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Observations: Spaced out in Florida

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image A pianist and his grand piano entertained a transient audience of tourists, students and business people in New York’s Washington Square Park last week. Photo Mitch Traphagen

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

The temperature soared into the mid-50s under a perfect winter blue sky, the kind of blue that sometimes only exists in our mind’s eyes, or in wonderful memories of other perfect days softened and enhanced by time. The day was so beautiful that even in New York City, one of the world’s largest and densest concrete jungles, people everywhere were drawn outside, perhaps responding to the whispers of long-gone ancestors, silently advising from the beyond that this day was not one to be missed.

In Washington Square Park in Lower Manhattan, a young man was playing classical music on a grand piano in the center of the square. New Yorkers and tourists passed by, tossing dollars into his tip bucket, lingering to soak in the day and his music, seemingly unaware of the oddity of a grand piano and a talented musician outside in the middle of a park. Where did he come from with such a large instrument? Where would he go from there? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the moment. It was beautiful. Students from nearby NYU studied in the sunshine, people in business suits let go of their stress for the moment and thousands of tourists snapped photos or consulted maps and smartphones to plan their next stop, but were in no hurry to move on.

My wife and I hopped into a nearby subway station and came out in a completely different part of the city. Here, too, people everywhere were enjoying the day, the moment, the peacefulness and solitude of Riverside Park in this metropolitan area of 22 million people. A few blocks walk brought us to Central Park — an incredibly beautiful oasis of nature surrounded by, but not overwhelmed by, the city. Across the park from the Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir, the Upper West Side and the Museum of Natural History awaited. Again, thousands of people were out, the general feeling of happiness was palpable and contagious. It would have been difficult to feel bad on such a good day and in the presence of so many of our human brethren. It just felt good to be there, to be alive in those places, in those moments and in the warm sunshine of a beautiful winter day.

New York is nowhere near to what it used to be, when stories of muggings and murders were continual headlines. Today the city deals day to day with its own success. I’m convinced that one of the reasons for that success is the public spaces available to everyone, from paupers to billionaires to those bearing famous faces. There are nearly endless places where people can congregate and simply share in the amazing experience of humanity.

Unfortunately, many Florida cities, including our own, tend to lack that one thing. Where can we gather in public just to enjoy a perfect winter day? There is a beautiful beach at Little Harbor in Ruskin, but the reality is that beach is privately owned, and for most of us, visiting it is only at the generosity of the new owner of the marina, restaurant and hotel complex. There are small parks scattered about, but few have the facilities or the draw for people to gather, let alone drive to, just to enjoy a moment together as strangers and fellow travelers through life. E.G. Simmons Park is a treasure and could be ranked with any park in any city. For some of us it is a (potentially harrowing) bicycle ride away, but for many others, it requires a trip in the car. It somehow detracts from the spontaneity when it involves leaving our air-conditioned homes only to park the car in a black asphalt lot.

So where should we gather?  At a strip mall? 

Florida is beautiful and has so much to offer, but public space is not and has not been a priority for many of those who have the power to create or destroy our communities. Why waste perfectly good waterfront property for a park when developers can build the living hell out of it for yet another cluster of McMansions or more soulless condo towers designed to “look tropical” but only succeeding in making a “tropical look” into something generic, if not an outright affront to nature? 

Yes, waterfront property is valuable and limited so I can understand why someone who makes money developing property would see a park as a waste of space. But we need our space — and, in my opinion, Florida in particular needs to figure out a way to come together as a populace. We need to stop (or at least slow down) the shouting, hating and even shooting each other. We are lucky to be here, it is paradise. Or, at least, it should be.

This is why I am so excited about and supportive of venues such as the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin. It’s a place where neighbors in communities throughout South County can gather, and together enjoy something that is larger than we are. I distinctly remember my happiness at walking up to one of the first events held at the center. It was a summer Friday night and dozens of people were out enjoying an interactive exhibit in the parking lot because the interior theater had not yet been completed. But it was wonderful, magical even, to see something good and available to all happening on a Friday night on what would otherwise had been simply a dark street corner.

Almost every week I drive up to Winthrop Town Centre in Riverview and stop into the Starbucks, hoping to find some commonality with my fellow humans. I can always visualize it in my mind, sitting at a table, or on one of the comfortable sofas, writing down my thoughts and articles, occasionally looking up to see others enjoying their time and their lives in much the same way. The reality, of course, isn’t quite what I hope for. I love Winthrop but it isn’t all there yet, the commonality I seek isn’t a sure bet. Sometimes, it’s just a group of people rushing in for coffee and rushing back out to continue working hard to get by in life.

Florida is a great place to live in so many respects, but it is also a difficult place for a life. The demands are high and the resources (especially public resources) are scarce. For all of the beauty here, simply getting by in Florida can be an all-consuming effort, leaving little for the simple pleasures that draw us together in a space just for us.

Public spaces are expensive and require long-term planning. If we started right now, maybe, just maybe, we’d live long enough to see the fruition. But, in the meantime I have to ask you to please support what we have. Try the Firehouse Cultural Center and see if you find yourself enjoying even a silent communion with your neighbors. Give the theaters, the restaurants and the local night spots a chance. And above all, give the parks a chance. Let’s gather together over nods or smiles or simply the knowledge that we live in a really cool place; a place that should be paradise. Words aren’t even necessary; all that is important is for you to show up.

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