Editor’s note: This essay is published in the Fall 2022 issue of FORUM, the magazine of Florida Humanities. It is particularly apt when Election Day only two days away.
Gary Mormino will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 12. He will be in conversation with historian Jack E. Davis (”The Bald Eagle”) at 11 a.m. at the Palladium 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Tickets at festivalofreading.com.
From its founding in 1513 to its modern identity as a mega-state boasting 22 million inhabitants and 122 million tourists, Florida has evoked contrasting images of the sacred and profane: a Fountain of Youth amid desecrated springs, a Garden of Eden turned into commuters’ nightmares and a place where “home” is still Toledo, Kokomo and Kankakee.
Florida’s dynamism makes it an irresistible place to study. In 2005, journalist David Shribman argued, “It may be that Florida, rather than California, is the place where the future is viewed.” In almost every important index of modern American life today — the enormous numbers and influence of the elderly, racial and ethnic diversity, environmental challenges and catastrophes, and political melodrama — Florida tops the charts. The Florida of today is the America of tomorrow.
What is/was the Florida dream that brought so many to a place that, until a century ago, was a remote and sparsely populated frontier? The dream cuts across time and class, promising a better life.
Florida’s birth myth, Ponce de León’s search for the Fountain of Youth, is the ultimate symbol of second acts and new vitality. Scores of cities claimed home to the original Fountain of Youth, hosting tourists who bathed in and gulped the sulfurous waters.
Reinvention serves as an article of faith in Florida. In 1925, financial analyst Roger Babson insisted, “Ponce de Leon had the right idea. ... He went to Florida in search of a fountain of youth. And he found it. Florida can add from five to 10 years to the lives of people who will spend their winters here in quest of health and happiness.”
Florida cities and developers highlighted those promises of health, optimism and happiness in their marketing and promotion. An early Sarasota tourist brochure described the town as “healthy country” declaring the climate “invigorates the strong and strengthens the weak.”
The Florida dream, along with the G.I. Bill, Social Security and Medicare, provided the high-octane fuel for Florida’s extraordinary postwar growth from 2 million to today’s 22 million. Consider that in 1920, Florida’s population of one million paled in comparison to the Empire State’s 12 million inhabitants. In 2012, Florida supplanted New York as America’s third-largest state.
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The era between World War II and 2000 brought sustained prosperity and optimism to America and Florida. Florida became California on the cheap. Books offered advice for adventurers. In The Truth about Florida (1956), a retiree exclaimed that a Florida couple “can live comfortably, have a whale of a good time and save money on an income of about $40 a week.” California and Florida exploded, benefiting from advancements (air conditioning, interstate highways and mobile homes) and medical breakthroughs dramatically increased life expectancy.
In the 1960s, a single person managed to unite the American and Florida dreams: Fidel Castro, who served as maestro and tyrant. Over 400,000 Cubans crossed the Straits of Florida, finding asylum in what author María Cristina García called, “Havana, U.S.A.”
To Colombians, Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans, three of the fastest-growing immigrant groups, the Florida dream was inseparable from the American dream and its promises of freedom, security, and the good life.
Selling the dream
Many Americans discovered Florida at dream factories: the movie theater. A silent film company, the Klutho Studios, opened in 1908 in Jacksonville. Florida doubled as the setting for the Wild West, African savannahs and tropical islands. In 1913, the World’s Best Film Co. came to Tampa. Sulphur Springs served as the setting for “Wizard of the Jungle,” a film starring Jack Bonavita, a one-armed lion tamer. In 1941, 20th Century Fox produced Moon Over Miami, starring Don Ameche and Betty Grable. The plot involves two carhops hoping to marry a millionaire in the Magic City. “Where the Boys Are” premiered at the Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale in 1960. “Cocoon” (1985), perfectly combined elements of the Florida dream with a cast of bored but adventuresome St. Petersburg retirees.
John Sayles’ “Sunshine State” oozes Floridiana. The 2002 film’s opening scene takes place on a golf course. Three golfers with New York accents serve as a modern equivalent of a Greek chorus. Alan King, portraying developer Murray Silver, understands the big picture. “Out of the muck and mangrove, we created this.” A companion shrugs, “A golf course?” King extends his arms and pronounces, “Nature on a leash.”
But it was developers who made Florida a national dream, with their relentless marketing campaigns promising “water view living” and eternal bliss for “$10 down and $10 a month.”
Developers also created a new way for old Americans to live, coaxing them from their Northern and Midwestern communities and multi-generational connections to cluster together in retirement communities with sunny names and recreational amenities that promised carefree final years. Senior citizens could retire to Florida and not worry about how their families would react to their changing political party affiliations, religious preferences and lifestyle choices unimaginable “back home.”
A decade of dislocation and drama
By the opening years of the 21st century, Florida had grown to the fourth-largest state in the nation. Its explosive expansion can be expressed by a single word “more”: more houses, more traffic, more diversity, more stores and recreational facilities and, most of all, more people. But more can be less, and the new millennium was also evoking another word to describe the new state of the state: “loss.” Growth threatened the fragile ecosystem, the beaches, wetlands and natural springs. And that growth seemed inexorable and unstoppable.
Yet Floridians’ confidence would soon be shaken. The year 2000 served as the moment Florida became synonymous with an ungovernable and incompetent collection of warring factions. Diane Roberts’ book, “Dream State,” begins in the aftermath of Bush v. Gore. “It’s Tallahassee. It’s Friday afternoon. It’s Nov. 17, 2000, 10 days after the not-election. The votes — chads dimpled, dangling, hanging or pregnant — still sit in boxes.”
But 2000 was also a year Florida’s Cubans welcomed the most unlikely figure who ignited a political firestorm. In late November 1999, a fisherman spotted a young boy clinging to a float off the shores of Fort Lauderdale. It was Elián González. His mother and 10 others had died escaping from Communist Cuba. Few individuals have united and divided Floridians more than a 5-year-old boy and his fate. Carl Hiaasen mused, imagining the poetic justice if “the 2000 presidential election shakes down to a single vote — an overseas ballot bearing the child-like signature of one E. Gonzalez.”
The terms “dream state” and “9/11″ seem disconsonant, a strange pairing. When the World Trade towers fell in 2001, Floridians were shocked to learn that more than half of the suicide bombers had chosen Florida as their training sites. Florida, the saying goes, is the place where almost everybody is from somewhere else. And even natives have witnessed so much change they feel as if they are strangers.
Despite the negative press, Floridians shrugged off criticism amid torrid population growth and prosperity. If a single word encapsulated the Florida dream it was “confidence” or “optimism.” In 2003, two-thirds of residents polled expressed “satisfaction” with the direction of Florida. From 2000 to 2005, the stars seemed in alignment. The Cold War was over, the economy hummed, as Floridians flocked to the Sunshine State in record numbers. New styles and forms of urban living characterized the Florida dream: New Urban cities, such as Seaside and Celebration; the wonderment of age-restricted communities, such as The Villages and On Top of the World.
But nature bats last! In 2004, within six weeks, four major hurricanes hit the state, killing 125 people, wreaking more than $30 billion in damage and raising fears about climate change and future natural disasters.
Far worse devastation struck in 2008-’09, when the fevered housing market collapsed, and Florida became the epicenter of an international financial meltdown. The Great Recession pummeled Florida, spawning unemployment lines and foreclosure signs, deflated hopes and moving vans headed north. A reckoning occurred, unleashing a new era marked by more red tides, fewer oranges, and unimagined sorrow. At one point, Florida lost population.
Looming crises -- Opioid drugs, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and stand your ground gun laws --signaled a growing disenchantment and fatigue among Floridians. The gap between rich and poor widened, with many struggling to find employment and affordable housing as others basked in grand Mediterranean-style second homes in gated communities.
New terms, such as climate change and global warming, rattled Floridians. Record numbers of manatees and panthers were dying, along with seagrass and wildlife decline. Floridians began to discuss a forbidden topic in a state of dreams — limits. Yet support for growth management laws, once a proud marker of Florida’s environmental awareness, was eroding. Critics wondered if Florida could adapt to the new realities.
Interpreting the dream
Interpreting the Florida dream or the Florida nightmare has become a cottage industry. The late Kevin Starr, the state librarian of California, is recognized as the father of dream state studies. A gifted stylist and exhaustive researcher, Starr laid the framework in his magisterial 1973 study, “Americans and the California Dream.” Starr wrote seven additional volumes, ending with “California on the Edge” (1990).
California and Florida share exclusive status as America’s two great dream states. Criteria include vast stretches of beaches, swaying palm trees, balmy winters, and most critically, that promise or at least hint of a better life. Or at least a better February!
USF St. Petersburg historian Raymond O. Arsenault wrote a pioneering study, “St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream” (1988). Arsenault defines the Florida dream as “the centuries-old promise of perpetual warmth, health, comfort, and leisure.”
In 2004, FSU English professor Diane Roberts wrote “Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and Other Florida Wildlife.” She elaborated, “I wrote Dream State to tell about a place that I love, and as a memorial to what has already disappeared and what will disappear very soon.”
The Florida dream incorporated tenets of the American dream: freedom, individualism, and the pursuit of happiness. But dreams can be deferred, displaced and destroyed.
In December 1943, Philip Wylie wrote a prescient essay in the Miami Herald addressing many of the questions and identities we grapple with today. Wylie had moved to Miami in the 1930s and fallen in love with “the Magic City.” He rhapsodized, “At the end of the war 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.” He concluded with a warning that haunts Florida today: “We haven’t asked people to live here. We’ve asked them to visit.”
A December 1945 New York Times feature on Florida captured a state emerging from war, a dream state but also a house of mirrors. “What is Florida?” asked the Times, wondering whether the Sunshine State is “a Shangri-La or Coney Island: a paragon of beauty or a vast sandheap and swampland; a model for economical living or a completely integrated clip joint; a home with surfside and calm atmosphere or a cataclysm on the Caribbean?”
The media has long enjoyed a love-hate relationship with Florida. The Great Recession beckoned journalists to reexamine the Sunshine State. Headlines blared: “Is Florida the Sunset State?” “Is Florida Over?” “Florida, Despair, and Foreclosures,” and “The Ponzi State.”
The Washington Post’s Libby Copeland concluded, “Florida, home of sunshine and scams. How it continually betrays us.” Michael Grunwald began his 2008 essay in Time with withering honesty and sarcasm: “Water Crisis, Mortgage Fraud, Political Dysfunction, Algae Polluted Beaches, Declining Crops, Failing Public Schools, Foreclosures, Greetings from Florida, where winters are great!” Grunwald, a resident of Miami Beach, concluded, “We’re first in the nation in mortgage fraud, second in foreclosures, last in high school graduation rates.” The Miami Herald’s Fred Grimm asked: “How do you deal with these issues in a political climate that demands instant gratification?”
Future historians may select an aging condominium in Surfside to symbolize Florida’s defining characteristics: migration and immigration, retirement and fantasy, and questions of sustainability and safety on a barrier island. Reasonable Floridians might add, growth has consequences. In 2000, journalist Julie Hauserman posed a tough-love question for Floridians in 2022 to ponder: “Yes, we’re growing, but into what? Can any reasonable person argue that Florida isn’t looking uglier by the minute?”
The greatest threat, not merely to the Florida dream but to Florida itself, looms: climate change. In a state with 1,350 miles of coastline, and millions living perilously close to gulf and ocean, sea level rise and global warming pose an existential crisis. “The mercurial power of the Florida Dream must be channeled into a sustainable mold,” argues Bruce Stephenson, a professor of environmental studies at Rollins College. His Florida dream is “the hope that a free people can balance private interests and the public good to fashion sustainability and resilient communities.”
When asked about the state of the Florida dream, Thomas Hallock, an English professor at USF, replied, “The challenge is to hold onto — with neither cynicism nor naivete — our affection for this everyday paradise as well as (to recognize) violent legacies of slavery and colonialism that continue to this day. That really is my greatest challenge, living in Florida. I’m in love with and horrified by this state.”
Reading about the eye-popping home prices on Florida’s most privileged islands entertained Americans in what seemed like a new Gilded Age. Then came an unwelcome guest named Ian. Hurricane Ian blasted and rearranged Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach, Pine Island and St. James City. As Americans watched 24-hour around-the-clock catastrophe coverage, painful questions arose: Is the Florida dream dead? Is life on the beach a fool’s errand? Should we not be having a statewide conversation about the future of our beloved beaches? Should we even rebuild?
The Florida dream may be mildewed and sandblasted, but it survives. In this land of the perpetual pivot, the greatest reinvention is both elusive and imperative: redefining the centuries-old dream to recognize the century’s new realities yet preserve at least some of what drew us here. To succeed, residents and leaders will have to ask uncomfortable questions and adopt sometimes controversial solutions. It’s not clear that Floridians have the resources or even the will to do this, but our magical state, with its rich history, diverse and fascinating cultures, and stunning natural landscapes and waters, deserves nothing less. May Floridians have the will to discuss our future. As Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings reminds us, “Allegiance to the land is tenderness.”
Gary R. Mormino is the Frank E. Duckwall professor emeritus of history at University of South Florida St. Petersburg and author of “Dreams in the New Century” (University Press of Florida, 2022). He serves as the scholar in residence at Florida Humanities, the state’s nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities that preserves, promotes and shares Florida’s history, heritage and culture (www.floridahumanities.org).