In late 2008, New Yorker writer George Packer visited Tampa for a story about Florida's foreclosure crisis. Soon after, he began work on The Unwinding, a memoir of sorts of the last 30 years of America, told through several people and places.
Tampa is one of those places. While Packer's portrayal may have been overstated by a New York Times reviewer ("Tampa … seems like hell on earth"), it's fair to say local tourism bureaus will not be sending complimentary copies of The Unwinding to prospective tourists.
Packer returned Friday on his book tour, and talked to the Tampa Bay Times before an appearance at the Oxford Exchange in Tampa.
Did you cringe as you read "hell on earth," or do you think the review accurately depicted your portrayal of Tampa?
I cringed. It seemed a bit extreme. But it's up to readers here to decide whether it's a fair portrait. This is sort of where the American dream kind of went bust. A lot of people turned to real estate as a way to make money rather than their jobs, because the economy wasn't that good other than in real estate.
You could have set a story about the real estate crash in several cities. Why Tampa?
It was sort of the accident of having a friend who had just gotten back and hearing a description from him. When I got here, with a friend, we drove around all those subdivisions on State Road 54, U.S. 41, and it was visually shocking. Seeing a street paved, with streetlights, and even little cutouts for driveways, but the houses hadn't been built. Or paved streets, but no streetlights. Or paved streets, streetlights, and houses, but no people. It had this eerie feeling. Kind of beautiful on the surface — the sky is aquamarine and those stucco houses look so new, and so clean — but where are the people? And what's happened to them?
The book focuses on Hillsborough County's light-rail referendum that failed in 2010. Is rail something you think could have been a boon for Tampa?
I couldn't call myself an expert, but it seemed like a good step. It seemed like the only step away from the model that had failed. There were no other ideas on the table.
The book also focuses on the Hartzells, a lower-income Tampa family. How do you think their lives would have been different if they'd lived in generations prior?
(Danny Hartzell) would have a blue-collar job as a welder or worked at a packaging plant.
Those jobs disappeared, and with them, his ability to give his family a decent standard of living.
Instead, he was forced to be a part-time stocker at Target and Walmart.
The Hartzells have actually fallen on very tough times right now, and I'm hoping some of the attention from the book helps them out. The family has remained incredibly cohesive in all this trauma, which is incredibly unusual.
Packer's interview was edited for space and clarity.