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August 13, 2006

Two Floridas. One of them you know. Mr Rumcove prefers the other one.

Jazzy2_2 [published on August 25, 2005]

Rumcove liked Florida a lot when he visited here.  He loved St. Augustine and he enjoyed visiting the small gulfside communities on the state’s west coast.  He liked Daytona and expressed a wish to someday participate in Bike Week. He enjoyed the heat, the palm trees, and the sunny winter days.   He liked the restaurant in Salt Creek at the mouth of the Suwannee, where we ate soft-shelled crab and gator tail because if you come here and go there, it’s the LAW.  He liked the Greek village in Tarpon Springs and the sponges.   He enjoyed the long boat ride we took along the Anclote river.   He loved the restaurant on  Cedar Key where we ate lunch sitting on a deck built out over the Gulf.   I can’t remember now if we ever got around to visiting the prehistoric and enigmatic Shell Mound at Shell Mound County Park.  If not, it’s a shame.   And we never made it to Amelia Island or Fernandina Beach. 

He went swimming (though not diving) at Ginny Springs on the Santa Fe River, we had a look around the Ravine Gardens in Palatka (“the hanging gardens of Palookaville” to Rumcove ever afterward), took a walk on the nature trail round Fanning Springs on the Suwannee, we drove around Horseshoe Beach, took a walk around the canals in Salt Creek, and even spent a bit of time wandering round the glossy shops and restaurants at Jacksonville Landing.  We visited various and sundry microbreweries, where he gave the connoisseur’s qualified nod to some of the amber varieties. 

The only parts he didn’t like were (at first) Clearwater Beach, which he pronounced “too built up, like Torremolinos” and he didn’t like the Orlando area for the same reason.  And he then did end up really liking the actual beach at Clearwater, once the sun was setting, the people went indoors, we were comfortably drinking in a beach bar, and there was nothing else in sight but the opalescent clouds, the reflections in the water, and the prettiest wedding I’ve ever seen at the water’s edge.  He liked it the next morning too when he took a walk at dawn on the empty beach. 

He never did warm to Orlando.  He isn’t even interested in going to Disney.  “In Southend we have the world’s longest pleasure-pier,”” he informed me, “and I hardly ever want to go there either.  I don’t want to visit resorts or do tourist things.  I live in a resort.”

So we stuck to the “native Floridian” dimension.  And if you ever get the chance, I recommend that you do the same.

             Florida really does exist on two separate and interlinking planes.  The tourist level is the one consisting of the big International Airports, the expressways and other roads leading to “attractions’ and the beaches where non-Floridians like to go in the wintertime.  It’s certain roads---the OBT,  the Beeline Expressway, I-Drive, A-1A, Highway 19 that take people to theme parks and various so-called ‘attractions,’ not to mention the ‘souvenir’ shops, chain restaurants, miniature golf courses, and karaoke bars, and that many of them never leave.   It’s time-share condos and summer homes.   It’s the whole “hospitality industry” dedicated to serving the needs of the tourists.  In the meantime,  off those main roads and out of the main development, in a different dimension altogether is the Florida that’s the actual Florida:  where people live in houses that don’t have stupid names and rarely venture into the tourist’s dimension unless their jobs require it.  All of them want the tourists to have a good time, but would actually prefer that they stick to the parts of the state that were built for them.

It never seems to occur to most of them that the Florida they see driving from one theme park ‘experience’ to the next isn’t like all the rest or that the tourist experience isn’t the Florida experience.  “I don’t like Florida,” said a man I met once from Blackpool---Blackpool!---“It’s so ugly.  I didn’t expect that.  It’s just strip malls, hotels and fast food places.  It’s all built up everywhere. ”   Yes, that’s the ‘tourist fallacy” at work all right; the assumption that every place is like every other place.  I didn’t bother trying to set him straight.

So Rumcove and I visited small towns and out of the way places where there is nothing else much but Florida to see.  It isn’t something that the average tourist in search of stimulation would ever find.  Which most Floridians agree is a good thing. If you see the real Florida---and it can still be found off the highways that the tourists stick to----it’s beautiful, silent, evocative, and unexpected. 

[2]  Cities at the point of conjunction.

You can still find the old organic town of Kissimmee---a rather sleepy place---existing almost intact underneath the frenetic tourist’s Kissimmee if you get off the ‘main roads’  where there no longer are anything but small hotels, chain restaurants, strip malls, and asphalt.  Does anyone ever bother to do that?  You can turn off 192 and go into the town, where---last time I was there; I couldn’t swear to it now----there were still some pretty old Florida-style buildings with lacy woodwork and that faintly exhilarating/evocative Florida old-house smell.  There’s a lake right in the center of the town called Lake Tohopakeliga (Lake Toho to the residents).  It’s a popular spot for bass fishing, camping, and boating. 

There are (or were) restaurants where only locals eat where people aren’t hospitality-industry friendly, but genuinely friendly, and where they will remember your name if you go back there.   You can go down certain roads and be in the midst of the dense green foliage of Florida and neighborhoods with that distinctive Florida raffishness----yards in a constant state of being just about to get out of hand (it’s hard here to keep up with the undergrowth, the weeds, and the grass).  If you can stand the noise, you can take airboat rides out onto shallow ponds and rivers and see what the central part of the state looks like.   It’s all still there if you just make a wrong or a right turn. 

At the apartments where my late husband Don and I lived, there was a small pond with giant herons (I think they were herons) that my stepdaughter used to feed, so that they got into the habit of coming every day to my door, banging on it with their beaks, and making a sound like a hundred piled-up plates clattering down.  I loved those herons and when they disappeared (perhaps some of the disgruntled other tenants made away with them), I didn’t want to live there anymore.  (And anyone who doesn’t believe that birds are descended from dinosaurs should definitely spend some time with really large birds). 

All this has the other Kissimmee superimposed on top of it.  It’s like those ancient archaeological sites where the cities were built right on top of each other, only these exist simultaneously.

In Central Florida, there are orange groves and vineyards and wineries (well, one I know of) in a certain section of the state that consists of  rolling brown hills---the Flatlands aren’t really all that flat through the center--- that are weirdly evocative of Northern California, but you’d better look fast, because development is sprawling all over places like Clermont that when I lived there were still quite distinct from the outward sprawl of the Orlando area. 

The tallest point of Florida, someone once told me, is the “Citrus Tower” in Clermont.   You can climb up to a high tower for a small fee----it’s a roadside “attraction”-----and look all around at even more rolling brown landscape.   It used to be legitimately out in the middle of the orange groves.  Last time I went, I saw lots of development all around. 

I have mixed feelings about all of this.  The state needs the money that the tourists and retirees bring in and I don’t want them to stop coming here.  I came here from somewhere else myself---I shouldn’t complain if other people who see the reality around all the development want to stay here.   

But it’s disconcerting to see so much of it disappear underneath the development.  And I do resent the fact that there are whole stretches where  people have bought up the views.   There are sections along the east coast where you can never catch a glimpse of the water because people who feel the need, I guess, to be literal lords of all they survey, have blocked it all with their houses.  There are stretches where it feels like a deliberate slap in the face to people who thought they might enjoy a drive along the coast road.  “Get your own [several] million dollar beachfront property if you want to look at the Atlantic!”  Maybe there are places like that all over the state or all over the world.  I don’t know because I mostly stick to the northern parts and to certain parts of the west coast.  I’ve never even been to Fort Lauderdale or Key West, for example.  Or Miami.  Those are a pretty good distance from where I am. 

Orlando though…..”I don’t like it,” said Rumcove. According to Mr. R, the city felt to him like a place that wasn’t a place.  It felt centerless and soulless. 

It isn’t, of course.  At a level slightly below the streets and highways that comprise the tourist’s Orlando (and those are only a few streets), there is still a city where people live and do things that aren’t about recreation and entertainment.   There are houses, communities, and---in the city of the city too----some pretty old houses and one of the pretty, pretty lakes in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes.  And the city of Orlando has a downtown which, despite the proliferation of tourist attractions, has its own miniature Lake (Eola) and its own pretty neighborhoods. 

“It’s not that I can’t see that the older parts still exist,” Rumcove said, after chuckling heartily over a lawn maintenance company we passed that called itself “Mr. Sod.”  “But the other parts are taking over and changing them.  It’s starting to look generic.  It's mutating.  You shouldn't lget that happen---it doesn't have to.   Southend is a Victorian town and there are bits that stay the same and that no one would touch even when everything else changes.  None of this looks as if it will be the same twenty years from now.  The houses, the buildings, all of it will be knocked down.   They’ll put up newer places.  It all feels temporary and it all feels artificial.  All the newer parts are cancelling out the older parts.  It’s a shame because of the nice bits.  It didn’t come about the way Basildon did, but Basildon is the nearest thing in England to it.”

A place doesn’t have to have a lengthy history to have “atmosphere,” but it should have some characteristic or feeling or mood or way of being that defines it as a place.   

“None of these American towns feel as if it has a center,” he said to me once when we went to South Carolina.  “In England, even small places have a village center or a place.  Here everything feels all spread out between shopping malls.  There’s no center.”  So I took him to my own town’s city center which---to be fair---is nowadays nowhere near the center, but not too far from its eastern edge. 

The centers are there if you look for them.  The center isn’t a matter of geography; it’s a matter of having some place where local people actually congregate.  A lot of American towns, and mine is one of them, have at various times had that endangered or destroyed by development elsewhere (a single large shopping mall can give the deathblow to the center of a small town).  My little city, I’m happy to say, saved its downtown from its slow slip downward into decay and disuse.  It’s been reinvented and is sometimes fairly lively  Nowadays most of the people who live here go there from time to time to eat, to be entertained, to use the library, to see a play or an art show or an arty film. and so on.  Quite a few live there. 

But  you can’t build that or invent it.  There has to be something underneath it, some preexisting feeling of community or the desire for one.    And in places like Orlando or Kissimmee, it’s still there, I swear,  though it can be driven out just like the wildlife who have lost their swamps, marshes, forests, and underbrush. 

But what about a place that’s built instead of developing on its own?  We have new towns now in Florida that were specifically constructed and planned as separate communities.  I can think of a lot of those.  They are very appealing to the eye, but can a new town have a soul?  Can it ever turn into a community? Can something prefabricated be turned (assuming you can find the Blue Fairy)  into something organic, like Pinnochio? 

              Can a place that someone fabricated before there were people to live in it acquire a soul?   Can a place that loses its center get it back again?

            I’m hoping that the answer is “yes.”  I love my state, as you can probably tell.  I also love the tourists whose “dollars” keep it going.  But I don’t want to lose the parts we’ve managed to keep to ourselves. 

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