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What does it mean to be a "Floridian"?

In 1943, a remarkable essay appeared in the Miami Herald. It expressed hopes and admonitions that are as relevant today as they were during the darkest days of World War II.

The essayist Philip Wylie — a prolific author of novels, short stories and screenplays — challenged city and state leaders to harness the transformational powers of wartime. "We can seize the gigantic opportunities at hand and develop the unique region into a new heart of the new world," he wrote. "Or we can go on being a tropical Coney Island."

To achieve this greatness, leaders must inspire and ask residents to rise to the challenge and become Floridians. "We haven't asked people to live here," Wylie stated. "We've asked them to visit." The future will be shaped by generations "who know that a civilized empire is founded upon industry and culture, not sport."

Wylie hoped that Florida, not California, would become "the center in the western world for those architects and engineers who are experimenting with designs in housing, public buildings, lighting, (and) solar energy. …We ought to have the greatest university in the nation, here. Perhaps we should have several great universities."

Alas, pell-mell growth, sheer indifference and a lack of resolve, not Wylie's vision of "true greatness," characterized postwar Florida. Millions of newcomers came to live in Florida but not be a part of Florida.

Former Gov. Bob Graham coined the term "Cincinnati factor" to describe residents who moved to Florida physically — but never emotionally. In their "golden years," many such couples settled in places like Fort Myers, The Villages or Pembroke Pines, where they subscribed to the Cincinnati Enquirer, cheered the fortunes of the "hometown teams" — the Cincinnati Bengals and Bearcats — and voted against educational referendums, arguing that they had already paid their school taxes in Hamilton County, Ohio. And, in accordance with their wishes, when they died their bodies were shipped to the Buckeye State for burial.

But the Florida identity-disconnection is a serious issue — and it's not solely due to the "Cincinnati factor." Because of the state's geography and the different ways in which Florida's far-flung communities have evolved, even Florida natives have trouble identifying with each other as Floridians.

Maybe Florida is too long to function as a state. Florida's 18 million inhabitants (including a million "snowbirds" who spend six months a year in the state) fit awkwardly across the state's 2,000 miles of tidal shoreline; 600 miles of beach; 67 counties; scores of edge cities, boomburbs, and microburbs; 10 media markets; and two time zones.

Tallahassee, the state capital, remains remote and distant from most Floridians. It is 20 miles from the Georgia border and 500 miles from Miami. Key West lies just 90 miles from Cuba but 800 miles from Pensacola. Geographically, culturally and politically, Miami and Key West share more in common with the Bahamas and the Caribbean than with Florida's neighboring states Alabama and Georgia.

Texas also boasts a huge landmass, but Lone Star inhabitants share a very different relationship with their state than Floridians do with theirs. Texans manifest a state identity that more closely resembles nationalism. The real (and imagined) events surrounding the Alamo, Indian Wars, cattle drives and the wild-cat oilmen are burnished legends that Texans embrace today.

The heroic defense of the Alamo in San Antonio represents the most enduring moment in Texas history. Curiously, the 1835 Seminole massacre of a hundred U.S. troops under the command of Maj. Francis Dade in Florida never registered an equivalent aftershock among Floridians. Florida's history also includes the nation's first cowboys battling the frontier and leading heroic cattle drives. And it features pious friars and ruthless businessmen, wild booms and horrible busts, killer hurricanes and catastrophic freezes. But most Floridians are unaware of this.

Sadly, students receive only a brush with Florida history, in the fourth grade.

When New Englander Philip Wylie moved to Miami in the 1930s, he became a passionate Floridian. His vision for a better Florida alternated between hopes for a paradise with a future as bright as its glorious past, and sadness as the state was taken over by leaders who believed that growth was tantamount to progress.

Today's leaders still lack the courage to challenge residents to leave Florida a better place than they found it. Instead of realizing Wylie's vision of great universities, we continue to accept underfunded institutions. Instead of intelligent planning and innovative energy programs, we have inherited automobile-driven sprawl on a vast scale. Instead of a state that is renowned for research, industry and culture, we have a service economy that resembles a Ponzi scheme: Today's thousand new residents pray that tomorrow's arrivals will pay for the growth.

In the 1870s, an Italian statesman famously proclaimed, "We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians." So, too, the great Florida conundrum persists: How do we make Floridians?

In a place where TomorrowLand is enshrined and where residents care more about a prosperous future than a shared past, in a state where millions of retired autoworkers and teachers migrated in hopes of rejuvenation and better Februaries, the future is supposed to end happily ever after.

Just as Wylie and others realized that the crisis of wartime opened possibilities, perhaps Floridians now can envision new possibilities in the current unsettling times. Wylie lashed out at critics who branded Florida as "third-rate, garish, vulgar, and trivial." He understood that the state's climate and natural attractions would lure millions of transplants after the war. His greatest fears remain relevant to Floridians today: How do we maintain a paradise that now must meet the needs of 18 million residents and 80 million tourists? What happens when Floridians think only of their immediate gratifications and not the future? What happens when dreams die?

Gary R. Mormino holds the Frank E. Duckwall Professorship in Florida Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The Florida Humanities Council's recent statewide public television documentary, The Florida Dream, was based on his latest book, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida.

Florida's environment: Growth makes our equation all the harder to work out, Back page.

For a copy of this issue, produced with the Askew Institute on Politics and Society, go to www.floridahumanities.org.

Where has the state been and where is it going? The Florida Humanities Council asked several prominent Florida thinkers to ponder that topic. We reprint four of their essays today in Perspective.

What does it mean to be a "Floridian"? 02/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 23, 2009 6:48pm]
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