Both of my children graduate this spring — my daughter from college and my son from high school. They’re wonderful people — bright, grounded in faith and family, and they’ll have great futures. Aside from prompting plenty of head-scratching over where the time has gone, the twin milestones also have made me think about Florida’s evolution over the course of their school years (and my own tenure here at Florida Trend, which began the year after my son was born and is nearing its 17th year).
The changes are a little staggering to contemplate, encompassing two recessions, two houses, four cars and five governors. St. Petersburg, the headquarters for the magazine and my kids’ hometown, has transformed itself in less than two decades. When I began working here, the downtown streets were all but empty at lunchtime and a void after dark. Today, I have many more lunch choices than are healthy for either my waistline or wallet. At night, the streets are alive with both young and older residents. Art and performance venues, restaurants and nightlife flourish along the unspoiled, city-owned bay front and throughout downtown. (Residents of nearby Tampa flock here at night for the vitality that their own downtown lacks, undeterred by a short drive that somehow becomes too long when it comes to supporting the Rays baseball team. I choose to believe it’s more a reflection on baseball’s popularity than the much-criticized stadium or any other factor.) Both of my kids took great advantage of the city’s museums, cultural and entertainment venues as they grew.
The same downtown dynamics hold true all over Florida. Hollywood. Fort Pierce. Naples. Orlando. South Beach. Downtown Miami (they don’t appear to like baseball there, either). Jacksonville, the town where I grew up, is still working on a downtown but has evolved from an insecure, south Georgia burg to one of Florida’s most aspirational cities, with a healthy sense of self and an engaged, forward-looking business community.
Indeed, if there’s a mega-trend that I would say has characterized Florida throughout my children’s school years, it has been struggles by businesses, citizens and governments to create, in their urban centers, localized senses of “place” — in a state whose history and demographics don’t supply one, and in a world where people seem to define community more by professional interests, politics and technology than by where they actually live. I admire, and the magazine has celebrated, the business and civic leaders in Florida who’ve tried to make their cities places that their children would want to return to.
My children have grown up amid other big changes. For one, they both benefited from an evolution in the state’s educational system — magnet schools that kept them and their parents engaged in the public school system, for example. Along with a longstanding International Baccalaureate program with the kind of standards that the broader system should move toward faster for all its college-bound students. Both of my children, I’m happy to say, are startlingly capable in Spanish.
Perhaps most important, they’ve grown up at a time when Florida began to make real progress toward a 21st century economy. Twenty years ago, this region — most regions of Florida — still moved to the seasonal rhythms of a retiree-driven economy. Over the course of my children’s lives, their surroundings have been colored increasingly by the economic ripples from the pockets of first-rate research, tech, international trade and business innovation that have emerged to complement Florida’s traditional base.
In talking with them as they’ve approached their respective graduations, what has surprised me most is their perceptions of our state. At their age, I saw little opportunity and couldn’t wait to leave. And despite a steady diet of my grumblings in magazine columns and dinnertime conversations over one or another of the state’s shortcomings, they see plenty of opportunity and quality of life here.
My son, reflecting fluency in Spanish and a burgeoning interest in disposable income, is looking toward international business, a career pursuit that may well bring him back to Florida. My daughter, who attended college in Manhattan, now finds plenty to like in the prospect of working someplace warmer, more manageable and with more opportunity to make a difference in her chosen field of public health.
As a parent, I’m ultimately interested in them landing wherever they feel most challenged and engaged. But it says something to me about Florida and how far we’ve come that our state can compete better for the attention of young people like them who have so much ability and so many choices.