Updated 11 months ago
I came to Florida in 1960, two years after Harris Mullen founded Florida Trend. The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co. moved my father and 1,000 or so of his fellow employees to Jacksonville from North Carolina and Virginia. By some accounts, it was the largest single relocation by a southeastern company at the time — and one of a number of economic coups for Jacksonville, Florida’s hot growth market of that era.
We moved into a small, new, three-bedroom, two-bath cinderblock house in what urban planners now call a “first-ring’’ suburb — the first development outside the city’s core. Our home had a single-car garage, no central air, terrazzo floors, and the roof was covered not with shingles or barrel tile, but with tiny white rocks embedded in a tar base. The developer had created the subdivision by leveling pinewoods, and with visions of future shade my father and I planted one tree in the front yard and another in the back, puny sticks that didn’t do much to offset the barrens left by the clear-cutting. But the woods picked up again a few blocks away, and as kids, my friends and I could walk or ride our bikes less than 20 minutes and get a peek at wild turkeys and deer. An occasional rattlesnake would slither over from the woods into the neighborhood, usually dispatched with a hoe by one of us new suburbanites. It took my dad about 20 minutes to drive to work.
Along with the excitement of a new city, new job and new house, our family experienced other facets of growth in Florida as well. Jacksonville was quite eager to accommodate new corporate citizens in some ways — at the railroad’s request it even constructed a civic auditorium next door to the new blue-faced Coast Line building on the St. Johns River. But the city’s appetite for growth was more advanced than its ability to digest it. Almost exactly underneath the railroad’s new headquarters, for example, ran sewer pipes that poured raw, untreated effluent into the river — one of more than 70 such sites that kept dumping 15 million gallons of waste into the river or its tributaries each day for nearly 20 years after we moved there. Meanwhile, the Atlantic beaches were close by, but the roads to get there were narrow and inadequate, and many weekends saw massive traffic backups and horrific accidents. Big paper mills and chemical plants, unfettered by significant environmental restrictions or anti-stench ordinances, graced the city with an odor that became almost a trademark.
Then there were the schools, a matter of complete disinterest to the city fathers who so eagerly welcomed the railroad. The curriculum at Lake Lucina Elementary in Jacksonville was a full year behind that of my previous school in Virginia. And it got worse: When I was in sixth grade, the schools were so crowded and so poorly run that the Southern Association of Colleges and High Schools put the Duval County school system on probation, threatening to lift its accreditation. The system rallied, but the city’s continued failure to keep up with growth meant my sister, four years my junior, had to attend school for at least a year on double sessions by the time she neared junior high.
Update the home style and alter the name of the city, the business and the nature of the environmental issues, and I think my story is fairly typical of what happens to new Floridians — upon arrival, most become almost giddy with the charm of the place. But with time, the same people find themselves secretly wishing that the border had closed right after they got in. And so the Florida experience becomes a blend of economic intoxication sobered by the morning-after consequences of seizing opportunity too carelessly, with too little regard for what was there before and what would be left afterward.
It is an occupational weakness of people in my profession to focus sometimes exclusively on the problems associated with growth. I heard a psychiatrist say once that news media coverage collectively often exhibits many of the same traits as severely depressed people, reflecting a mindset that minimizes good news, exaggerates bad news, ignores the broader context of events and perceives that everything is getting worse all the time in every way. In bumpy economic times like the present, national media outlets in particular are prone to a chorus of “Is it all over for Florida?” stories, most often with some kind of “trouble in paradise” backbeat.
I find most of those stories vaguely ridiculous. In Florida, there’s always trouble — and there’s almost always opportunity. If you don’t like the way things are here, stick around for a year or so. Things won’t be the way they were, but they’ll be interesting, and problematic, in a different way. The nature of our growth may change, and will, I hope, mature. But it won’t stop. And Florida won’t be “over.” Florida, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “is a place that draws people.’’
Jacksonville, by the way, cleaned up the river, mostly, and built some better roads. The pulp mills cleaned up or shut down or both, and the city smells better. Like most cities, it still struggles mightily with its schools. The woods near my old house are long gone, with the suburbs sprawling all the way to the beaches. The downtown died but is coming back, strongly. My old neighborhood, after a decline, also may be on the way back as gas prices make the “first ring” a good place to be again. And those trees that my dad and I planted are now 30 feet tall or more, finally delivering some shade.
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