“Old Florida:” Just About Gone

I sometimes feel like Carl Hiaasen when I drive around my home state of Florida. Carl is, of course, the wildly funny and wickedly perceptive columnist for the Miami Herald who also writes satirical novels about the rape and exploitation of the state we both love. I think he lives somewhere in the Keys now, but was born in Plantation, Florida when it was still a rural suburb of Fort Lauderdale.

Both he and I know something of how beautiful this state was before it was ruined. Hiaasen went to Emory University (where I was first accepted into a college) but graduated from the University of Florida (where I actually went…and graduated!). He even once wrote for Cocoa Today, the local newspaper in the town where I served as parish priest in for nine years in the Eighties. So, we have a lot in common, except that he is a much more successful writer than I am!

But we both share a love/hate relationship with this maddening state. As Susanne and I drove west on Interstate 4 this week, from Daytona to Sarasota, we found ourselves in bumper to bumper traffic through Orlando (to say nothing of massive road construction and a tropical thunderstorm like I haven’t experienced since I lived here!). The traffic congestion stretched from Altamonte Springs to just southwest of the Disney project (for those who know the area). And it happened almost exactly the same coming back east as when we drove west two days earlier!

But it’s not just the growth and development. It’s how that growth and development have happened. Little or no regard to the environmental consequences of such massive building efforts (about which Hiaasen writes so scathingly). And, of course, with millions of retired folks who moved here at least partially because there is no state income tax and who vote repeatedly against raising any kind of taxes at all, there is no way to build adequate infrastructure to handle the huge population. They are way behind and trying to play catch-up.

So, there are road problems, water problems, rampant destruction of coastal dune lines and natural barriers to the surging tides. All this to make way for the massive condominiums which block access to, and even the view of, the Ocean or Gulf — it doesn’t much matter which side of the state you’re on. The story is pretty much the same. It is only sheer chance (or maybe complicated factors related to climate change) that has kept Florida out of the cross-hairs of a massive hurricane in recent years.

When that, inevitably, happens lots of those condos will disappear from the beaches and, as an old salt once put it, “It will look like barnacles being scraped off a piece of driftwood by a sharp knife!” Poetic, don’t you think? However, in my worst moments, I must confess to a petulant “It’ll serve them right” attitude. (Of course, I hope these wealthy residents will heed the calls for evacuation first!)

So, why do I still hope to have a place back down here some day? I suppose mostly because of happy memories growing up here and of what it was like to live even in Orlando before the days of Disney. A middle sized town dotted with scores of fresh water lakes good for swimming, boating and fishing. Rows and rows of citrus trees — grapefruit, orange, and tangerine — stretching over the hills west of the city (now, of course, replaced with rolling hills of tacky little houses, most of which look just like one another). An Episcopal diocese which used to be one of the healthiest in the South and which I was proud to serve.

So, I ask again, why do I still hope to have a place back down here some day? Besides the nostalgia, there are still moments beside and within the pounding surf; the comforting sight of a typical Florida forest (or yard) combining palm trees, live oaks, azaleas and poinsettias; fresh grouper that will melt in your mouth (whether or not it is stuffed with crab!); and the discovery, every so often, of “old Florida” where once simple people of little or no means lived and enjoyed a tropical paradise, hoping that tourists would keep coming and leave their money — but would just as quickly head back up North and leave the care and management of the state to those of us who actually cared.

Of course, they didn’t. They moved here — at one point to the tune of 1,000 persons a day, moving into the state to LIVE, not simply visit — and now they are in charge. They own the corrupt politicians in Tallahassee and see absolutely no reason to take on Big Sugar or Big Construction or Big Drugs all of which are destroying the very environment they claim to desire.

Maybe if I ever do get a place back down here some day, I can get involved with folks like Carl Hiaasen, environmental groups, and responsible politicians who are calling attention to, and combating, these corrosive elements in Florida society.

At least we can go down fighting.




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