February 16, 2006

Florida: The Fool's Golden State

THE 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.

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Posted by Vanderleun at February 16, 2006 9:42 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Mr. Vanderleun:

If you're not already familiar with them, you might wish to peruse John D. McDonald's series of detective novels based on the "colorful" (based on their titles) exploits of one "Travis McGee". Over the several decades in which the series was written he had beautifully documented the decline and fall of the formerly fair state of Florida.

One of my favorite quotes had something to do with the fact that "the latest immigrants to Florida want to slam the door shut behind them". Another was a point you touched on in your essay, which was that eventually Florida will become indistinguishable from, say, New Jersey, and so the attraction will fade away, and the population will eventually level off, once the state hits the level of sad mediocrity of everywhere else.

Kindest regards,


P.S.: You had a few in the blogging world wondering what had happened. Sorry to hear about the problem, glad to note it was nothing serious. Space may be bounded, but it's still infinite.

Posted by: Blackwing1 at February 16, 2006 10:09 AM

I think they're building for people who are not going to come. They're going to the Carolinas and Georgia instead. (Less chance of hurricanes and other nasty weather).

But a very sad thing all the same. I have family in Florida, and they're about ready to move out.

Posted by: Eric Blair at February 16, 2006 11:07 AM

They also go to great lengths in FL to keep outsiders from noticing that the crime there is much worse that the rest of the country. I lived in Palm Beach and Broward counties from 1991-2000. There were jewelers gunned down in broad daylight in strip malls; elderly people dragged to pieces for 1000 feet under a stolen car; a 200-plus pound teenage goon using a picnic table as a springboard to jump onto the head of another teen who had already been knocked unconscious. And all this was just in the "nice" neighborhood of Boca Raton.

I never saw anything "charming" about my time in FL (went to college there)--just strip malls, dirty canals, 9-month summers (of 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity daily), a sameness that you never really escape no matter how far you drive, and of course, transplanted northerners like myself.

I personally find New Jersey (where I am now) to be more charming, safe, and, believe it or not, full of wildlife (we are all but overrun by black bear and deer in my area).

Posted by: mark-o at February 16, 2006 12:17 PM

I too am from Seattle and have been to Key West many times (20 times?) in the past 10 years. Do you think that the Hurricane had anything do do with the broken sponges? BTW, revealing to your readers that Florida is the "redneck riviera" (and looks as such)is hardly earth-shattering news.

Posted by: Eddie at February 16, 2006 3:06 PM

Thanks - you've reinforced my own opinion, based on years of business trips to Orlando, West Palm Beach, and Ft. Walton Beach. My wife makes noises about retiring to Florida in 10 years or so, but I have no interest. The weather is good enough about 400 miles north of the Florida line, and you don't have to worry about the geezers, the tourists, self-medicated rednecks, or the corrupt real-estate culture.

Posted by: Cap'n Dan at February 17, 2006 12:54 PM

Well, I'm glad none of you are planning to move to Florida. That's at least a few less whiny northerners taking up space with their huge new aircraft hangar-sized homes, tying up traffic with their land yachts, filling the air with complaints about the mosquitos and the weather and how no one speaks English yadda yadda. Y'all can stay up there with your ice and snow. And do spread the word about the "terrible" crime which no one talks about (except in all the papers and in the news and on the internet) and how hot it is (in the subtropics! No!) and the "dirty canals" (as opposed to the pristine waters of all the rivers and streams and lakes up north). And encourage more of your relatives to leave. I'm tired of seeing the open fields I used to drive by being bulldozed for new houses for all those transplanted northerners moving to awful, hurricane-ridden, crime-and-corruption riddled Florida.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at February 18, 2006 6:37 AM

I'm glad someone mentioned Travis McGee. Another relevant quote from those wonderful books:

"A Florida Environmentalist is a man who bought his beachfront property last week."

Posted by: Doug Pratt at February 18, 2006 10:46 AM

As a Florida native, I stopped traveling to the Keys in the 80's. Too many damn northerners screwing the place up. But one should not judge the entire state of Florida by the Keys, anymore than one should judge New York by the Bronx. Or California by LA. Florida is a huge state, and every county and city is different. From Saint Augustine to Tampa to Sanibel to Sebring. But what killed the Keyes and the SE coast is all the out of staters moving here! Miami and Fort Lauderdale is NY South. And it ain't the nice New Yorkers, it's the cranky bitching New Yorkers. Yuck.

Try Sanibel next time.


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Posted by: george at January 8, 2007 9:30 PM

Please don't move here to Florida. New Yorkers have been the worst experience we've ever had. At first, it seemed great because of the monetary influx that occurred with y'all moving here. But then we started experiencing the side effects.

First of all, y'all are responsible for always building a new home, or worse-building a whole neighborhood. Y'all come down here and pass up fifteen PRE-EXISTING houses for sale and build a new one. Worse, y'all get greedy and then rape a giant piece of beautiful grazing land and build a cheap looking neighborhood.

Secondly, you bring your bratty children who all want to be gangsters (with their stupid NY Yankee hats turned sideways) and you ruin our schools. I know plenty of teachers who unanimously state that not all New Yorkers/New Englanders are bad, but almost all of the bad children are from New York/New England.

Also, you have driven the cost of living up so far that any economical gains made by your transplantation are negated.

On top of that, people from your part of the country are the most rude, loud, boisterous, and complaining people I have ever met. I always thought that the "classic New Yorker" was a stereotype on TV, but sadly it isn't. If I hear the phrase, "up north, we......" again, I will puke!

New Yorkers/New Englanders are quite possibly the worst drivers on earth.

New Yorkers/New Englanders voted in a bunch of overtaxing, feel-goodin', bleeding-heart liberals that taxed y'all out of house and home; now it seems that y'all didn't learn your lesson up there, now y'all vote fellow New Yorkers of the same ilk here, thus ruining our government here too.

I can say that I now know how the American Indians felt when we settled the land. Please, I beg you, please stay there. You're welcome to visit, but please go back home. I hope that my fellow southerners start making y'all feel very, very unwelcomed here. The sentiment is already here, it's time for action on the part of that conviction.

Posted by: Steel Roots at January 12, 2007 11:04 PM
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