Sometime this year, a retired accountant from Kokomo, a transplanted auto worker from Kankakee or a Caracas banker will become the answer to a trivia question. Cyber cymbals will clang, announcing that Florida has succeeded New York as the nation’s third-largest state. Expect a New York Daily News headline: “Empire State to Sunshine State: Drop Dead!”
In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson walked into a New England newspaper office. The first telegram had only moments earlier arrived, heralding a communications revolution. “Isn’t it amazing,” remarked the Transcendentalist, “Now Maine can talk to Florida!” Yes, the elderly editor replied, “But has Maine anything to say to Florida?”
For centuries, Florida was too remote, hot, wet, sparsely populated and poor to be taken seriously. Florida performed the role of a colonial economy, shipping winter vegetables and citrus to imperial New York, while purchasing cast-iron stoves and GE refrigerators made in Buffalo and Schenectady. In 1900, New York, the nation’s largest state, boasted 7.3 million residents. Florida, meanwhile, accounted for barely a half-million inhabitants. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, New York’s mastery of finance, industry and shipping buoyed the Empire State’s population to 13.5 million residents. Florida, the smallest state in the South, had not yet topped the 2 million plateau.
St. Petersburg and New York enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. In 1909, the New York-New Jersey tourist society was founded there, providing homesick winter visitors familiar accents. In 1925, the New York Yankees began coming to St. Petersburg for spring training. Babe Ruth purchased an apartment at the Flor-De-Leon, while Yankees owner Jake Rupert and manager Miller Huggins invested heavily in the Florida Boom.
Pearl Harbor changed everything. Millions of GIs, war workers and tourists first encountered Florida during the war. Many New Yorkers who enlisted in the Army Air Corps trained in Miami, with hotels named Raleigh, the Royal Palm and the Blackstone serving as barracks.
A 1945 George Gallup poll confirmed what many Manhattan stockbrokers already understood: California and Florida were America’s favorite tourist destinations. When, in 1947, Miami Beach banned “Restricted Clientele” signs, Mitchell Wolfson, the city’s first Jewish mayor, signed the order. A 1950 patron of Wolfie’s or the kosher Lincoln Manor Restaurant would have been struck by two phenomena: customers’ Yiddish accents and their age. Miami Beach was fast becoming a promised city for elderly Jews who had moved from New York to Florida.
Before tourists became residents, a revolution in expectations had to occur. New York’s Ellis Island was a birthplace of the American dream. Miami Beach and St. Petersburg, Sun City and the Villages, were birthplaces of the Florida dream. Nature had endowed Florida with palm trees, sand dunes and salt spray. But the Florida dream also hinted at the expectations of a better life – or at least a better February. The Florida dream offered second chances to senior citizens and Cuban emigres, Carlo Ponzi and Ponzi schemers.
But first, Florida had to be reshaped and reimagined. In modern Florida, Isaiah’s prophecies came true: hot was made cold, wet became dry, and crooked rivers bent straight. Air conditioning allowed Floridians to embrace the sun and cool it; DDT permitted year-round living on the uninhabited barrier islands; and dredge and fill created more beachfront. Wordsmiths coined new terms to comprehend the Sun Belt: space age, climate control, retirement community, theme park, boomburb and snowbird.
The trajectory of modern Florida is breathtaking. Imagine a soothsayer in 1940 prophesizing that sleepy Brevard County (population 16,142) would become the rocket capital of the world. Or that two professional ice hockey teams would one day lace up skates in Tampa and Sunrise. Or that the largest city on the Gulf Coast south of Tampa would be Cape Coral. Or that the “happiest place on earth” would be located amid cattle pasture and cypress sloughs in Central Florida. Or that Dade County would become so transformed by Fidel Castro that a writer characterized Miami as “Havana USA.”
By the 1950s, newspaper headlines read, “1,000 Residents Each Week Move into Florida.” By the 1980s, a thousand new residents arrived daily. In Plantation and Sebring, reunions were held for ex-New Jerseyites to reconnect. When former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani campaigned for the presidency, he proclaimed Broward County as New York City’s “sixth borough.”
A bellwether state, today’s Florida grapples with the complexities of multiculturalism, immigration, aging and development – salient issues facing all Americans. But has Florida earned the respect, the gravitas expected of a megastate? In 2008, Time magazine’s Michael Grunwald asked, “Is Florida the Sunset State?” noting the state’s myriad problems. “The question is whether it will grow up.”
The question is not new. In 1943, the Miami writer and critic Philip Wylie pondered the future. “We haven’t asked people to live here,” he wrote. “We’ve asked them to visit.” He hectored, then pleaded, “At the end of the war, there will be two courses open to us. We can seize the gigantic opportunities at hand and develop this unique region into a new heart of the new world – or we can go on being a tropical Coney Island.”
Once again, Florida stands at a crossroads. Will America’s soon-to-be third largest state become a model showing the nation how to manage growth, restore ecosystems and balance generations of diverse citizens into a common cause? Will the challenge of global warming simply overwhelm a state with a thousand miles of coastline, or will the crisis serve as a rallying cry? Can/should Florida possibly maintain the pell-mell growth that added 16 million residents between 1945 and 2005? What does Florida do? Florida grows.
Gary R. Mormino is professor emeritus of history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council. He is the author of “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams.”