html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Contrite

Thursday, May 24, 2007


I got this email from a Florida friend, and it is far better than my two pissy lines in the post below deserve. In the first place, it is poor form to be mean about someone's place. If you can't say anything nice and all that. Now I feel bad that I wrote mean things about Florida and I am sorry I did. In the second place, this would be a thoughtful note even if I hadn't been rude, so I'm even more impressed with his generous response.
We're about an hour south of Venice, in Ft. Myers. I've been in Florida for nearly 50 years (which makes me old, of course), and I think there's no place in Florida that's awful (altho I can understand how a Californian might think so - we keep threatening to move to L.A., but we won't).

Despite being a devoted reader of your blog, I'm not sure what might strike you as not awful. Florida is not particularly scenic, especially compared to CA, there's no real capital C Culture, there is, I do confess it, a lot of mindless sprawl and overdevelopment, and yet... I continue to love it here. There are no breathtaking vistas, but a lot of pretty places, there's lots of wildlife even in relatively urban areas (we have hawks, ibis, herons, ducks, pelicans, osprey, alligators, possums, rabbits and lots of other critters just in our little neighborhood), and it's hard to beat the weather, altho YMMV. And the restaurants get better every week (but for a vegetarian, maybe not so much).

You know, it isn't the lack of dramatic vistas, or the lack of capital C Culture that bothers me about Florida. Please, qualify all my next sentences with 'what I've seen of Florida - Venice, Sarasota, Tampa, Orlando'; for all I know, other parts of Florida are great. But the parts of Florida I've seen are just... indistinct and not reflective of the landscape or revealing of a local culture or tuned to a human scale. The streets are too wide and the parking lots are huge and the strip malls don't have interesting shops*. There's lots here that is the worst of American development of the last forty years and nothing I can see that is very Floridian. I am totally willing to believe that Florida is subtle and you'd have to be here a while to see it. But from the road, man... I can't catch it.

And Florida especially kills me because it seems like such a waste. It could be lovely here. I'm typing this at midnight and it is still warm and velvety out, and there is no one to be seen. Everyone is inside, in air conditioning, because they're so trained from the hot days that they haven't noticed that it is gorgeous out. At home, on an eighty degree night, everyone in Midtown would be on the porch, still saying "evening" to the people walking home. People'd bike by in small flocks on their cruisers or fixies. But there is no one else out to feel this amazing night, because there aren't porches. For all that Florida should be so incredible, the architecture that I've seen doesn't tie in to the climate or the landscape or the water or anything. Houses aren't open for breezes, or on posts for hurricane surges, or facing the water or anything. It is just little ranch houses, and you drive into the garage and walk into the safety of the air conditioning.

So I would love to see a different Florida. Part of me wants it to be all sentimental and some garbled version of the South I put together growing up far away in the West. I want to see some remnant of the Florida in Their Eyes Were Watching God, and it is not fair to ask a state to stay frozen for seven generations. I'm nostalgic for the idea of it, though. Last visit, my Grandpa took me to Cracker Barrel, and I understand that Cracker Barrel is a kitchy replica of some version of some part of the South. But we sat on rockers on the wrap-around porch and played a game of checkers while we were waiting to be seated and they piped in Hank Williams, whom I listen to at home all the time. And even knowing that Cracker Barrel is deliberately trying to sell me an artificial "Southern" experience, there was an echo of what it must have been like. Like maybe the experience of an afternoon sitting on a porch on a muggy afternoon, playing checkers with an old man who wants to tell you his stories is so authentic that it can even break through the god-awful self-aware kitsch of Cracker Barrel.

So what would be "not awful" for me would be anything that showed me what the locals love about Florida. What is here, in Florida, that is not a few hundred miles to the north? What are you happy to come home to, when you get back from a trip? What kept you in Florida that you can't get elsewhere? because friend, there is a ton of ugly American overdevelopment in lots and lots of places. I want to see that Florida, so I can give it a fair try.

*Chris and I used to get in big fights over strip malls. He swore they were all the devil and I swore that in LA, strip malls were where you would find all the new immigrant stores and restaurants and they could be a really neat collection of stores. Way better than the mall malls. Now Chris thinks that you need cheap buildings to have lots of local stores instead of chains. He says those should all be tasteful old buildings and who wouldn't prefer that? But if you don't have the legacy of tasteful old buildings, strip malls where you can get pho and your unfinished furniture and a comic book store and a sari and also chaat are better than nothing.


Blogger Dewb said...

That's a pretty fair criticism of Florida. I grew up there and still love it, but I suppose there are reasons I'm not living there now. It's hard to find the stuff that makes Florida unique.

At the turn of the century, it was basically a blank canvas -- miles and miles of undeveloped, flat swampland. No mountains or hills to constrain development. The state filled up with retirees, refugees, and other carpetbaggers -- very few families go back in Florida more than two generations. Large chunks of the state were only built out in the last 10 or 20 years, once all the quirkiness had been shaken out of building industry practices. Also, state laws about the amount of wetland drainage per property more or less guarantee large lot size and sprawl.

Cracker Barrel is terrible; I don't associate it with Florida at all. Luckily the authenticity of checkers and Hank Williams is pretty much incorruptible. If you want a genuine Florida dining experience, you should go to a Waffle House, or -- even better -- one of the ramshackle fish-camp seafood restaurants that randomly dot the landscape. You may need to have a local point you towards one, as they can be tucked away, but others might have billboards and neon signs drawing you in like a moth lamp. (Unfortunately Waffle House and seafood is about as non-vegetarian as you can get.)

I'm from North Florida, which is sort of its own animal, but here are the four unique things that come to mind about the state as a whole:

1. History. St. Augustine, the oldest city in America, is a must see. There's an awesome Spanish fort made out of oyster shells. The Atlantic coast is dotted with the hotels and mansions built by tycoons from the Northeast. There are some Civil War-era forts spread around the north part of the state. Florida has an above-average number of state parks; many are small, focused sites like the giant sinkhole near Tallahassee, Indian mounds, antebellum mansions, etc.

2. Water. 80% of the things to do in Florida will get you wet. Snorkeling at a reef; renting jet skis. Waterskiing, windsurfing, parasailing, lots of stupid stuff. Canoeing in the swamps; airboats in the Everglades. You can do almost all of this in California, but the water would be a lot colder.

3. Tacky interstate Americana. If you go up and down I-75 or 95, you will inevitably see billboards for some 'attraction' hundreds of miles away sound like the crown jewel of Florida tourism. You'll get there and it will be a tiny restaurant and a few stands selling trinkets. The best ones used to have a chicken playing a piano, or a guy wrestling alligators or something, but that's sadly rare these days. No matter how ridiculous and tacky this sounds, it's worse (better?) than you're imagining. You mentioned the "self-aware kitsch of Cracker Barrel" -- well, there's zero self-awareness here. These places, the few that are left, are time capsules of an America before irony. Not to be missed.

4. Miami. It's like no other city in America, particularly downtown, South Beach, Coral Gables, etc. Miami has architecture, fashion, and people that you won't see anywhere else.

At the intersection of Water and Tackiness is Marineland, an "oceanarium" built in 1938, before Disney set foot in the state. It started out as a place to film underwater movies and do hardcore science, but by the time I was a schoolkid being bussed down there for field trips, it had gone to seed. It was way sketchier, and way more quantitative than the newer and sexier Sea World. Sketchy and quantitative like a hung-over, leather-faced man in his fifties explaining saltwater concentration graphs while smoking like a chimney. The park has since gone bankrupt a couple of times and has new ownership sprucing the place up, so who knows what it's like now. Hopefully they've kept the cool 40s architecture.

To get it all, though -- history, water, tackiness, and Miaminess -- you gotta hit the Keys. They've got the roadside stands, the long bridges over crystal blue water, the crazy Miami vibe and pastel architecture, the seafood shacks, the forts and the history. At the end you've got Key West, which is rapidly homogenizing with New Orleans/Bar Harbor/etc. on some sort of Jimmy Buffet axis of tequila, but is still a unique place with lots of fun things to do (and they all, most likely, involve drinking.)

Have fun while you're in the Sunshine State!

12:05 AM  
Blogger billo said...

Dewb, fantastic post! You make Florida sound really interesting when Megan makes it sound so boring!

I hope you set up a blog and write more about this older America.

3:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Megan, for you, it's all about the porches.

4:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is much to your criticism, but try Florida noir as a possible entry point. Google to my post "My Favorite Things Florida" for some references, plus who is that mystery writer who focuses on the state? Or hang out in the Haitian community, or go hear Cuban music. But yes much of it is still a dump.

5:49 AM  
Blogger bobvis said...

Perhaps I am wrong, but I think Megan has suffered from not experiencing anything Cuban in Florida.

Perhaps this reflects our different priorities, but I would value Florida's cost of living and tax advantages over California. (not that I wouldn't want to live in California)

6:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Meg. I know you don't like gratuitous compliments but I love your open-mindedness and I wish that I could put it in a bottle and make everyone take a swig.

I grew up in NJ...we did DisneyWORLD vacations in my parents have moved to Florida. My initial assessment is the same as yours. Too much sprawl...too little place for real life in the community. What was that book they had in my Hebrew School? Oh yes, it was called "Life is with People."

One thing that's very Floridian--albeit in a super-cosmopolitan way--is Miami/Miami Beach. It's just very multi-cultural, very upscale, very Latin-flavored Nouveau Riche. Now I'm a little bit biased against the place because it's reputation is to put a lot of emphasis on beauty and none on brains and, well, I sense that I would not fare well in such an environment (dating, etc.). But I find it hard to say that it's not a unique urban environment with an almost incontrovertible attractiveness--that city has it going on. Thank you, immigrants! :)

6:43 AM  
Anonymous Thelonious_Nick said...

My grandparents live in Sun City Center, south of Tampa. I thought Florida was god-awful. That is, until my visit last summer, when I looked at a road map of Florida and noticed that, aside from the I-4 corridor, all the development in the state was along the coasts while the interior looked empty.

So when we drove back to Orlando to catch the Autotrain north, rather than taking I-4, I took a little state highway (674) that connected to another little state highway (37). Here's what I saw:

1) orange groves
2) a little town--no stoplights--where every sign was in Spanish
3) no other cars on the road for stretches of 10 minutes or more

Took only slightly longer than the Interstate route.

6:54 AM  
Anonymous bill said...

Dewb caught much of the great stuff about the state. Kennedy Space Center is fairly awesome as well, esp. being close to some very pretty wetlands...a favorite spot in the state (and I know this is eccentric) is the Randall knife factory in Orlando -- in the middle of some fairly vicious sprawl on the Orange Blossom Trail is a nondescript sign and a nondescript driveway, but if you turn, you're in the last remnants of an orange grove and if you persevere for about 3/8ths of a mile you come to a low building where some of the best knives in the world have been made since the 1930s. You'll hear hammering and grinding and you'll meet some low-key people who are clearly competent at what they do. Not scenic, not historic, but unique.

7:14 AM  
Anonymous margie said...

We went to Florida a couple of years ago on vacation and I really liked it a lot. We did, however, limit ourselves to 3 spots, and it sounds like you haven't been to any of them. We went to Miami - South Beach is very cool with the architecture and the people. We also went to the Everglades - seeing bears in California when you're hiking gives you a rush, but kayaking next to alligators in the sloughs of the Everglades gives you a way more "heart of darkness" feeling. Finally, we went to the keys where we had a great time snorkelling, kayaking, and bird watching. Also, we perservered through the sprall of Naples and found a very walkable, yuppified town center with very tasty food options. I think your problem with Florida is that you are stuck with relatives living relatively boring lives in suburban Venice. If you went there on vacation, you could tailor you Florida experience to your tastes. Imagine coming to California to visit relatives in Modesto in late July. You'd come away with the same impression that you have of Florida.

9:19 AM  
Anonymous bryn said...

I think your view of florida is applicable to most of america. It's all homogenizing (not complaining about walmart here) through constantly maintained indoor temperatures, total isolation from neighbors, mass market efficiencies, etc. The more "hardships" we remove the less character of a place there is.

10:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ohhhh, I loved Cracker Barrel. One of my college girlfriends worked at the one near campus. I try to go almost every time I'm back in the Midwest. I like the breakfast and dinner there. Mmmmm.

You should go to Steak and Shake, though I guess if you can't eat hamburgers it's not that great. Their cheese fries are all right though.

And, Florida does suck. It's too hot, it's too humid, and the whole state is a swamp.


10:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with some of Megan's criticisms of Florida and think that a lot of Florida falls into that category. However, I guess I've been pretty lucky because most of my experiences in Florida -- particularly regarding porches, sitting outside and being in houses that "face the water" -- have been much different than hers. Our family went on vacation to Florida for at least 2 weeks every summer -- mostly either the keys, miami and/or daytona beach areas -- and a lot of my memories are of sitting in a screened-in porch eating lunch or dinner looking out over the water or fishing off of a dock. My parents retired to Florida (near Ft. Myers) and have beautiful porches (once again, with screens to keep out the mosquitoes and no-see-ums) that face toward the water that are great to sit on and watch the ospreys and herons -- expecially early in the morning or late in the day.

I think that some of the best "local flavor" comes from going to the local fish restaurants/dives for a beer and some seafood.


P.S. My parent's house -- indeed all of the houses in their neighborhood -- is raised up to avoid hurricane storm surges. Their house has been hit by at least two.

10:59 AM  
Blogger L said...

I second the North Florida recommendation. I grew up in Tallahassee. From there, you can drive half an hour in any direction and be right in the middle of nowhere, which, to my mind, is a good thing. No Culture, as you said, but lots of great hole-in-the-wall seafood and BBQ joints, national forests, sinkholes, and the prettiest, least crowded beaches in the world.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a bunch of mystery writers who focus on the Sunshine State, but, naturally, I'm prejudiced in favor of Randy Wayne White, who does the Doc Ford novels which are set on Sanibel Island, about 10 miles from where I'm sitting.

And even tho y'all who don't live here have no idea how much worse things have gotten during the real estate boom of the past few years, it's still better than most other places in my very humble opinion, the heat and the wet and the hurricanes notwithstanding.


11:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

heh, sorta like reverse psych, eh? The quickest way to get people to tell you all the cool stuff, is to say that there isn't any... my favorite part has always been where we throw rockets at the sky, and I learned a bit about a few things from my great uncle, who had settled into a place on the bananna river in Cocoa Beach... disney isn't bad when you see it the way a child does, sometimes I think going to any new place and trying to find the wonder of a child is the best way to be introduced...

and if you ever need the guide to Colorado or Northern New Mexico, just let me know ;) connections... always a good thing to have, yes?


11:28 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Can't chat for long, but I should say that I have a lot of the same criticisms about my own state, and am nostalgic for a rancho version of CA that probably never existed either.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


My parents live on Sanibel. They live right near the connection to Captiva. Great place with lots of wildlife and preserved land. I haven't been there for about a year, but can't wait to get back. I'll have to check out the Doc Ford novels.


4:07 PM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Some have called for boycotting Cracker Barrel on the grounds that it's allegedly homophobic. I don't think much has come of it, however.

5:27 PM  
Blogger Dizzy said...

I totally agree with your complaints about sprawl (although I loved Dewb's take on Florida and really want to visit Miami sometime, too). I originally went to law school because I wanted to get into city planning and fight sprawl. I volunteered at a non-profit that dealt with these issues, and real estate lawyers were in the middle of everything.

I think icky architecture and sprawl has real consequences for our society. Like you mentioned, people stay out of the public areas, in their own air-conditioned houses. And we're ruining the environment creating all these car-dependent communities. Plus, it's just wasteful. We keep abandoning buildings and just building nicer, newer ones farther and farther away from the city center. Reuse and repurpose of older communitiies and buildings makes more sense.

Anyway, see, I have a serious, community-minded side ;) It's not all hair and dating stories.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Marcus said...

Leaving aside all land-use related issues, I want to put in a vote for listening to Ernest Tubbs and/or Lefty Frizzel on the front porch. Underrated. Not quite as amazing as Hank Williams but you've already heard every Hank Williams song fifty times, am I right?

9:51 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

You know, I only came to Hank Williams a couple years ago. His stuff has a lot of life left in it for me.

3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Carl Hiassen writes very funny, very dark novels about Florida.

Or check out John D. McDonald, whose detective Travis McGee defined Florida in the 60s (think dark Rockford Files).

And the John Sayles movie 'Sunshine State' about developers trying to buy up a black community on the Florida sea coast. One of his better films.

11:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your thoughts on strip malls are, unsurprisingly knowing you, once again very perceptive.

Mall malls are the worst of the sterile, homogenised, suburban environment (excepting Big Box stores, which are even worse). There are no 'one off' shops in malls-- the landlords don't like them.

In urban forms dominated by cars, and sprawl, which lets face it is how the vast majority of North Americans live, diversity has to accomodate that. It is, indeed, outdoor strip malls that have Sari shops, and comic shops, and all those other undercapitalised ventures.

It would be great if everything in the world looked like downtown London or New York. But that's not the world most of us live in, even those of us who *do* live in New York and London often live in the suburbs.

Score another one for an insight into the world that cut across my preconceptions (and snobberies) and made me think.

ata go girl. ;-).


12:19 AM  

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