Frequent visitors to my blog know a couple things about me. One, I was born and raised in northeast Ohio – I have burned a lot of bandwidth writing about my upbringing there. Secondly, I now live, and have for about 25 years, in Florida. From Boca Raton to Orlando, and most places in between. I presently reside in Altamonte Springs, a suburb of Orlando.
When I first moved to Florida in the early 80’s, one of the large knocks on the Sunshine State was its transience-ness. Many lamented over the fact that the state was loaded people from everywhere else and as a result the place had no sense of community – nobody knew their neighbors, and even if you took the time to know them, they’d be gone in six months anyway. That trendy new restaurant down the street? Better hit it fast, because it will be gone this time next year.
My dad used to call Florida ‘The Land of the Hustle’, and he wasn’t referring to disco. He meant it was a place to make a quick buck then get the hell out before the authorities caught up with you. Trying to find a reputable person to tile your roof or remodel your bathroom was like playing Russian roulette insofar as getting someone to actually commit to finishing the job. The shores were teeming with bales of washed-up drugs and Haitians. The growth rate was around 20 percent annually, and with it came anyone that ever swung a hammer, even if they couldn’t pass a background check or a drug test. People were on edge, scared. Looking over their shoulders. Nobody trusted anyone.
But something has happened over the past 30 years. For sure, I got older, so perhaps I view things differently now – it’s one thing to be 24, drinking beer and smoking pot on the beach with my buddy Gary while we took running starts from the road and tried to jump as far as we could off sand-duned cliffs to the beach below, risking broken bones and concussions, to being a homeowner with a good job and a teenage son. Perhaps time has mellowed me.
But I don’t think so. Rather, I think time has mellowed Florida. Things have settled. Tracts of homes became neighborhoods. People got nicer. They stayed. They grew roots here. Schools have dramatically improved, or at least they are on a par with the rest of the country – there was a time that wasn’t so. For example my son is in a magnet arts high school in West Palm Beach. 85% of their graduates receive college scholarships. Palm Beach County boasts two of the top-ten public high schools in the country. Read that again – in the country. There is a lot to be proud of here, and it has nothing to do with Mickey or Mojitos.
This is not to say we do not have our problems, but now they are universal in nature. In other words, problems all areas have – unemployment, scarce jobs and the like. But nothing endemic to just Florida anymore. This stabilization can be felt and touched. Restaurants have endured. My neighbors on the street that my house is on are still there – Rufus and Jocelyn from Miami live on one side, and Butch and Deena from Metairie, Louisiana on the other. People smile now. They ask how you are and mean it. When Hurricane Jeanne hit my neighborhood in 2005 and power went out for days, Rufus had everyone over for a cookout. We helped each other out. In other words, we became a community – one of the main things that we lamented was missing from our until-then dysfunctional slice of paradise.
See, we are all still from somewhere else, but we have all made Florida our home. Not for a summer, not until our parent’s money runs out, and not until the authorities from up north catch up to us. This is our home. And I love it here. I am proud of my Ohio roots, but I am equally proud of my adopted home.
All Floridians should feel the same.