Florida Is for Everyone
I went to Florida the week of Christmas, and it was eighty degrees and sunny. I sat with my boyfriend on the beach and read and drank diet cokes, switching to piña coladas at 3PM, and watched the astounding birds pick fish from the water. I swam daily in the bracing, cold ocean and searched for shells on the seafloor with my feet. I saw dolphins in the distance, their wave-colored fins waving to me at exciting intervals.
“I can’t remember the last time I was this happy,” I said, and that was when I knew that Florida had been manipulating me for years, speaking to me secretly, making me long for it.
I was immediately suspicious of my infatuation with Florida. What had gotten under my skin? What beguiled me? When I got home I arranged seashells on my window ledge wistfully. I read books about Florida in an attempt to remain there, including Joy Williams’ 1981 novel Breaking and Entering and her amazingly cranky book of polemics Ill Nature, as well as the novels of Williams’ gonzo heir, Alissa Nutting. These books confirmed my reaction to Florida: a mix of devotion and dread. In all of them, I encountered a pessimism as profound and giddy as Kafka’s. The novels’ themes are alienation, from nature and our fellow human beings, but what novel from the past 100 years is about anything else? Williams wrote the bleakest and most existential travel guidebook of all time, The Florida Keys: A History and Guide. Some of her complaints in it are philosophical—“time is essentially evil, as we must, by now, suspect,” she tells the reader parenthetically—but all are related to her very large, very concrete complaint, which is not about alienation, not about a discontent that is essentially passive, disembodied, ambient, mysterious. Her very simple point in both Ill Nature and The Florida Keys is that “Florida, that splendid, subtle, once fabulous state, has been miscomprehended and misused, drained and diked, filled in and paved over.”
“That the Everglades still exists is a collective illusion shared by those who care and those who don’t,” Williams writes in Ill Nature. Williams is exhaustive on the extent that the state’s fragile natural systems have been destroyed, species eradicated, mangrove swamps drained, flora ripped out and replaced. She lingers on the anemic natural attractions we pretend to be the Florida that once was: the fantastical and ultimately dishonest campaigns to “resurrect” the Everglades, the wildlife reserves that remind us only of “the impact our sheer numbers have on [animals’] world, of the difficulties, even improbability, of sharing Florida with them.”
This tragedy began when real estate moguls devoted Florida, once a swampy hinterland, entirely to what Williams calls “the vacation principle.” The existential problem Williams is pondering is that the irreversibility of environmental degradation—difficult for human beings to accept in any case—is at odds with the dream marketed about Florida, as somewhere temporary and malleable, everyone’s second home, no one’s first. The wealthy buy beachfront cabanas. The American middle class invests in small, affordable condos. Retirees end up there after a life well lived. College students party in Airbnbs on the boardwalk. It comes down to an ontological paradox: there is no vacationland, and no place is temporary. We want a Florida that’s for everyone, but we can’t all fit. When I went to Florida I was shocked to see the airbrush t-shirts were right, that there was a place on earth where the sunset painted the sky like an abalone shell, with dolphins and pelicans silhouetting against it, palm trees flanking the view like a proscenium. Now I know how calculated a sunset can be. My view from that beach was constructed so I would see a sunset I had already been sold by airbrushed t-shirts, which would then be sold to me, too.
Florida is a case study in the manic perversity of making real estate out of what was once land. This is the shift in perspective that allows for the impossible; space is finite, they cannot build forever, and yet, somehow, they do. More condos and beach homes are being built than ever. It is the logic of the subdivision, neighborhoods dreamed up whole, whose developers seem addicted to scrapping and starting again. Subdivisions, with their coiling cul-de-sacs and attendant chain stores, are methods of segmenting and segregating people. More fundamentally, they control perception, erasing anyone and anything from view that the residents don’t wish to acknowledge. In the Broad City episode “Florida,” the entire state is shown as populated by Trump-voting, gun-wielding racist grandmas, who lessen the appeal of its abundant cheap apartments. I found myself arguing with the episode, which I happened to watch while in Florida. Florida is diverse and giant, with large immigrant communities and indigenous cultures that existed 12,000 years before Europeans arrived there. But the fact remains that the entire time I was there the overwhelming majority of the people I saw were white; in a state where sixteen percent of the population is Black, I only saw three Black people.
And subdivisions and resorts almost always swallow up new land. The reality that many do not acknowledge about real estate and the vacation business is that it is cheaper to abandon than to renovate. Many subdivisions and hotels fail, and they are often left to rot, like in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, where six-year-old Moonee accidentally sets fire to a strip of abandoned townhouses in a marsh near Orlando, and the entire neighborhood gathers to watch it burn. The film is about the ways that poverty and luxury can coexist in a place as constructed and transient as Florida. Moonee and her young mother Hallee live in a rundown motel, one of many that were built in the mid-twentieth century to house visitors to Disney World and other Orlando tourist destinations. The names of the motels in the film are ironic now—Moonee lives in The Magic Castle; the one next door is called Futureland—playing up their dereliction and disuse.
Halley makes her tenuous living scamming rich tourists, through sex work but also selling perfume in parking lots and fencing tickets to alligator tours. And still the desperate way Halley and Moonee live remains invisible to those same tourists. One of the necessities of “the vacation principle” is that the poor who maintain the service sector are isolated and out of view; this was modified from one of the key tenets of twentieth century American real estate development and before that, you know, colonialism. Transience means one thing to the poor and another to the rich. The Florida Project captures this irony, where a hotel room means an expanded world for one class and for another a world closing in.
But there is freedom in transience, even if it is a freedom you would trade for comfort. In Williams’ Breaking and Entering, her protagonists Willie and Liberty routinely break into vacation houses and drink the owners’ alcohol and wear their bathrobes, sometimes posing as relatives and attending the neighbors’ chic parties. They exist in a land of glittering houses standing absurdly empty, and they are literally drifting: at one point Willie tells Liberty to meet him at a beach due south, so she gets in the ocean and rides a current all the way there. Even for Williams, it seems Florida is a hungover, excessive playground, with too much of everything except what has been lost.
When I first heard Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky,” I thought of birds. It was only later that I learned that she was describing the hyperactive construction in Miami, where tower cranes crowded the view from her window. But I saw sandhill cranes in Florida, too, wandering in the grass near our condo’s swimming pool. I saw pelicans and sandpipers and occasional leaping fish, ibises eating lizards with their knife-pointed beaks, shells marking the tide line in the sand, and these wonders were still the selling point. I understood something simple and sad when I was there, which is that all that is violent in the vacation principle is fueled by something beautiful in human nature: our susceptibility to the sublime. Williams reminds us with weary idealism in The Florida Keys that “the sustaining dream is in the natural world—the world that each of us should respect, enjoy, and protect so that it may be enjoyed again—the world to which one can return and be refreshed.” In fact the response to our sincere and universal awe at the natural world has been misguided and fumbling, as we answer beauty with destruction.
This is not only Florida’s story, of course. You can find many simulations on the internet of how sea level rise due to global warming will change the entire world’s coastlines, as floods and storms become more frequent. In the fall, I watched in terror as Hurricane Irma cruised up the western coast of Florida. The 2017 hurricane season was the reality of climate change come home to roost, as one catastrophic storm after another blew in off the coast of Africa and gained strength in the Caribbean’s too-warm waters. But I watched Irma selfishly, worried that it might take out my boyfriend’s parents’ condo and derail our Christmas plans. I worried I wouldn’t go to Florida, wouldn’t get to see it, even just once.