Early results of last April's census are out, and the news is grim. South Florida's heretofore bullish population growth has slowed and may stop. In a Sun-Sentinel article published yesterday, authoritative-sounding people blamed the economy. A lack of jobs, said the consensus, is repelling prospective Floridians in droves. We might as well believe them, because really: What, besides a lack of money, would keep someone away from this place?
This is the Sunshine State, after all, and nowhere along its 1,300 miles of coastline or within its 400 towns and cities will one find more agreeable environs than those of West Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade. Here, life gets better by the year. I remember what Fort Lauderdale looked like when I first arrived, 21 years ago. It wasn't pretty. Fort Lauderdale was jarringly idiosyncratic, full of bohemians, elegant old ladies, and Catholics with boats. To have a cocktail atop Pier 66 was the height of sophistication. (You still could have a cocktail up there, back then; the rotating lounge wasn't closed to the public until the Hyatt takeover, years later.) Las Olas hadn't yet acquired the glammed-up strip-mall ambiance that would so endear it to the aesthetically enlightened members of the creative class, those migrant souls whose entrepreneurship would keep SoFla's economies afloat through the most difficult years of the aughts. Some of the menus along Las Olas were still plotted by chefs and cooks rather than by restaurateuring investors, which led to all kinds of confusion. What, praytell, was one to make of a business like the Chemist Shoppe, where one could fill a prescription, buy one's eyeglasses or a walking stick, and belly up to the soda counter for a hand-whipped ice cream? The categorical blurriness was confusing, its charms elusive. Certainly, it wasn't the kind of thing you could explain to a multinational in search of a new headquarters.
There were few multinationals on the horizon, then. The city's skyline, modest even now, was downright stubby, dominated by the Sun-Sentinel, which loomed over the city's lesser edifices, egging them on to sprout new floors, new lights, to grow up, to metropolize.
It's hard to believe it now, but the city managed to get by, for a time, without Riverfront. Where Riverfront now stands was an empty lot, bordered by a grocery store called Pantry Pride, a railroad track, a river, and by SW Second Street, which contained God knows what. (The Museum of Discovery and Science existed, in embryo, in an old house by the shore of the New River.) In the weedy tangle that would become Riverfront stood a single stone doorway, beckoning us from nothing to nothing, waiting for a reason to exist. (When Riverfront finally arrived, they couldn't find a use for the door; last time I checked, it was still there, by the tracks, lonesome as ever.)
Two decades ago, there weren't so many places to live. Davie was the end of the world. Where Weston now stands, inviting us down its broad and artfully planned boulevards, there was the carnivorous chaos of the swamp. Even east of I-95, there weren't so many homes. Victoria Park, Wilton Manors, and Sailboat Bend were wasted on space-gobbling old Florida homes made of heavy stucco, with roofs covered in heavy rust-red tiles. The homes were antiquated, inefficient. You could tour a dozen of their kitchens and find not a single stainless-steel appliance.
The bars along A1A were gritty, full of bands whose memberships were composed of those dedicated spring-breakers who had come to party in summers past and forgot to go home. Then as now, the revelers drank more than was strictly necessary, but then the revelers tended to be a little older, a little poorer, and committed to their decadence in a way that precluded the subsequent acquisition of post-grad degrees. They were not, in other words, the people around whom you wanted your sorority girl to party.
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Florida was a hellhole, is what I am saying. Unformed, bereft of a unified identity. It's a wonder that such an undeveloped economy, such a foetal nothingish culture, could have substantiated the population boom our cities enjoyed for so many happy, busy years. And it is a cruel irony that now -- just as the place finally reaches some stage of development that young strivers may appraise and say, yes, now there's a place with its shit together -- the well has run dry and the migrants have moved on. The economy must be to blame. Because what could be better than this?
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