For some, life in Florida is a long-running vacation in paradise.
For others, it is apparently a nightmare.
The photos keep coming long after the vacation ends. There are the sunsets; the husbands and wives posing next to mostly grown children on the beach or at tourist hot spots in Clearwater, St. Pete Beach or Anna Maria Island; there are the words and memories that linger. The words are often romantic: “Our waiter was so cool”; “Everyone is so laid back”; “Toasting a beautiful sunset with my honey.” The memories, of course, are filtered through the lens of “back home” ordinary-ness making the beach and the tacky tourist shops seem so exotic.
Social media websites such as Facebook are vacation photo albums for the world to see. When the images and words linger long past the end of the vacation, it is possible, likely even, that the seeds have been planted for a future Florida transplant. Yes, someday they’ll move here — and every single day will be like being on vacation in paradise, right? For some that really happens. For others, paradise becomes a nightmare.
You can Google-search any number of terms to find evidence of the latter: Type in “Hate Tampa” or “Hate Florida” and hundreds of pages will come up. If you move your search language to the more profane, you’ll likely find even more. There is even a Facebook page entitled “30 Reasons Why Florida is a Hellhole and Sucks.” Apparently, whoever started that page either made peace with the Sunshine State or left it behind — it hasn’t been updated since 2011.
But there is plenty of new venom to go around.
I am a classic example of a Florida transplant. I was living and working in Minneapolis. As a reward for a completed project that I presented at a facility in Georgia, my company offered me a three-day trip to anywhere. I had never been to Florida, it was nearby, so I chose a flight into Fort Myers for a three-day stay on Sanibel Island.
I went to Sanibel Island. From Minnesota. In February. You can imagine how that turned out. Whatever problems Florida may have, they apparently don’t want to pay the toll to cross the bridge to Sanibel. It is as close to paradise as anyone can get — particularly coming from the below-zero temperatures of icy Minnesota. Sitting on the beach, I felt my soul had been freed from a Siberian work camp and, within a year, my sailboat was on a truck from Lake Superior to Fort Myers Beach. I was living in paradise.
Although Florida has long been seen as a retirement state, I was among millions of younger people who moved (and are still moving) here. I wasn’t near retirement age, so that meant finding a job. It eventually became clear that everyday life in Florida was not like being on vacation on an expensive island.
Living in Florida is different. There are lawns to mow — year-round, no less. There are weeds that grow so fast that they provide justification for owning an ax or chain saw in even the most tidy of subdivisions. And there are the seemingly endless hot, humid summers with blistering walks across black asphalt parking lots after driving in traffic to get to the grocery store. There are lines everywhere, from restaurants to the pumps at the gas stations. And there are some pretty scary-looking snakes and bugs.
Worst of all, that beautiful beach of vacation memories is at least an hour or more away — again, in traffic. And upon living here, you generally don’t go out to the restaurants where the waiter was so cool, and on the rare occasion that you do, the “laid back” atmosphere you saw on vacation looks a lot more like a lazy inattentiveness on the part of the wait staff.
A few years ago, I realized that an excellent test for deciding to commit your life to living in Florida would be to spend a July or August afternoon in a laundromat in Ruskin.
Regarding the many “Hate Florida” websites, perhaps the most surprising thing is the number of natives that post about the state of the state. Some of them want out, too, because Florida today is not the Florida they grew up with. They are right. It isn’t. Borrowing from Yogi Berra, no one is coming to Florida anymore, it’s getting too crowded.
Back to Google, there are 12.8 million results for the search term “Hate Florida.” There are 418 million results for “Love Florida.” Florida is probably among only three of the 50 states that are known around the world, along with California and New York. And speaking of New York, the Sunshine State recently surpassed it in population, becoming the nation’s third-largest state. It is indeed becoming crowded, at least compared with what it was, but as the state shakes off the effects of the housing bubble, new houses are going up everywhere and new people are moving in, perhaps providing fodder for the “Hate” sites but also confirming that people see something here that they want to keep.
People are moving here in droves regardless of the “Hate” posts about crime, rampant drug use and overcrowding. Overcrowding is a matter of perspective but the rest is quite possibly a case of “Haters gonna hate.” Despite being the 18th-largest metropolitan area in the U.S., the Tampa Bay area doesn’t even make the top 25 in terms of crime. And Florida is so big and so diverse that hating it is akin to not liking a single book and deciding that all of literature is to be hated.
The population of Florida and the major cities has exploded on numerous occasions, a boom-to-bust cycle that has continued for a century. And when that happens, it takes time to catch up, to absorb and to settle in. It will never be like it was; and for those moving here, it will never be like back home. But isn’t that the reason they moved here in the first place?
That beach of your memories is still there. The now-lazy waiter can still be cool if you decide to reclaim the laid-back atmosphere and attitude of your long-ago vacation. The sunsets are still there, still incomparable. A short trip to any state park in Florida’s interior is a sure-fire tonic for any effects of overcrowding.
It is summer in Florida. Forget the lawn, ignore the weeds and the snake that may or may not be living in your garage. Go back to the beach or try out a local, future-favorite restaurant. Relax. Take a few photos for your Facebook page. Your vacation is still here.
Things are what you make them out to be. Paradise is as much an attitude as it is a place.