Sunday, April 20, 2014

Who Art Thou, Florida?

During my recent month-long stay in Florida, I got to know Floridians more intimately than I have ever had the chance before. But oddly, I am now even less certain of who you are, Florida.

My first visit to Florida was in the early 90s to visit Dad who had bought a condo in Boca Raton. And ever since then, my visits have been structured around visiting him along with other family members. There were a few forays down to Key West, which is not really Florida, but a New England town on a permanent vacation to the Caribbean.

I struggled with Florida in the beginning. Particularly that part of Florida, from the Jupiter down to Miami. It’s all high-rise condos on the beach, drained swamps to make artificial landscapes for golf courses, bleak strip malls, and a place where everything is bought or fake: from the tits to the insta-landscapes.

I was shocked to watch mansions develop from sandy lots and cinderblocks. Within weeks, stucco was smeared on exterior walls and tinted to look as if they had been weathered by the ages, lawns were laid, hedges installed and palm trees plugged into the ground. Presto: another “vintage” villa.

The money and flaunting of it is grotesque. Ocean front mansions are bought for $30- to $50-million dollars just to be razed so more individually suited ones can be built for millions more. Cars start at Mercedes and Ferraris and increase to Lamborghinis, Bugattis, Rolls Royce, and Bentleys.

Living in wastelands of concrete cubes among square, six-laned streets, are the servants. The poor, the uneducated, the ignored, the disdained.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when Phoenix pulled into the harbor near Stuart, Florida. Here is a small village, with streets emanating star-like from a square with a fountain. Restaurant tables line the sidewalks and small stores sell hand-made goods. A revitalized theatre boasts a lively program of musical and theatrical performances. A classic 1920s hotel offers traditional lodging upstairs and contemporary drinks in the tiki-bar downstairs. A river-front walk way leads past a farmer’s market on weekends, enriched by live music and a walkway down to the dock where a schooner will sail you into the sunset on the Intra-Coastal Waterway.

This is a town. This is a community. I spent over a month in and around Stuart (off and on between visits to my Dad.) Phoenix was actually in the adjacent town of Port Salerno. And during that time, I began interacting with local Floridians in a way I never had before. I was negotiating with contractors performing various jobs on Phoenix. I formed relationships with a number of employees at the boat yard. And I became a recognized face at some of the eateries.

Here’s what I learned: Everyone in Florida (ok, maybe only 99.999%) is from somewhere else. Everyone comes because of the perceived ease of life compared to where they lived before.

For the employers, this presents a unique challenge. I was told by several employers that it is difficult to find loyal and hard-working employees because everyone is transient and everyone is looking for Margaritaville.

The deeper I became steeped in this culture, the more I began to understand the two sides of this coin. One the one, this lack of roots leads to less trust, more “sizing up” of the other during first meetings, and more crime. According to various websites, Florida ranks among the states with the greatest (and most violent) amount of crime.

But on the other side of this coin, is a laid-back atmosphere, a slower pace in which I see similarities to Europe’s Mediterranean countries. Chatting with strangers is easier, people open up a bit quicker with their stories, and if the work doesn’t get done today, a sincere promise is made for the morrow.

On one of my last days in Stuart, the first place so far for me that I have found roots in Florida, I wandered around trying to dig deeper into the town and found myself transported back a hundred years inside the old Stuart Feed Store. Built in 1901 as a grocery and general merchandise store, the building now houses the town historical museum. With well-organized, chronological displays of the area’s history dating as far back as humans have tread its trails.

A diorama of Stuart's port in the early 1900s. I love dioramas. Every museum should have at least one.
In the back, I came upon this room and found myself sharply inhaling, taken by surprise by the person sitting in the rocking chair.
Turns out, the room was its own life-size diorama, complete with a creepy Norma of the Bates Motel.
Here are three things I learned about Florida’s southeast coast. (Not all in this museum.)

1) Palm Trees: They are not native to Florida. Instead, some coconuts fell off shipwrecks, washed ashore and thus palm trees were introduced to West Palm Beach.

2) Treasure Coast: The name refers to the area roughly starting with Cape Canaveral and extending down to West Palm Beach. The name is similar to Gold Coast, which is the coastal area from West Palm Beach to Miami, but the name’s origin is slightly different. The Gold Coast name stems from all the richy-rich who settled there. The Treasure Coast wanted to distinguish themselves from that crowd and so adopted Treasure Coast after a Spanish treasure fleet which became shipwrecked there in a 1715 hurricane. One wonders if this name distinction is really just splitting hairs.

3) Pineapples: Stuart used to be the pineapple supplier of distinction reaching 1.2 million crates annually by shipped out on schooners in the early 1900s. Then a certain Mr. Flagler built the railroad down to Florida and by 1925, the pineapple business in Stuart was all washed up.

A flyer on pineapples I photographed in the museum.
The museum had some history on the Seminoles who were the Native Americans who lived in Florida.

And, lo, another diorama. I love this museum!
A photograph from the museum of Seminoles along with some white guy in high-waisted pants.
Turns out, the Seminoles were originally Creek Indians from Georgia. They moved south for the perceived ease of life compared to where they lived before.

Interesting, right? Even the first Floridians were from somewhere else.

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