I have only lived in Florida for nine years. It is my sixth state of residence and the one which I've resided in longest, aside from Pennsylvania, where I was born. Though it is definitely home, I know that it will be many more years (if ever), until I am considered a real Floridian.
I understand this. I was not here for "old Florida" and in truth, I am part of the wave of northern immigration that helped destroy much of what the people born here held as its charm. I came in 2001, just as the largest swell of residential development was beginning to unfold. First came the small cookie-cutter developments east of the interstate, then the McMansions, then big box retailers.
At first, I saw Florida as a land of opportunity. Warm weather, no state taxes and a low cost of living. When I got here, you could build a 2,000 square foot home on a lake (alright, not a real lake, but a lake), with a pool and plenty of upgrades for under $200k. There wasn't much enterprise, but there was also a very laid back work ethic and like many of the young and hungry, I found it easy to get ahead.
For a guy who'd been living in a dingy, overpriced rat-trap outside of Manhattan, it was paradise found. Little by little, though, I saw it slipping away. While living in a little 1950's bungalow on Siesta Key, I could literally see the changes from my window, as one after another, the quaint little rustic beach houses got knocked down in favor of palatial mansions that were used for only a few weeks each year by some jet-setting CEO or hedge fund manager.
When I lived near downtown, I watched the "old Florida" restaurants and hotels give way to one high-rise condo after another, while an influx of chain restaurants and retailers replaced the locally flavored businesses. This was always opposed as a bastardization of the community's essence and defended as the progress that would ensure a fruitful future.
Here we are in the future and those fruits seem bitter to the taste. The land is overdeveloped, the cost of such growth has grossly exceeded the revenues it has brought, and everywhere I turn things are beginning to look the same. Our communities are growing vanilla and flavorless. A visitor might get the impression that every new home is designed by the same architect and that the only kind of tree that will grow is a palm. Yet on the horizon, we can see only the promise of more of the same.
I for one am tired of being told that the ramped development of still more of these manufactured "communities" is the answer to our future. I am tired of seeing the urban core ignored, so that we can keep being told that the environmental impact of continuing to build out every frontier is sustainable, when we all know this to be false from both experience and common sense.
I am tired of being told that "progress" is a substitute for preservation and that commerce must always come before quality of life. True, I may not be a Floridian by birth, but this is my home. It is where my wife and I raise our three children. We fish the waters, we hike the trails, we troll the beaches, and we celebrate the beautiful sunsets. We came here for what real Floridians love and we are regretful for what we've brought with us.
Like many true Floridians, we have a handful of favored haunts that embody what this community means to us; restaurants, fishing spots, parks, preserves, etc. But that list is growing smaller, as more and more become casualties to what they call "progress." I don't buy it. The developers do not run this county, the citizens do.
In the last year, there has been a groundswell of citizen activity that demonstrates the commonality of such conviction. Neighborhoods are organizing in response to what they see as a completely unresponsive local government, and they are arming up to fight the power of the dollar with the power of the vote.
There haven't been too many good things to say about 2010, so far. Season was hampered by a sour economy and then a brutal cold spell, and now we are facing an unprecedented environmental disaster, the result of decades of ignoring sound energy policies. I am hopeful that the year will, nonetheless, be remembered as the one when the people of this area made a stand, said "enough", and took control of their elected government.
Old Florida is disappearing, but we can still defend what remains. We can still protect our treasured way of life and should regard any elected official who consistently ignores the will of their constituents in favor of their developer overlords as an enemy to that way of life, no matter how long they've lived here. Come November, let's give them an up close and personal view of Florida's unemployment problem by voting in competent and ethical replacements, ones who share that sacred appreciation for the Florida we love.
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