America is the place where people from all over the word come to live the American Dream. But in America itself, people move southward to live out something far more American than the American Dream: the Florida Dream.
Florida is where the runoff from America’s cultural stream settles into a fetid, stagnant pool of low taxes, cheap property prices, an endless supply of immigrant labor, cold weather-fleeing geriatrics, and trigger-happy right-wing politics. For decades, Sunshine State boosters have wrapped up the Florida Dream in a carefully marketed vision of an overly humid, sunburned paradise bolstered by an economic tripartite of hospitals, condominiums, and a gigantic, anthropomorphic mouse. And Americans can’t get enough of it.
I recently spent a week in Tampa visiting my in-laws. Like a huge percentage of the Sunshine State’s residents, they moved to Florida from a colder, cloudier place (in their case, Ohio), and in that respect they’re hardly unique. Migration to Florida from others parts of the U.S. has been occurring at a seam-busting rate for a long time, so much so that, in 2014 Florida passed New York to become the country’s third most populous state. By the summer of 2015, Florida’s population reached an estimated 20.27 million. That’s an awful lot of people to be crammed into a narrow peninsula that you can drive across in a few traffic-clogged hours.
On the one hand, it’s not hard to figure out why so many people want to live in Florida: the state boasts a subtropical to tropical climate, depending on how far south you go, and most human beings don’t like cold weather. On the other hand, visiting Florida is like experiencing every glorious, bloated overindulgence that currently plagues the American landscape — with a hell of a lot more soul-melting humidity.
Traversing across Tampa alone is like being in a Milton Friedman sweat lodge. The thousands of miles of quadruple-laned, heat-trapping pavement serves to funnel an uneasy mixture of native crackers, immigrants from Latin America and Asia, wussy Canadian snowbirds, and turn-signal abusing retirees into an ever-expanding capitalist cornucopia of chain restaurants, specialized health care centers, overcrowded beaches, vacation destinations built on simulated joy, and Super Wal-Marts so gigantic they could qualify as city states.
All of this development has, of course, run roughshod over the state’s delicate natural environment, and despite the presence of protected areas like Hillsborough River State Park and the Everglades National Park (a UNESCO designated world heritage site), Florida’s ever-bloating population and its attendant rampant development threatens to swallow up more wild habitat in the coming years, because gol’ darn it, there MUST be another Applebee’s off of SR-580!
Yet to understand Florida is to understand America itself. Like the greater U.S., Florida is a heavily mythologized dreamland built on the promise of finding paradise via unfettered capitalism and untrammeled conquest. Thanks to the cleverly marketed Florida Dream (and the invention of the central air conditioning system), thousands migrate to the Sunshine State every year confident in the notion that they’ll be able to carve their own slice of Jimmy Buffetesque paradise out of even the boggiest skeeter and gator infested swampland. It’s a dream that’s been a long-time coming.
The first Europeans came to Florida seeking the paradise that still fuels the state’s unending growth. In 1513, the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León (best known today for inspiring the plot MacGuffin for Pirates of the Caribbean 4) arrived on Florida’s northeast shore in an alleged quest for the Fountain of Youth. Instead, he and later Spaniards found something better: a tropical Eden supposedly bursting at the seams with untold treasures such as gold, commercial crops, and a whole lotta native slave labor.
Of course, the future stomping ground of Mickey Mouse was too rich a prize for white Americans to resist, so in 1816, general, future president, and highly dedicated Indian wiper-outer Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish-occupied Florida and led a bloody conflict against the state’s native Seminole Indian population, black people, and remaining Spaniards. Following this so-called first Seminole War, Spain ceded much of Florida’s territory to the United States. But plenty of Indians remained squatting on perfectly good land, so the U.S. government waged further conflict against the Seminoles in the Second (1835-1842) and Third (1855-1858) Seminole Wars, eventually killing and relocating enough injuns to make way for permanent white settlement. But it’s all well and good, because Florida named some college sports teams after the Seminoles, which completely made up for a long history of racism, displacement, and genocide.
Spain formally ceded Florida to America in 1821, and if it seems like a stretch to connect Andrew Jackson to acquitted would-be vigilante George Zimmerman, trust me, it ain’t. The same use of excessive violence in the name of claiming freedom against scary non-white people is a long Florida (and American) tradition that connects the Seminole Wars to Stand Your Ground Laws.
Florida officially attained statehood in 1845. As a predominantly agricultural slaveholding state, it joined the Confederacy in 1861 but didn’t really host any major battles during the Civil War. After the war, Florida remained a bit of muggy population backwater, although it continued to expand its agricultural sector primarily around cattle and citrus. The orange industry especially benefitted from internal improvements spurred by the state legislature that bankrolled railroad construction for the purpose of transporting citrus throughout the state and beyond. But still, the tourists and old people were few and far between.
The mid-20th century changed all that. Enterprising capitalists recognized that the post-war boom in technology (embodied by air conditioning and the automobile) could help tame the swampy, bug-infested humidity of the Sunshine State and turn it into a beach-lined, snow-free dreamland for tourists, retirees, and every class of lowlife in search of a place at the bottom of America where they could either disappear or make an income tax-free buck. As historian Gary Mormino observes in Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida, the state’s land developers, civic boosters, politicians, business titans, and drug lords purposefully marketed Florida as the fulfillment of the American Dream. In World War II’s aftermath, Mormino writes:
Elements coalesced to make possible everyman’s Florida: uninterrupted prosperity, most notably the rising standards of living for the middle classes; a resurgent federal government determined to contain Communism abroad and expand the New Deal at home; revolutions in health care, leisure, and technology; the affordability and popularity of air conditioning and air travel; the selling and manufacture of dreams by a loosely connected group of businessmen, developers, and press corps; the realization that Florida was a place where workers, retirees, and pleasure seekers could enjoy and share paradise.*
No phenomenon better exemplified Florida as the Siren of paradise than the state’s transformation into a haven for old people looking to live out the remainder of their days in the comforting warmth of stifling humidity and 4:00 pm dinner buffets. What Mormino calls the “Graying of Florida” happened because savvy capitalists (in an ode to the Ponce de León legend) saw in the state’s abundant, cheap land and sweltering climate a potential Fountain of Youth for the rest of the country’s creaky-kneed, Social Security-emboldened geriatrics. As part of a concentrated advertising campaign, developers built condos and gated communities specifically geared towards attracting the nation’s millions of Matlocks and Golden Girls, and these efforts paid off: by the year 2000, Florida had more than 2 million residents over the age of 70, and that number has grown by the thousands each year since.
Just how omnipresent is the Grey Dawn in Florida today? Anyone who’s driven the state’s clogged highways knows about the so-called “Silver Alerts” flashing on big, electronic highway signs. These alerts warn other motorists that an impaired elderly driver has gone unintentionally rogue and lost their way while piloting their 20 ft long Buick at 30 mph with the turn signal flashing down a freeway with a 70 mph maximum speed limit.
In addition to the old people, there’s the rest of the Florida population, a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-generational combustible mixture that, when egged-on by stifling heat and hedonism-fueling capitalism have made the Sunshine State the nation’s number-one outpost for unrivaled weirdness.
Witness the Florida Man and Florida Woman Twitter feeds that highlight the bizarre antics of the state’s various pill-poppers, transients, nutjobs, and all-around lowlifes. Outlets ranging from Salon, to Slate, to Buzzfeed, to Reddit have tried to understand why Florida is so darn crazy that it has spawned rampaging cannibals and keeled-over roach guzzlers, among other fascinating specimens of humanity. Independent filmmaker Sean Dunne even made a documentary called Florida Man that examines the weirdos and losers who crawl Florida’s streets after sunset.
But if Florida seems weirder than other U.S. states, that’s because every hedonistic impulse that defines the rest of America is ramped up tenfold in the Sunshine State, where a motley collective of people from all walks of American life have settled to duke it out on a narrow peninsula where short-term profits always beat out long-term planning, and where it’s totally normal to pay exorbitant sums to watch minimum wage-earners walk around in full-body Goofy outfits in heat that can melt car dashboards.
Florida is both the literal and cultural endpoint of America, a place where the glorious benefits and contradictions of American life mush together to form a horrific, yet still somehow enchanting dream characterized by beauty, excess, violence, racism, and natural wonder — all marketed in one neat package that comes with a free carton of orange juice and a George W. Bush presidency.
And yet, I’ve gone to Florida. Heck, I’ve gone there more than once! You’ve probably gone to Florida too. Maybe you even live in Florida! We’ll all continue to be drawn to this overheated Paradiso for the same reasons that we’re both repulsed by, and celebrative of, America. Bruce Springsteen once asked in The River, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” While the American Dream has turned out to be a lie for many, the Florida Dream is the American Dream’s second chance, an opportunity to run from dreams that didn’t come true and create new beginnings on sandy foundations. To live the Florida Dream is to embrace an affordable tropical escape that, while still often based on a lie, is nonetheless way more attractive than winter in northern Ohio. “In God we Trust” indeed.
* See Gary R. Mormino, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida (Gainesville: University Press of South Florida, 2005), 356.