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Florida, Then and Now

I lived in Florida off and on from 1964 until I moved back to the Cleveland area about 4 years ago. To say it changed significantly in that time would be a gross understatement. The Florida of today is as unlike the Florida I moved to in 1964 as the moon is unlike Venus. When my family first ventured into Florida we stopped for a while in Port Charlotte, one of many planned communities on the west coast or Gulf Coast. A waterfront community on the west side of US 41 — The Tamiami Trail [ Tampa to Miami] and the gulf club community on the east side. The interstates had not been built yet so US 41 on the gulf coast and US 1 on the east coast were still the main routes.

At the time the most homes there were newish, built in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  The first thing we learned upon living there was that Florida gave a new meaning to the term “laid back.” Nobody was in a rush to do anything. We also leaned that real estate developers were even more dishonest than used car dealers. Having toured the sales area of The Gulf American Corporation where they tried to sell homes for a community that had not been build yet, and if not enough homes were sold, it would likely never be built.

Eventually we settled  in Naples, Florida, on the south west coast of Florida after my father passed away, in a house not unlike this one. With a tar and gravel or pebble roof, jalousie windows with aluminium casings or slender types and terrazzo floors. Nearly all the houses in Florida were like this with the possible exception of areas in Miami – I will get to Miami later.

Florida was a retirement mecca at this time but the next real estate boom was beginning. These houses were built this way for a number of reasons. The roofs were heavy and resisted hurricane winds. Jalousie windows could be opened even when it rained  to let the wind through and being low to the ground also helped in the event of a hurricane. The flat tar or pebble roofs were light in color reflecting the sun and being flat with a metal eave, collected water when it rained.

And the rains. Florida rains are unlike those in the north — which Floridians called drizzle. These were tropical rains like monsoons. In the summer the warm humid sea breezes from the gulf and the Atlantic would bring in daily or nearly daily torrential rains. The rain would last anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours. So hard sometimes one could not even see across the street and nearly always accompanied by heavy winds, hence the need for jalousie windows. Couple that with the occasional tropical storm or hurricane.

At that time and for a few years central heat and air was uncommon in Florida houses. It was expensive to install and expensive to use. Only businesses had AC and even then some did not or only used it when the heat and humidity of summer was most intense.

Naples had one radio station that ran automated for FM and had a MOR (Middle of the Road) format for the AM station. Cable was big as the nearest TV station was in Fort Myers, about 30 miles to the north. If you wanted any other channels you had cable or a very big antenna pointed to Miami or Tampa. Miami was usually easier to get. The cable company was locally owned as was the telephone company. You got all three networks with cable, from Miami.

Naples was about the size of Middlefield Ohio at that time. And Punta Gorda was no bigger. Fort Myers was about the size of Chagrin Falls Ohio maybe bigger as it would get a mall with a Sears and a Maas Brothers store.

There were few if any national big box department stores except Sears and maybe a Montgomery Wards in Florida at that time. The department stores were either Maas Bros., Burdines, Jordan Marsh or Robinson’s which were headquartered  in Miami and Tampa.

Naples had a rich people area, Port Royal to the south of town. It was a gated community but with the gates open during the day. It had, among others, the Briggs Estate (of Briggs and Stratton and Outboard Marine  Corp.) and Ric O’Barry, the owner/trainer of the dolphins used in the TV show Flipper. He also had a few manatees as well. Very big with huge waterways and pools for them.

Most places in Florida were similar to Naples with the northern part more southern than the south part. Floridians could be (and most were) very racist. But except for those in the very north and the panhandle, not the southern style like one would find in Alabama or Georgia or Mississippi or the Carolinas. No … this was Northern style like that of Ohio and Illinois or Indiana or Pennsylvania. For this is where most of them hailed from. The under your breath, euphemistically said kind of racism. Most in Florida were northern transplants. The few native Floridians live in the interior part of the state, those related to the original settlers.

Which brings me to the economy. Florida’s economy at that time relied on 3 things: Tourism, Agriculture and the Military. They had a lot of military. McCoy AFB in Orlando, MacDill in Tampa, Patrick AFB just south of Cocoa, Homestead AFB south of Miami, Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Pensacola Navel Air Station — to name but a few.

The south had vegetable farms, the center had cattle and sugar cane, and nearly everywhere from Fort Myers north to Lake County had citrus.

Nearly all of this has changed though. The Florida west coast from Naples Bay to the south to Tarpon Springs to the north has grown by a few orders of magnitude. Just about all of the original houses have been replaced by new, very expensive housing, gated communities and high rises. The few minorities who once lived in these areas are, for the most part, gone. The vast citrus groves that once covered the state are now confined to an area from Lake Wales to Lake Placid, the vegetable farms replaced by large gated communities.

This all started to gather steam in the late 1960s around 1967 when Disney decided to build southwest of Orlando and when central heat and air and air conditioned cars became the norm, making Florida a desirable location for rich white northerners. Even more so than in the past.

Naples and further north began to grow when the rich white folks from Miami left Coral Gables and Coconut Grove and Ft. Lauderdale to get away from the influx of immigrants from Haiti and Cuba and the other Caribbean islands. The west coast of Florida had few minorities, even Tampa.

Which brings me to Miami. Miami has been the thorn in the side of Tallahassee from the start. Originally conceived by Julia Tuttle, a wealthy citrus grower and Clevelander who convinced Henry Flagler, the railroad tycoon, to extend his Florida East Coast Railway further south, that made Miami a viable destination. Thanks to Flagler’s railroad and few freezes which made the northern part of the state less desirable and WWII, Miami’s population grew. By the 1940s Miami had 172,000 people, mostly rich northerners from New York and Boston as well as Philadelphia

By the early 1900s Miami Beach was developed one of the main barrier islands just off the coast of Miami. Promoted by Indianapolis entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher, Miami beach became the destination of choice for wealthy industrialists and the home of a large Orthodox Jewish community as well.

Then around 1925 Coral Gables — a city just west of Miami proper was founded and the University of Miami in Coral Gables. Coral Gables was one of the first planned communities for the more well-to-do.

When Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1958, most of the wealthy Cubans fled and settled there causing all kinds of grief for Florida and the US as a whole. Miami, more than any other place in Florida is about as un-southern as you can get in the south, with the possible exception of Key West. Miami in the 1960s was – except for the Cuban exiles — nearly all white northerners and voted that way, Tallahassee be damned.

Miami is now the biggest port in Florida and nearly every cruise line is headquartered there. When you speak of Miami though, you also speak of all that surrounds it, including Coral Gables, Hialeah, Coconut Grove, South Miami. In fact most of Dade County, as it’s nearly impossible to actually separate them one from another.

But Miami has changed a lot as well. With the influx of Cubans from the Mariel boatlift and Haitians Miami is now 70% Hispanic. A large portion of its business is with South and Central America, as well as Africa. Major cable channels now are headquartered there and a few international corporations. Miami has become an international city. And it boasts a heavy rail transit system, Metromover, a free people mover, a terminus for Tri Rail which connects Date and Broward counties and is the terminus for Amtrak’s line that runs up the nation’s east coast. Miami has a great school system — Dade County Schools — that offers an International Studies Program and bilingual education, everything that the folks in Tallahassee hate. And worst of all, they are making it work!

About the only place with the original Florida laid back lifestyle is Key West. Key West is about the only place I have never been to in Florida. Maybe some day I’ll get to visit there. Before it gets all touristy.

Postcard via Dave

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