Florida needs a new state slogan. “In God We Trust,” while reverential, lacks an authentic Florida focus. On a web site listing every state motto, a wiseacre noted, “God left Florida a long time ago!” For a new motto, I’d like to suggest “Because They Could!”
That simple statement encapsulates a century of Florida history. The new motto explains to future generations the draining, ditching and dredging of paradise. Why would we build high-rise condominiums on barrier islands? Why would the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straighten the Kissimmee River, drain the Everglades and declare a war on water? Because they could.
Today, 2.6 million septic tanks are buried underground, a hazard to the state’s waterways, air quality, coral reefs, and one of the major causes of toxic blue-green algae blooms. Why? Because they could.
Why is beachfront land so valuable in Florida? Because God isn’t making any more of it! But in Florida, we could and did! Citing riparian rights and Florida traditions, lawyers and developers assaulted the waterfront to improve nature. John D. MacDonald defined riparian rights as “turning water into land and putting houses on it.”
Headlines from the 1950s trumpeted progress: “Lowly Mangrove Swamp Is Turned into ‘Paradise Island,’” and “Bay-Bottom Sand Turns into Florida’s Silver Coast.”
Tampa Bay provides a cautionary tale. In July 1938, a Times headline announced, “Boca Ciega Bay Island Development Is Started.” Fast forward to 1964: “Boca Ciega Bay One-Third Filled.” Once one of the glories of the Gulf and one of the most productive fisheries in the world, Boca Ciega Bay became, in the words of scholar Bruce Stephenson, “one of the most degraded bodies of water in the nation. . . . a channelized cesspool.” Why? Because they could.
In 1964, Ozona was a vanishing slice of Old Florida, a place where residents enjoyed affordable waterfront living. Across St. Joseph Sound, the dredging and filling in Dunedin wrought consequences. A Times reporter interviewed Al Chicowicz, a fish camp owner. He explained, “Before they started with those islands, you could walk out the shore at low tide and pick up a dinner full of scallops. Now the silt is up to your knees.”
We approved these decisions, rationalizing, “Surely, one more dredged finger island, septic tank, and gypsum stack, can’t hurt. After all, Florida is unbounded and inexhaustible. More and more Americans wanted a slice of the Florida dream. Besides, “development pays for itself.”
In 1981, the environmentalist Robert Boyle cautioned, “The key is water.” Sadly, almost no one listened. Boyle’s law meant, “In many locations Floridians have, in essence, run a hose from their toilet to the kitchen faucet.” Why? Boyle sighed, “We have a government of men.”
Improving nature is a Florida tradition. Transplants move to Florida to luxuriate in nature and then expend energy trying to transform it.
In 1957, residents learned of a daring new project: converting Old Tampa Bay into a freshwater lake. Saltwater is so annoying! In a rare sign of cooperation, county officials on both sides of the bay endorsed the idea of constructing an earthen levee across the Courtney Campbell Causeway. A Pinellas County commissioner promised, “Oldsmar will become the Venice of Florida.” Fortunately, an emerging environmental movement scuttled the harebrained idea.
Helping to restore and preserve Florida should not be a partisan issue. The greatest environmental governor in Florida history may have been Republican Bob Martinez. The state’s greatest environmental champion may have been Republican Nathaniel Reed. In a state in search of a common cause, the environment could serve as a rallying cry.
We need to rethink what it means to be a Floridian. During World War II, Miami author Philip Wylie pondered the future of Florida. He wrote that at war’s end, “there will be two courses open to us. . . We can seize the gigantic opportunities at hand and develop this unique region into a new heart of the new world, or we can go on being a tropical Coney Island.” Wylie’s thoughts are worth considering 76 years later: “We haven’t asked people to live here. We’ve asked them to visit.”
In a pivotal scene from the 1942 film, Casablanca, Rick (Humphrey Bogart), allows the orchestra to play a rousing version of La Marseillaise, humiliating the Nazis. Victor Lazlo, the dashing Czech resistance leader, commends Rick, beaming, “Welcome back to the fight.”
Gary R. Mormino has taught history at the University of South Florida in Tampa and St. Petersburg since 1977. He received a Lifetime Literary Achievement Award in 2015.