The singular characteristics of the great state of Florida are so well known that we can risk being brief.
Visitors from the North are apt to take one look at that Heliogabaluslike organism Miami Beach, and say: “Florida isn’t part of the South at all.” Actually, the Peninsula State is very much part of the South; it contains not merely most of the familiar southern stigmata, but much else particularly and distinctively its own.
Florida has by far the longest seaboard of any American state which fact alone, giving it a kind of ocean culture, distinguishes it markedly.
It has a history stretching far back indeed: there were 306 years between Ponce de Leon and proprietorship by the United States; St. Augustine is the oldest town in North America, having been founded in 1565.
More that any other southern state except possibly Louisiana, Florida has variety; it combines an old Spanish underlay, the atmosphere of the deep South, and most important of all, a tremendous incursion from the North.
For these and other reasons, it has more vitality than any southern area, with the possible exception of Tennessee in the valley region.
Consider some of the things Florida has, in various but accordant fields.
Baby alligators for sale; the Seminoles who, deep in “the cypress,” maintain their own so-called law, and have no treaty with the United States to this day; the great naval air base at Pensacola; sugar cane and 30,000 lakes; wonderful tarpon, sailfish, and white marlin fishing; winter headquarters for the circus and most major-league baseball teams; freakishness in everything from architecture to social behavior unmatched in any American state; aloof and benign haunts of an etiolated aristocracy at Palm Beach; two million cattle valued at 60 million dollars; the highest syphilis rate in the nation; violent quarrels between rival railroads; the bizarre excesses of the annual run of tourists from the North; political conflict between the Crackers (technically anybody born in Florida is a “Cracker,” but the term has come to signify the poor whites of the interior) ; the Hemingway country near Key West; 328 different kinds of trees; the solidly Jewish resort towns and, until recently at least, the grisly back streets of Miami with their signs in rooming house after rooming house.
A considerable jealousy of California in the realms of citrus fruit and of the weather; petroleum in the Everglades; Lake Okeechobee west of Palm Beach, called by local chauvinists the most fertile spot on earth.
Tennis players at Rollins College at Winter Park; Jacksonville and its growing importance as a port; a large proportion of the people living high for three months during the tourist season and then living very low on fish and grits the rest of the year; flamingos, hibiscus, labor goons, and the late Al Capone; an annual farm income of 300 million dollars produced on 7 per cent of the land; a substantial business in turtles, shrimp and sponges: no sales tax, no income tax, no tax on small homesteads, no state land tax, no poll tax; and above all sunshine.
Politically there are several struggles for power in Florida. One is that of the “turnstile boys,” the hotel proprietors, and the “Fountain of Youth folk” against the rest of the community.
Florida spends nowhere nearly as much as does California, say, or Pennsylvania on tourist propaganda; nevertheless the sum is considerable and many “Floridians” (not Floridans) resent that this should come out of taxes, as a state expense, instead of being paid for by those particularly dependent on the tourist trade.
Another is, as in so many states, that between the rural and urban communities; Dade County, which contains Miami, pays 25 per cent of the entire tax bill of the state but has only one senator.
The big towns Jacksonville and Tampa as well as Miami dislike being in an inferior position vis-à-vis the “cow counties” just as New York City hates to he at the comparative mercy of Ossvego.
Florida and Miami politics can be fancy in the extreme. One point is the considerable power of the governor. Uniquely in America, sheriffs and some other county officers are subject to gubernatorial confirmation; a man may for instance, spend a Cyclopean amount of money to get elected sheriff but he cannot assume office until the governor agrees to his appointment.
A system leading more beautifully and inevitably to the possibility of graft can scarcely be imagined. Miami in Florida has fanciness, too, in other fields.
Early in 1945 the Florida Power Corporation, the dominant utility the state, was ordered by the SEC to divest itself of nine million dollars worth of stock.
The power corporation officials moved into New York with souvenir boxes of Florida fruit preserves” and in a cavalcade led by “Miss Florida of 1945” trimly caparisoned in a bathing suit.
A curious item is that Florida, like California a mecca for the aged and underpossessed, has nowhere near the Golden State’s share of political crackpotism. Townsend clubs do, it is true, exist, and they have at nies exerted considerable local power, but they have nothing of the impact and prestige of similar groups on the west coast.
The convoluted history of Miami and Miami Beach in particular their intramural rivalries and the way the latter was created by a unique adventure in speculation is too familiar to deal with here.
What the whole community, so blessed by a lucent climate, so wonderfully picturesque and choked with such blatant incongruities, fears most toda is another crash.
The Florida winter of 1945-46 saw the most spectacular and savage spending in American history.
Most of this came from black market money being unloaded in the socalled amusement industries. But the boom spread over into real estate too; northerners, released from the burden of war at last, free to travel, heavy with cash, fought to buy an inch of land.
The story has ominous overtones of the familiar, in that exactly this kind of development took place in the 20’s; then, too, vacant lots in scrubby neighborhoods sold for $25,000.
In 1926 came the Florida crash; it took the state more than ten years to recover fully.
I have before me a Miami Daily News of date May 15, 1939. In it are thirty-two solid columns of fine type listing properties sold for taxes.
Most of the lots -literally thousands- went for prices like $5.43. $4.16, $7.46, and most owners were given as “unknown.”
The point need not be labored that responsible Floridians don’t want any such catastrophe to occur again.
Finally, let us mention weather. Florida is a heaven of sunshine even more heavenly, in part, than California. Perhaps a small and old story is to the point.
An eminent Chicago gangster, having succumbed to vices inherent in his trade, was to be buried not in Chicago but in Miami.
A very large and imposing funeral was arranged by his Florida companions. But the rose like a jack-in-the-box from the coffin just as the burial began. Florida and Miami Beach sunshine had penetrated right through the heavy casket and revived him.
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