Orlando, you have broken my heart.
In the 1990s I lived on Morse Boulevard, just outside Orlando, and I loved it. Other than buying groceries I did all my shopping by walking around the corner to Park Avenue. I found birthday gifts at local shop. A local florist make me a Christmas wreath for my front door. I sipped coffee at a non-Seattle-based shop that was neither trendy nor pricey. Friends and neighbors would walk down the street and get sushi at a hole-in-the-wall; the bookstore next door always had a lively game of checkers at its sidewalk table. The Mill restaurant had food for non-sushi lovers and we could walk there in 10 minutes.
Orlando seemed very far away, but it wasn’t. Not really. We’d drive to Church Street to get terrified at Terror on Church Street and marvel at the tourists who’d managed to wander away from the theme parks for an evening. We’d use the parking garage that had flowering bushes on its outside so we didn’t have to fight street traffic, but we’d move the car if we wanted to head down Colonial to Dekko’s to go dancing.
I worked, once or twice, as a stagehand for Orlando Opera Company, and the company shared space with Southern Ballet in a building donated by Florida Power. Before every matinee my friend Angi and I would climb a narrow ladder up to the roof and spread Visqueen over the long, narrow skylight. Lake Ivanhoe curved along the building and, while I hated the climb, I loved the view.
In case it isn’t clear, I loved everything about Orlando and Winter Park. The only thing wrong was that it was way too far from the beach, and I need salt water like beagles need to howl. I moved back to Pinellas county.
At first I visited frequently, but over time the visits grew less frequent. I went back this week, and what I saw shattered my heart.
Dollar General, automotive chain stores, and fast food chains dominate the landscape. My college and early 20s memories are all that remain of a unique, untouched community. I don’t just mean Orlando; Park Boulevard has changed utterly, populated with the smaller chain stores you see in every small town trying to make itself distinctive from the next small town 20 miles over. A few holdouts remain, but the personal feel has disappeared under a cloud of assimilation.
Sadly, this is not confined to Orlando. Over the past few days the joke in our small camper has become “Look – a Dollar General. We must be downtown.” At times I feel adrift in Anytown, USA.
My thesis chair and Florida guru Dr. Gary Mormino wrote an article for the Tampa Tribune years ago. In it he referenced a 1990s postcard of the Orlando skyline. “Welcome to Orlando!” the postcard read. One problem: the skyline didn’t belong to Orlando. When polled, area readers thought it might be Halifax.
“There is no here, here,” Dr. Mormino laments in his article, and as I drove down US17 and 441 through the Orlando area and a dozen other smaller towns, my heart breaks for Orlando, for Winter Park, and for every little town in Florida who has lost its “here.”
Dollar General stores all look the same, whether they’re nestled under live oak trees or set amidst palm trees, and, after eight days of driving Florida’s back roads, those stores symbolize the loss of our “here.”
I see Florida towns as we travel from stoplight to stoplight through sand, forest and lakes, and some of these roads reveal the very worst of Florida: her homogenized outer skin, a veneer that is peeling up like cheap pressboard furniture that’s been through a flood. This is the US 19 through Largo or the Ulmerton Road of the state. This is the worst Gulf or Gulfport Boulevard we could conceive. This is neon and sandy asphalt and Anytown, Anywhere. This is hell.
I believe St. Pete Beach is trying to keep some of its “here”, despite what the people throwing around threats and yelling at commission meetings may say. I believe Gulfport wants that, too. I do not know they have the funding or the leadership, but I hope it finds the former and suspect it may have the latter. I’ll be honest, I’d feel better if the city planners had been more vocal about how to keep our here, here. I’d feel better if Gulfport hadn’t already started the march toward low-budget chain stores along its namesake boulevard. I would feel better if we could at least agree on what our “here” is.
Take a drive yourself and search for the here: some of it remains throughout Florida. It bleeds through in old diners with Cuban coffee and restaurants with frogs legs and catfish. It traces the rolling hills of north Florida and it invites you to roll down your car windows and breath in south Florida’s salt air. It knows who it is and can’t try and pretend differently. Each here has its own identities, filled with its own history and imperfectly beautiful. It has no apologies.