July 29, 2014

Opinion

Florida's cultural identity

Mark R. Howard | 5/17/2012

Mark Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

A friend related how, on a trip to Dallas, he rode in a cab whose driver had emigrated from Somalia. How did he like Texas, my friend asked. Great, the cabbie said. The climate was good; he was earning a living; the people were friendly. "I love it," said the driver. "You buy a cowboy hat and some cowboy boots — and you're a Texan."

The story has stuck with me only because there's no strategy like that for people who move to Florida. The nature of Florida has always made it impossible to quickly latch onto a sense of statewide identity — an idea of what "Florida" means — and buy into it. Most who live here find themselves like the blind men in the Indian parable who touch different parts of an elephant and then give widely varying answers when asked what the creature is like, from a rope (tail) to a pillar (leg) to a fan (ears).

The past decade has taken Florida on an economic roller-coaster ride. Along the way came a question from the Wall Street Journal as to whether Florida was "over." Time magazine asked whether Florida was the "Sunset State." As we emerge from the deep trough at the end of the ride, it seemed an appropriate time for Florida Trend to assess, as we do in this issue, what Florida means today — how much it has changed and whether perceptions match reality.

Are we still all about tourism, agriculture, real estate and retirees? In terms of reputation outside the state, the answer is probably still yes. In terms of economic reality, the answer is complicated — yes, no, yes and sorta, respectively. Meanwhile, there are a host of new economic realities: An emerging bioscience sector is close to justifying the millions the state put into creating it. A raft of large and small businesses has entered the thriving export sector. Clusters of high-tech skills and manufacturing are quietly gaining national reputations.

As for cultural identity, the old joke about Florida was that the more north you go, the more southern it is. As with the economy, reality is now more complicated. No single community in Florida precisely resembles the statewide averages, and so most general statements about Florida come with a "but ... ."

For example, is Florida old? Yes, but ... . It's true that Florida has the largest percentage of over-65 population among U.S. states (17.3%). But that older population isn't spread evenly across the regions, and an even greater portion of residents (more than 20%) is under 18. In addition, places like South Miami Beach and St. Petersburg, once known as oldster havens, have evolved such that their current demographics and economies put the lie to their old reputations.

Another, newer stereotype: Does everybody in Florida, as a northern friend once asked, speak Spanish? Florida has a large Hispanic population — 22.5% of the state's total population. But nearly two-thirds of the Hispanics in Florida live in just four counties (Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Orange). Hispanics, meanwhile, are represented in the Florida House of Representatives at about half their proportion in the general population. Adding to the mismatch between perception and reality is the fact that the growth in the Hispanic population in the past decade isn't all, or even mostly, Cuban-American.

If Florida is diverse, it's even more complex, and complexity has consequences. With no hat or footwear to instantly make themselves real Floridians, many new residents don't ever quite leave where they came from. That dynamic is still reflected in philanthropy — too much goes back "home" and too little to Florida institutions. It also shows up in fair-weather fandom for the state's professional sports teams — among nine professional sports franchises, six finished in the bottom third in their respective leagues in 2011 attendance.

More significant, the lack of statewide glue often hamstrings efforts like higher education that require a true statewide approach. And so the Legislature votes to create a 12th university when we can't afford the 11 we have — one powerful legislator with a host of self-serving motives prevails against any sense of what's best for the entire state.

But Florida's complexities bring benefits as well. New residents and businesses still find a sense of possibility here, unbound by having to fit into entrenched ways of thinking or doing things. Dig beneath the perceptions engendered by thousands of Jay Leno jokes and News of the Weird items, and there are signs that many economic decision-makers in other places are getting a more sophisticated understanding of our state than an appreciation for sunshine and no income tax.

There are two things to remember about the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant. First, that each man's perception of the animal is, in its own way, correct. Second is a part of the story that gets left out — that the blind men quarrel over their different perceptions. Each grows increasingly adamant about his own beliefs. In some versions, they come to blows. None ever troubles to go the effort of getting the whole picture.

Florida will likely never develop a simple, Texas-style, boots-and-hat identity. But as it grows toward becoming the third-largest state, we can embrace its complexity — and open our eyes a little more to the bigger picture rather than focusing just on our own individual pieces.

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