When, you might ask, did Florida get so weird?
Or, to put it more politely, when did Florida go from a sunny vacationland that most Americans only thought of when they were ready to retire to a force that dominates national news in politics, economics, popular culture, environmental issues and more?
Gary Mormino has the answer, and you can read all about it in his fascinating new book, “Dreams in the New Century: Instant Cities, Shattered Hopes, and Florida’s Turning Point.”
Mormino, a longtime St. Petersburg resident, is professor emeritus at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he co-founded the Florida studies program. He’s also the recipient of the Florida Humanities Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing and the author of numerous books, many about Florida.
His knowledge of the state is encyclopedic, and he has included an astonishing amount of it in this book.
The book focuses on the first decade of the 21st century, a time of enormous change that began with the 2000 presidential election.
Florida had never been seen as a powerhouse in national politics before then. But on the night of Nov. 7, 2000, chaos reigned. Early in the evening, network news declared Democrat Al Gore had won Florida and hence the White House. But six western counties in Florida were still voting; at 2:16 a.m., Fox News declared Republican George W. Bush the winner and other networks followed suit. Gore conceded. At 3:57 a.m. they all reversed and said the Florida vote was too close to call. Gore withdrew his concession.
And that was just the beginning of more than five weeks of uncertainty. Florida’s votes were recounted and re-recounted, lost and found, scrutinized for hanging chads and, incredibly, voters’ “intentions.” Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who was also the co-chairperson of Bush’s election campaign in the state, stopped the counting and declared him the winner on Nov. 27, but it wasn’t until Dec. 12 that the U.S. Supreme Court decided that, with a margin of 537 votes, Bush had won Florida’s electoral votes and the presidency.
Florida has been in the political spotlight ever since. Mormino notes that the hairs’-breadth vote count in 2000 was an indicator of the state’s deeply divided electorate — a division that predicted a national trend.
And that’s just the first chapter.
Opposing forces are a theme throughout this book, not all of them political. Florida’s population exploded between 2000 and 2010 (and continues to do so), almost entirely because of migration from other states and countries. That has made it one of the most diverse states, not only in terms of race but of culture, wealth and lifestyle.
That population growth drove the sprawl that has overtaken so much of the state. Mormino offers Brandon as an example of what he calls a “boomburb.” In 1960 it was a rural hamlet where “census takers counted only 1,655 inhabitants; by 2000, the unincorporated community of 80,000 sprawled over 35 square miles.” (If you haven’t been there lately, it hasn’t stopped growing.)
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The boom in development in the first years of the century turned, as it always does in Florida, to bust. The Great Recession affected the entire country, of course, but the housing collapse hit hardest in Florida. Mormino devotes a chapter to describing and analyzing it. He notes that he told a journalist in 2009, “Florida resembles a Ponzi state. Everything is fine if a thousand newcomers arrive daily. The problem is, no one ever planned for the question, ‘What happens when a thousand people stop coming to Florida?’”
By the end of the decade, migration and development were roaring back, heading into the current boom cycle.
One factor that had slowed migration to Florida even before the recession was the weather. In 2004, four powerful hurricanes — Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan — slammed into the state in just over a month. The devastation they left behind had impacts on everything from citrus growing to the insurance industry that still reverberate.
Mormino writes with insight about Florida’s connections to the 9/11 attacks, the controversy over Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez, the battle royal over the Everglades and much more.
His command of research and detail is impressive, but his writing is accessible and often humorous. He also offers tons of Florida factoids and trivia: Walt Disney designed the buildings on Main Street at Disney World at five-eighths scale, to make visitors feel like children. And in Florida in late 1999, Donald Trump first floated his intention to run for president — as an abortion rights-supporting Democrat, with Oprah Winfrey as his running mate.
“Dreams in the New Century” is both important history and a glimpse into our future. As Mormino writes, “The road signs are all too clear: the Florida of today is the America of tomorrow.”
Dreams in the New Century: Instant Cities, Shattered Hopes, and Florida’s Turning Point
By Gary R. Mormino
University Press of Florida, 559 pages, $34.95
Meet the author
Duckwall Lecture: Dreams in the New Century will feature historian and author Gary Mormino discussing early 21st-century Florida and its connections to some of the most significant events in contemporary American history during this in-person event, presented by Frank E. Duckwall Foundation and Florida Humanities. Free at 6:30 p.m. June 23, TECO Hall, Tampa Bay History Center, 801 Water St., Tampa. tampabayhistorycenter.org