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Fixing Florida will be fun to watch ... as a fan

My last column. Best wishes, y'all.

There is no other Florida in the world.

Now, right off the bat, you should know that sentence is stolen. Borrowed, at least.

It comes from Marjory Stoneman Douglas' 1947 book about the Everglades, River of Grass.

"There are no other Everglades in the world," she began. It's one of the most famous sentences ever written about our state.

But surely we can make the same bold claim about the whole shebang — Pensacola to Key West, Jacksonville to Naples, Miami to Yeehaw Junction.

No other Florida in the world. No place nearly like it. Not where you can toast the flash of sunset at Mallory Square, and gawk at the castles along Palm Beach, and feel unstylish on South Beach, and see where Mickey Mouse lives, and visit the Oldest This-and-That in the New World, and follow Ponce de Leon's quest for the Fountain of Youth, and swim in crystal spring waters with manatees, and stand where humanity first reached to the stars.

Oh, yeah: And wear shorts in winter, and fall in love during an endless spring, and try to catch a fish now and then, and ski, and swim. And cut the engine and the light in the boat so there is nothing but stillness and thick dark air, and mosquitoes and stars, and the glint of eyes looking back at you from the swamp all around.

Well.

A more recent book about Florida made a big impression on me. Its title is Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams, and it was written by our own Gary Mormino, a history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Mormino documents the rise of modern Florida — the megastate Florida, the crushingly developed Florida, the Florida of real-estate booms and quickie subdivisions that simply exploded in the years following World War II.

A generation of Americans was exposed to this paradise during military training; many of them decided to come back as visitors, or to seek a new life in a newly mobile postwar nation.

Florida sold itself eagerly, of course. Florida has always sold itself eagerly. And plenty of people made a lot of money doing it, and plenty of people made a living by throwing up the new cities and subdivisions and shopping centers and strip malls that it required.

Only in the last generation did Floridians begin to question the wisdom of this. We saw our lakes and bays choked to death. We saw the highways jammed, the quality of life degrading.

And enough Floridians said, maybe this is not the state we want. So we passed laws that said, yes, we will always grow, but maybe we can grow better. Smarter. Wisely.

We should make sure Florida has the water it needs, and the roads it needs, and the schools it needs. The business of our state should be something besides unrestricted, anything-goes growth. Those people making money off Florida should help pay for the costs of their growth.

That was long-term thinking.

But, you know, we live in the short term. We live in the moment. And in this moment, for various reasons, we have chosen a generation of leaders of Florida who do not believe in these values.

I do not think most Floridians fully realize, and will not for some time, the full damage of what has already happened in Tallahassee. Our state's governor and the majority of our state's Legislature believe in exactly one thing: making money off Florida. They have repealed many of the laws that Florida passed trying to make itself a better state. We have, quite literally, propelled this state back into the 1950s, and when the economy explodes again, look out.

It was an earlier generation of Republicans and Democrats working together who tried to save our state. Making Florida better was never about Republican vs. Democrat. Hardly a day passes that I do not hear from anguished, older Florida Republicans who are dismayed at what is happening. They say: This is not what we wanted.

Florida needs a world-class state university system or it will never be a great state. Florida needs to invest in itself. It needs to invest in public — yes, public — education. It needs a diverse, educated, intelligent work force. Florida needs to protect what is left of the physical Florida. In every one of these arenas we are pointed the wrong way.

Yet despite all this . . .

Despite all this, lately I have been feeling more and more optimistic, precisely because more and more Floridians realize what is happening. This state is coming into an interesting and exciting time, a battle afresh for its future, and its soul.

So why am I quitting now, just when it's getting good? For entirely selfish reasons that have nothing to do with any of this, and everything to do with living the one single life we each are given.

But whatever happens, and wherever I go, I will always be for Florida. I hope you will, too. Goodbye.

Fixing Florida will be fun to watch ... as a fan 06/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 11, 2011 5:03pm]
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