How Florida Got So Weird

How Florida Got So Weird

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This is not a town. It may look like a town, it may act like a town, but it is not one. This is the Villages—a massive, sprawling, privately-owned, privately-operated retirement community in Florida that easily ranks as the world’s largest. Driving from one corner to another would take some half hour, and in that time one would pass the suburban-style homes of over 130,000 people—all of whom, with rare exception, were born before 1967. Despite the entirely-manufactured nature of the area, the 2020 Census revealed that it was the fastest growing metro area in the US over the preceding decade, as it’s somehow managed to manicure some sort of charm for some sort of person.

The Villages is centered by a town—or call it a grandiose strip mall—known as Lake Sumter Landing. Although it sits about as inland as one can get in the sunshine state, it’s themed after a quaint seaside town and even has plaques plastered throughout conveying the history of the buildings—each entirely fictional, written to bolster the collective Disneyworld-esque suspension of disbelief that starts the second one loses sight of the sprawling parking lots that surround. But once in the square, fanciful, incongruous buildings house a plethora of chain restaurants—Johnny Rockets, Starbucks, Panera Bread, Häagen-Dazs—flanking around the central square where each night, from five till nine, 365 days a year, some form of live entertainment takes place. Beyond the bounds of Lake Sumter Landing and its parking lots, 71,000 suburban-style homes are punctuated by 53 golf courses and over 100 recreation centers boasting pools, pickle-ball courts, gyms, and other facilities that host a deluge of daily clubs and activities: the bone builders exercise class, the women’s Parkinson’s caregiver support group, the Villages lightsaber club, the Long Island couples club, the northwest Ohio club, the Cleveland and Northeast Ohio Club, the Texas Social Club, the options stack up and up.

And these state-related clubs paint a fairly consistent picture of the places that Villages residents come from—overwhelmingly, these are middle class individuals from middle America, looking to upgrade their quality of life with warm weather, low-cost of living, and a lack of state income tax. Despite having no restrictions on who can move in aside from an age minimum of fifty-five, the Villages undoubtedly attracts a particular type of person. 68.8% of its residents voted for the Republican presidential candidate in 2020, and according to the same year’s Census, 98% of residents are white.

But that’s just the Villages. Three and a half hours to the south, Cape Coral perhaps serves as a Villages for a younger generation. It too is predominately white, predominantly conservative, predominantly midwestern, but more mixed in age. In place of the core superlative status as the world’s largest retirement community, Cape Coral postures as the city with the world’s largest system of navigable canals—over 400 miles or 650 kilometers worth, each painstakingly dredged to grant nearly every lot that valuable waterfront status and, through a zig-zagging path, boat access to the ocean.

But it was not as ingenious a plan as it first may seem. In fact, little planning at all went into the development of Cape Coral—the story is more of its developers making an overzealous land purchase then figuring it out as they went along. Selling lots to primarily distant buyers, they didn’t really need to focus on the details: few services or amenities existed at the start, and still today these are few and far between—certain areas are a full 15-minute drive away from their nearest Supermarket. With few businesses to generate sales tax revenue, the local government’s commercial tax-base is abnormally low, and with a predominantly conservative, anti-tax voter-base, the city has often struggled to find the funding for critical infrastructure projects. Water—both too much and too little of it—has long been the peninsula’s most persistent problem.

In the early days, there was essentially zero plan for how to get freshwater to residents. Developers just told buyers they could just build a well on their lot to tap into the groundwater below, but there wasn’t enough of it, and there was even less after the development of the area disrupted the aquifer’s natural recharge process. Eventually the burgeoning local government recognized the issue and started building a central supply system, but it too was relying on the same, inadequate underground aquifer, digging deeper and deeper as the water table dropped further and further. Eventually the city invested in a reverse osmosis plant to turn increasingly marginal groundwater potable and a reclamation system to stretch that supply further, but continued underinvestment has meant that, despite being located in one of the rainiest regions of America, Cape Coral regularly encounters water shortages that spur legally-enforced watering restrictions, and quality issues that have pushed “water safe to drink” up to one of the top Google autocomplete suggestions when one types “is Cape Coral.” But still, growth prevails: where else can you get a sunny, water-front lot with an ocean-access dock for less than $50,000.

But there’s still an entirely different class of transplant beyond the retirees and the middle-class midwesterners. Exactly opposite Cape Coral, three hours away on the Atlantic Coast, sits Palm Beach—a natural 18-mile, 29-kilometer long barrier island, physically separated from the mainland, but connected to it by four short bridges. The island is centered around the massive, storied Breakers Resort, and narrows and narrows until it reaches just one mega-mansion in width. These homes sell for inconceivable amounts—$47 million; $110 million; $46 million; $43 million—but their owners likely only spend just six months and one day in them to attain coveted Florida resident status and the lack of state income tax it conveys. Palm Beach, as a phenomenon, essentially exists only between Thanksgiving and Easter—what’s referred to as “the season,” when temperatures up north stay cold, hurricanes stay away, and the nuisance of offseason maintenance stays hidden—but during that period, it truly is a phenomenon.

Over the winter months, this pencil of an island becomes the global center of gravity for wealthy conservative Americans. While increasingly recognized today thanks to the current full-time residency of former President Trump at his resort on the island, other central figures of his political party laid roots long before—disgraced former Fox news chairman Roger Aisles lived in his $36 million mansion up until his death; prominent radio host and political commentator Rush Limbaugh owned a mansion listed for over $100 million after his death; and failed Republican senate nominee for Pennsylvania Dr. Mehmet Oz bought an $18 million, 10 bedroom, 14 bathroom beachfront mansion on the island in 2018. All controversial figures, they each undoubtedly appreciate the privacy and exclusivity that have become known as Palm Beach’s core competencies. Little is public on the island.

Save for a small, rather unremarkable downtown, the Palm Beach experience is defined by visits within the walls of neighboring mega-mansions, or nights at the Everglades Club, the Palm Beach Bath and Tennis Club, Mar-a-Lago, or any one of the other extremely expensive, extremely exclusive social clubs on the island. For those without the means, there’s truly little to do so they merely come for work, then commute back over the bridge to West Palm Beach. This maintains the social bubble around the island and its residents, shielding them from real-world quarrels stemming from their reputation.

It’s a strange spot—an informal yet remarkably consistent aberration. And it’s in a state full of remarkably consistent aberrations. Somehow, this massive peninsula has bred a landscape of truly bizarre, individually unique places—beyond the Villages, Cape Coral, and Palm Beach, there’s an entire city-sized economy undergirded by theme parks; there’s a linear inter-island community connected by 125 miles or 200 kilometers of overwater bridges; there are nearly unlimited instances of places that exist in Florida that have no equivalent anywhere else in the world, and perhaps more bizarrely, within Florida. The only consistency in Florida is inconsistency. There’s a common thread of incongruity, which started to get woven through Florida decades, even centuries ago, during the very first days of American encroachment into the peninsula. For Florida to become the oddest of American enclaves it needed to appeal to Americans.

And to be appealing, it first needed to be built… which required time and, in the era before automobiles, rails. In 1900, Florida was 32nd out of 45 states in population, sandwiched between Colorado and Washington. Miami’s population hadn’t yet reached 2,000, the 5,000-resident city of Tampa’s economic driver was cigars, and Jacksonville—the state’s most successful tourist destination to date—had recently been ravaged by Yellow Fever outbreaks, crushing its appeal as a health retreat for the wealthy northerner. As a swampy, Seminole stronghold so late to join the union, most Americans simply couldn’t see the allure. That changed with this man, Henry Flagler.

For much of his life, Flagler worked side-by-side with titan of industry John D. Rockefeller building one of America's mightiest businesses—Standard Oil. Then, in the 1880s, after spending some time in the state, Flagler turned all attention to Florida and began manufacturing one of America’s mightiest attractions. First for Flagler was the hotel here, the Ponce de Leon, an immediate success that hosted the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain.

Then Flagler—fueled by dreams of an American Riviera—pushed into the swampy, disconnected south, building a bridge across the St. Johns River, establishing the growing network as the Florida East Coast Railway, and extending the line down to Palm Beach, where he would build the world’s largest hotel: the Royal Poinciana. Soon, the rails reached Miami, allowing fruit produce to go north and well-off tourists to vacation in the sunny south. In two decades, Flagler had laid the physical groundwork for coastal Florida to take off.

Equally important, he helped reimagine it. By beating back mangrove forests and building on beachsides, Florida was no longer the swampy backwoods; it was a spot to retreat from the cold, to relax, to escape the media attention that came with extreme wealth, and to rub elbows with the other fortunate few of similar stature. Flagler’s Florida was intentionally not for everyone. Effectively a string of jewels, his network of railroad hotels were for the elite and those who worked for the elite. Conscripted prison laborers toiled in disease riddled swamps building the rails at breakneck pace, while hotel workers had to move inland and contend with the marshlands. This divide was especially obvious in Palm Beach where the separation between upper and working classes was part of its fundamental, foundational design.

West Palm Beach wasn’t an outgrowth of Palm Beach’s success. Rather, it was planned and plotted beforehand as a commercial town on the other side of lake Worth for hotel and estate employees. While captains of industry meandered around Palm Beach’s sleepy forested walkways, West Palm Beach functioned like a frontier town bustling with shops on Clematis street and notoriously raucous saloons along Banyan. While places like this didn’t fit the budding narrative around Florida, its workforce made the dream of a warm winter escape possible for the elite while the island’s natural separation made its existence bearable.

Turn-of-the-century South Florida was tiny, it was segregated along racial and class lines, its allure was highly fabricated and problems were thinly veiled, but it had an identity. And more than anything, it was now tempting. In the ‘20s, the state roared to life—Americans saw how the wealthy were making the most of the area and they wanted in.

Billboards in New York extolled the Florida good life, while Florida real estate ads filled national newspapers. In 1925, the Miami Daily News ran 500 pages long; in Ohio, newspapers were banned from running Florida real estate ads; and each day 7,000 new residents showed up to the state. To keep them pouring in, the state nixed income and inheritance taxes, loosened real estate regulation, and left alone spectacles like horse and dog racing. From 1920 to 1925, Florida went from under a million residents to 1.3 million, and became the vacation spot for midwestern and east coast Americans.

Connected by rail then road, and with proof of concept in Miami and Palm Beach, the rest of the US finally got it—what Florida offered Americans was that it was so different from America. The craze reached a point that buying Florida real estate sight unseen became a norm, occasionally leaving new owners with lots sitting under feet of water. Often, a simple scam was to blame, but so too was the state’s location and topography. Florida’s biggest threat to growth has always been and will always be water: first, in the form of tropical storms. What makes Florida so appealing from the world’s richest to a midwestern retiree—the pleasant water temperatures, still winds, and warm air—is also what makes it so storm prone.

At the western end of hurricane alley, the peninsula couldn’t possibly be more thoroughly in the bullseye for tropical storms. It was a hurricane in 1926, then another in 1928, that stopped the Florida land boom in its tracks, and the 1935 “storm of the Century” that ripped away Henry Flagler’s most audacious Florida undertaking: the Overseas Railroad that connected eastern Florida to Key West. But storms come and go, water recedes, newspapers and boosters act like they didn’t happen, and federally-backed insurance allows people to build back so it doesn’t look like it happened. This is the case in Miami as it is Los Angeles, Denver, and Houston. Florida’s other interrelated water problem, however, is a constant. And that’s the fact that South Florida, from just south of Orlando, to Biscane and Florida Bay, is functionally a big, wide, slow-moving river.

Before the national park, and before development along the coast, the Everglades extended across almost the entirety of Florida below lake Okeechobee. And this biodiverse sea of grass, where water drains so slowly to the ocean it seems stagnant, stood directly in the way of making true on the Florida dream. The problem’s pretty simple: for Florida to grow, it needed land. In the early days of Miami and West Palm Beach, canals and ditches to reclaim land were the responsibility of local governments and land companies, but by 1948, after record drought, then record flooding, Florida needed a bigger budget to reconfigure its state-wide river.

With the creation of the $200 million Central and Southern Florida Project, the state and the Army Corps of Engineers took off on a 20 year project that entirely reengineered the Everglade watershed. Like Flagler’s railway fifty years prior, the undertaking was exceptionally ambitious. In cost and scope, it was the most audacious reclamation project taken on by the US.

In principle, it was as bold and self-assured as any other Florida land project or real estate development; they quite simply aimed to drain an entire state. And from the perspective of anyone looking to move to the state by mid-century, it worked. With federal dollars, the 3-mile, 5-kilometer wide Kissimmee river and its floodplain north of lake Okeechobee, became C-38, a 58 mile, 93 kilometer-long canal that no longer flooded seemingly on a whim. Below the lake, South Florida water planners built the 105-mile, 169 kilometer East Coast Protective Levee, along with an assortment of water catchment basins, and east-bound canals that whisked water directly to the ocean without flooding the urbanized east coast. By the late ‘60s, the South Florida Water Management District overseeing the project had drained half the Everglades with the aid of some 1,700 miles or 2,700 kilometers of canals and levees and sixteen pump stations that carefully monitored and jettisoned water away from urban and agricultural areas. Just as the vision of Florida as a dreamy destination was carefully cultivated, so too was the actual land—painstakingly, expensively dried out and handed over to a wave of real estate developers who, in turn, transformed it, divvied it up, and sold it to the hordes of post-war Americans pouring into the state.

The project was just in time: in two decades, from 1940 to 1960, Florida’s population more than doubled, then from 1960 to 1980, it doubled again. Since 1980 to now, it has doubled for the third time. With ample barren land, ambitious master-planned community projects like Cape Coral and the Villages breaking ground, and new generations of America’s wealthiest making their way to Palm Beach, Florida is now for the escapist and the elite alike.

In a century, Florida as an idea, and Florida as a place has been completely redesigned. While different sections of reclaimed swamp, slender islands, and former farmland came to serve Americans of varying age and economic standing, all are bound by the same brash, brazen disposition of their developers and the complete enchantment of those who fully latched onto the Florida dream. In many ways, Florida mirrors less the development of the South or of the East, but rather the West. Late to statehood, mired by water problems, and lacking the obvious agricultural potential of Eastern and Midwestern states, Florida languished through much of the 19th century—its population lagged along with its economic prospects.

But even Florida didn’t benefit from the mineral rushes, irrigated agriculture developments, or ranching economies that buoyed Western states, leaving it uniquely undeveloped and empty. Florida was America’s last frontier. By the time Henry Flagler first laid eyes on Palm Beach, railroads had stretched coast to coast for decades, settlers had claimed every worthwhile nook of the Rockies, Alaska had long been transformed into American, yet none thought to bother with the miserable, swampy wilds at the country’s southeast. It was effectively an ocean, or at best something in-between—hardly an area that one could even think of as land until individuals so audacious, so unrealistic, so confident in the impossible task of turning nothing into something came along.

There were no homesteads to lay claim to, no rivers around which to centralize, no fertile valleys to draw people in: every inch of Florida had to be developed. There were boosters and there were buyers—that is the story of the state. Differentiation is critical to business.

When an entrepreneur goes into a pitch room to find funding, they don’t say they’re going to make a taxi company or a bookstore or a DVD rental store but better. They say they’re going to do something different. They say they’re going to make Uber or Amazon or Netflix. Uniqueness is necessary in business. Investors don’t take risks on slightly better, and buyers won’t leave the comfort of what’s known for the same proposition. To take the plunge, they need the promise of at least the potential of a massive leap forward.

Florida is a business. More so than every other state, it had to sell itself—with every inch requiring development, land had to be bought, improved, and sold. The weather was a start, but to convince a far-north buyer to leave the comforts of home, and especially to end up on their land rather than their competitors’, developers had to do something different. They had to build a themed, age-restricted wonderland; they had to offer a city of waterfront lots; then had to turn their island into an inherently ultra-exclusive hideaway.

Weird sells. And weird attracts weird. Compound that and compound that and you make Florida. It’s a celebration of the bizarre; an affront to mother nature; an encapsulation of the American experience, where supercharged capitalism and an ignorance of the pragmatic can create impossible wonders, unknown to anywhere else on earth.

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2022-12-07 10:30

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