August 20, 2014

FLORIDA Perception vs. Reality

Commentary: Perspective born out of nine generations in Florida

Allison DeFoor | 5/8/2012

DeFoor Generations
Four generations of family (from left): Charles DeFoor (my grandfather, 1900-1966), C.L. DeFoor (great-grandfather, 1868-1963); Len DeFoor (uncle, 1939); and me upfront (1953) — circa 1956 at the family home in Coral Gables.
[Photographs courtesy of Allison DeFoor]
It is "the end of Florida." So said the Natives when the first Spanish conquistadors set foot on "La Florida." And so said the Spanish when the English took over in 1763, and then so said the English when they gave Florida back to the Spanish 20 years later. So said the central Florida Crackers when a wave of English folk settled into Fort Meade, tricked into citrus farming in central Florida in the late 1800s.

So said the Old Miami (pronounced "miamuh") crowd in the 1950s when waves of northern Jews began to take over Miami Beach, until then a WASP stronghold. The Jewish immigrants would make the same cry when the Cuban émigrés arrived.

Perhaps you get the point.

My family has been around Florida now for nine generations (including my grandkids) and has seen this movie numerous times. (Don't be too impressed — anyone in peninsular Florida before mosquito control and air conditioning was on the lam from somewhere and something; my mother's ancestors were fleeing Charleston and creditors. My father's family was part of the diaspora from Georgia in the 1910s and '20s when a quarter of Georgia moved to Florida. This produced the famous quote from Gov. Talmadge Sr. that "he didn't know what was going on but it was raising the IQ of both states." )

It seems to be the inescapable destiny of Florida to be a moving paradise for groups who come here seeking, and often finding, at least for awhile, their Place in the Sun. Even the Natives — Seminole and Miccosukee — were transplants from Alabama Creek tribes, on the lam themselves (Seminole being derived under one version from a Spanish adjective for runaway, cimarron). They came and filled the void left when the last original Natives decamped for Havana in the 1700s.

Along with the Spanish, English and French seeking their Place in the Sun, we have had Danes (Dania); Finns (Lake Worth); Norwegians (Oslo in Indian River County); Japanese (Yamato Road in Boca Raton); Amish and Mennonites (Sarasota); and all manner of retirees and exiles from all over Central and South America.

Florida has been the kind of place where Johnnie Byrd could come after leaving Alabama for Plant City in 1988, hang out his law shingle and six years later be in line to become Speaker of the House of Representatives. Former state Sen. Curt Kiser moved here right out of college in Iowa with a few hundred bucks in his pockets, plenty of pluck and ambition and invented himself as a major political figure for a generation.

Florida, named for the Easter season of rejuvenation, Pascua Florida (Feast of the Flowers), has, however historically inaccurate, always offered the legendary Fountain of Youth.

That's what is happening now. It is reinventing itself again. This time, probably in a way that will take it from adolescence and into early adulthood. The horizons that gave a young Kiser or a DeFoor, for that matter, almost unlimited room to maneuver may be a little more limited these days. Likewise for snowbirds seeking a warmer, cheaper winter in Florida. This is due, in no small part, to demographics. Florida was the smallest and poorest state in the South, save Arkansas, in my mother's youth. Now we are a mega-state but still lacking the infrastructure of the peers of Texas, New York and California.

Sheer pluck alone will not be enough these days. It will take a little more work. But so far, as Florida "grows up," we've retained a certain "anything is possible" spirit that still fills the air, and that is a good thing.

And once again, Florida is pregnant with possibility and opportunity. Enough, at least, to keep this Old Cracker son from casting more than an occasional wandering eye toward Australia and Belize and remaining down home here at Home. If I am lucky, my kids and grandkids too. Stick around, the next reel of the film is just starting for us all.


 Allison DeFoor is an attorney and an Episcopal priest working in prisons and on prison reform. He was a judge and sheriff of Monroe County before running as Gov. Bob Martinez's running mate in 1990.

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