, in being able to stay at someone else's casbah, Coral Gables in my case. I don't think that real estate is crashing anytime soon.
Sad to hear about the deer, never had known of it before. There was until recently a rare palm called Sabal miamiensis-- guess what happened to it? I think what is so dismaying, besides people not caring about that which is not replaceable or even replicable, is the pace and scale of these destructive runs. It seems like everything that was good has gone to bad in the last 50 years, according to some demonic population algorithm. Now, the people who remember how it really was back when are nearly gone, so the consciousness of loss is obliterated. Some would call this a form of healing but I always thought "never look back" was meant to be personal.
Maybe the problem is that people *do* adapt. They'll adapt to anything. I'm sure Calcutta was a refreshing port of call at some point. So when Americans adapt themselves down to the level of, say, Lagos or San Pedro Sula, we can be proud that the perturbation was no match for the likes of us.
Here in my rental refuge on Sanibel Island, I resist your gloom. I'm the embodiment of your simile concerning aging women. Life is so damn short that I no longer have the luxury of dwelling on the unraveling seams. A stitch in time won't guarantee anything about the other nine. The center can't hold.
My eighty-seven year old mother rests on the couch beside me. We've spent the day enjoying what remains of the natural and un-natural beauty of Florida.
Ohio has been in the sub-zeros.
Obama is about to be become president.
We are currently not in pain and we spent pleasant moments today talking about the changes that she has witnessed during her lifetime. Most of them made life better in ways that our ancestors could not have dreamed.
We discussed a book review in the WSJ :"Elsewhere USA" by Conley Dalton or (vice-versa). He makes a case that many of our cherished innovations have made our personal existence more nebulous and lonely. He apparently balances his concerns about negative outcomes by allowing for positive influences, too. Good. I know I've lived them.
This past election has emphasized for me how little control we have over major concerns. We are the deer and sponges.
Even the sun evolves. It too, now diminishes.
Yes, this election did it for me. I will spend the rest of my days being grateful that I lived when I did. Before the great eroding.
Before the diminishing.
That has to be enough.
Leave. Don't come back. Thanks.
I have been visiting Florida for 50 years, it has always been low rent. The story of decline they were feeding you is as junky as the rest of the state.
Damn. My wife and I spent the first three nights of our honeymoon on Little Palm Island back in 1995. It didn't cost $800 a night then, but it was still more per night than the monthly rent on her apartment.
And worth every penny.
The Key deer were adorable, too.
I haven't been back since, but I grew up in Florida, and I've always loved the Conch Republic. Sounds like they've managed to ruin that, too.
I've lived here all my life. If you ask me Florida has been (partially) ruined by people that moved here thinking they'd find Paradise (does anyone really still believe the exaggerations of advertising in this day and age? Really?) and instead finding a real place and that they were still the people they had been back in Podunk, Ohio, or wherever they fled from. It is subject to (shock) nature, and it's full of (ew!) other people who don't all get along. Wherever you go, there you are, is a particularly hard lesson in Florida.
In any case, I'm leaving the state later this year. I need to experience four real seasons, including one with snow, before I leave this mortal coil. And this is no state for people who aren't retirees with money or young families who have good jobs and want to settle down (why pay the horrendous rents or mortgage payments if you aren't planning to put down roots?). Also there's lots of stuff for kids to do here. Not so much for the sort of person whose idea of a good time is reading a book in a cafe, though we have those here in some places too.
By the way, didn't you write this last year?
What an appalling description of a place I once loved and where we spent 12 years setting down roots.
I left there in the Eighties for the West Coast and a new life, but I have carried bright images of South Florida and the Keys in the back of my mind as a possible destination ever since then.
Thanks for going there so we won't have to.
A gritty communique Gerard; but thanks. Never took a vacation there but once flew in to interview some crooks and some cops; as you say, both proliferate there. It was hot, humid and, as Noel Coward might have said, "Very flat." Scooped up a suitcase full of bullshit and departed. Never went back. After your piece - never will! Thanks too for that Dylan link: a little goldmine that was unknown to me before. But then, your blog is always a source of previously undiscovered riches, not to mention sometimes unwelcome and irrefutable data about the hard facts of life; all in all an essential evolutionary encyclopaedia.
"Look!" Said the locust, "The locusts have eaten everything and left ruin!"
Moral: it sucks to be in the second wave of locust: the field is ruined and they die before it gets green again.
Hiassen Derangement Syndrome! I have been fleeing the crowds all my life. Anaheim was magnificent in the late fifties - I'll never go back, even for a visit. Phoenix in the sixties was paradise - now it has the Paradise Freeway which is just like the Daytona Speedway except the drivers aren't nearly as good. I moved to Florida about five years ago. It is beautiful. You just have to pick the right place. No town name, but the most excitement we have around here is when the shuttle launches - the windows rattle and the dog howls. Other than that it is watching the birds, fishing in Mosquito Lagoon and playing a little golf. Old Florida abounds if you just stay away from the crowds.
I remember Florida of the Seventies. We lived on Siesta Key, and like your canal, ours had all manner of abundant life. We caught (and ate) a myriad of fins - sheepshead, mangrove snapper, grunts, snook, We netted mullet and even trapped blue crabs. Also could have taken the oysters off the seawall, but given the bilge scum that floated directly at their level that was always thought imprudent.
Horseshoe crabs were everywhere in those waters but they were the first to go. By the late seventies you saw more of them dead than alive. By the late Eighties it was over, all that remained in the canals were mullet, catfish and the rare snook.
Of course, by that time everything else had changed too. The Village, once more sand than street had been paved over and built up. Development extended all the way out to I-75 - supposedly built far enough inland to be out of reach for development. Now I-75 is the main travel corridor for the working stiffs. The silver lining being that US 41 is now actually flowing again.
I departed Florida for points West in the Nineties. I've seen the same process at work in Montana, Arizona, and Idaho. They say a conservationist is a guy owns a cabin in the forest while a developer is the guy who wants to build more cabins in the forest.
Common theme here: the ratio of impact of free capital to appreciation of quality of life is currently way out of balance. The first always regenerates while the latter is more tenuous and needs constant nurturing, especially in our kids.
The investors got in and got out with their money, while those who valued what is now gone are gone themselves (as reiterated here numerous times). I think some government regulation at the *local level* is part of the solution, as much as I hate to say that. How else can people organize themselves to resist millions of dollars rolling into town? If it is fair for one group to say "Screw conservation, we're doing this condo project" then it is equally fair for others to band together to protect their local or regional way of life. May the best lawyers win.
But were the bygone days we all look back to for solace the result of some general, deep appreciation of quality of life and living, or just the way things are when low population levels are paired with nascent markets?
Wow way to trash a whole state based on one disparate region of it. For starters anybody who lives north of Alligator Alley knows S. Florida ain't the real Florida. In fact most of us would just as well like them to secede. The fact that most people judge Florida on the basis of Orlando and the greater Miami area is an indictment of their ignorance, not our state. It's like judging the whole state of California by visiting Oakland.
Secondly, this is just more of the same crap we've heard for years...somebody moves here then in two years becomes an advocate of curbing growth because "I'm here now you can close the door!"
Sorry that so many people think for some reason Florida should be their own personal experience for some reason then go to busiest places in the state to find it. I'll second dr. kill's comment "Leave. Don't come back. Thanks."
I drove past Lake Union on Sunday in the sunshine with the temp in the 60s. It has been foggy since and not as warm. We should be back to rain by this weekend. You probably missed the six good days we usually have in January, but not to worry: there will likely be four or five nice days in February.
Have a positive outlook. Look forward to Summer. It's usually on a Tuesday. Yeah, I'm a native.
Over the last 10 years, FL population grew at 1000 people per DAY. As the governor said, "that's a new city of Tampa, every year!"
Sounds like hell. You neet to move.
Good News: most of the country is essentially empty. For that matter, vast portions of Florida are empty.
Take a trip to Cedar Key - you'll like it...unless you find it just too small and lacking ammenities.
"Travis McGee's still in Cedar Key, that's what ol' John MacDonald said..."'
-Jimmy Buffett (ca 1978)
Wayne is correct. Cedar Key is the last "real Florida" still in existence. Hard to get to, but it's good for your soul.
I've lived in New Jersey for 20 years... Here in Florida for 30 - I've watched this state go from a small, easy to navigate, peaceful place to a mega-tropolis. Funny though... New Jersey is just as crowded too.
I think the reality isn't so much that certain areas are growing too fast, but rather that the whole world is getting too crowded - Too many people... Too many being born, not enough of us old timers dying soon enough.
You have to have a license to drive, maybe we need to put similar restrictions on baby-making too. Either that or invent a planet stretcher... because we're gonna run out of room fast.
I agree. Yankees go home!!!
I moved to Florida from Georgia when my kids moved out so I could be closer to my parents. Part of the problem is that the immigrants from third world countries bring their corruption here. Roads aren't fixed, there's no work, but more and more condos keep getting built. Florida is a first rate state to launder money.
I was pretty much raised in Florida, left around 1960. Not a bad place back then, while I was growing up there was still a lot of the edge of civilization frontier spirit.
I remember one house we owned in Miami, 8750 SW 34th street. Where our back yard ended the everglades began and nothing but glades from there to Tampa.
About 20 or so years ago I was looking at an aerial view picture of the area in National Geographic, I could roughly place where our house was, but by then it was surrounded by other houses extending all the way to the horizon.
A couple of the the posts above commented about Cedar Key: When I was in college in Gainesville we'd often do a road trip to Cedar Key for smoked mullet and swamp cabbage salad at a great little ramshackle shop there. Good times!
Oddly enough that's why I moved to Alaska, so my children could grow up in a free and open world much like what I experienced in Florida as a child.
Tomorrow it will have been 10 years exactly since we moved from southwest Florida, after living there for 40 years, to the dense forest of the great white north. I knew Florida when it was new and untamed and life was good and I watched it slide downward each day as described above. I don't hate that I lived there but I wish we would have moved sooner. It was way over due.
The dancer slows her frantic pace
In pain and desperation.
Her aching limbs and downcast face
Aglow with perspiration.
Stiff as wire, her lungs on fire
With just the briefest pause.
The flooding through her memory,
The echoes of old applause.
And she limps across the floor,
And closes her bedroom door.
The writer stares with glassy eyes
Defies the empty page.
His beard is white, his face is lined
And streaked with tears of rage.
Thirty years ago, how the words would flow
With passion and precision.
But now his mind is dark and dulled
By sickness and indecision.
And he stares out the kitchen door,
Where the sun will rise no more.
Some are born to move the world,
To live their fantasies.
But most of us just dream about,
The things we'd like to be.
Sadder still to watch it die,
Than never to have known it.
For you, the blind who once could see.
The bell tolls for thee.
--losing it, 1982
I had a childhood friend who went to visit his grandparents ever year. They lived near Cape Canaveral. In the 1960's this was magical, particularly for a kid from Frozen Pipes, Ma. Never did get to go. Many, many, years later, I was in the area on business, and the address came into my head...he would recite it all the time when we'd get ice cream. I located it without too much trouble. It was still there, the house I'd seen in the photos and home movies. Other people inhabited the place, and the neighborhood was such that I chose not to double back. It was depressing as hell. Still, the magic persists. The wife and I will get in the car and drive South for a half day, and marvel at the white sands, clear water and palms. To live there is another matter. Much of it is Indian country, and nearly all of the rest is out-of-our-league, but, ya never know.
A classic. Part lament, part poetry.
I thought Florida was "Jersey with palm trees" over thirty years ago.