Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Adieu to Florida’s Gold Coast: Beyond Money and Politics

In October 2014, the City of South Florida passed a resolution in favor of South Florida seceding from Florida and becoming the 51st State of the United States. Vice Mayor Walter Harris, the resolution’s sponsor, told the city’s commission that the government of Florida had not been addressing adequately the issue of the sea-level rising. Already, Miami was subject to regular flooding at high tide. This reason for secession has a serious downside, however; a better rationale may ironically come from the perspective of Floridians in North Florida.

The proposed State of South Florida would include the counties in orange. (Orlando Sentinel)

Harris was obviously frustrated. “We have to be able to deal directly with this environmental concern and we can’t really get it done in Tallahassee.”[1] However, even though a government of South Florida might indeed be more willing to legislate to save much of South Florida from the inevitable, that State would be more vulnerable to sea-water disasters. A hurricane could cut out a good part of tourism dollars along the “Gold Coast” (i.e., West Palm Beach to Miami), and still Tallahassee could count of unhampered tax revenue from the northern regions of Florida to fund clean-up and restoration projects. A government of South Florida would not have this spread-out diversity, so a major storm could effectively cripple that government’s wherewithal to respond.
So Harris’s rationale is a double-edged sword, meaning it cuts both ways. More pliability but more risk. Mayor Philip Stoddard’s rationale is more solid, and yet more effusive and thus easy to overlook or dismiss. “It’s very apparent that the attitude of the northern part of the state is that they would just love to saw the state in half and just let us float off into the Caribbean. They’ve made that abundantly clear every possible opportunity and I would love to give them the opportunity to do that.”[2] I submit that Northern motive here does not stem from fiscal or even political self-interest; rather, people living in South Florida have a bit of a bad reputation, attitudewise.

After four months living in Miami, I came away wishing that the U.S.  might someday kick South Florida out of the Union for not being civil enough to warrant inclusion in American society. On a daily basis, I found not only irate, impatient drivers honking incessantly, but also extremely rude retail employees dominating the service industry—such rudeness easily passing as passive and even active aggression toward customers. More generally, I found a mix of self-absorption and fastidiousness to be so common that it characterizes the dominant culture.  Obviously, not everyone living in the stretch of urbanization from West Palm Beach to South Miami had this mentality; in fact, I ran into some nice people who admitted to me that the real problem with South Florida is the people. How damning an assessment this is!

In short, enough residents of South Florida do not play well with others that the sordid attitude and its ensuing behaviors can enjoy the validity that comes with being the established norm. Transferring to a local bus at a light-rail station in Dade County (i.e., Miami), for example, I was literally thrown out of kilter mentally when a black 25 year-old fat guy body-slammed me into the side of the opened front-door because he thought I should have let all the Blacks on first rather than wait in line as I did. Adding insult to injury, the black bus driver refused to call the police when I asked him while I was still body-pressed by Fat Albert. “You shouldn’t have gotten on then,” the middle-aged driver said.  I submitted a complaint to the transit company, but never received a reply. At the very least, I concluded, a corrupt institutional culture enables the interpersonal aggression there.

While in Miami Beach on a bus, I was perplexed to find a driver ignoring two local black men shouting at each other in the bus. At the very least, the black woman driving the bus was not concerned about what impression the tourists standing in the aisle would have of the vacation spot. The situation quickly turned surreal when one of the black men lurched down the steps from the back third of the bus to hit the other man standing in the aisle near the back door. From my seat, I caught a glimpse of tourists falling over like dominos in the aisle toward the front of the bus. As they stood up, several of them demanded that the driver stop and call the police. Incredibly, she just kept driving. Eventually, when we stopped to let off some passengers, the driver did call the police, but only to ask if the man who was hit wanted to press charges. He did not, so the driver told the police they did not have to come. Eventually, the troubled man got off the bus of his own accord.

On nearly a daily basis, I encountered aggressively rude people in Fort Lauderdale and Miami of every race. At a Starbucks in a nice suburb of Miami, I was stunned when a woman of about 60 decided even before I had put away my things that I was leaving; she sat down at my small table while I was still drinking coffee.  “You’re leaving,” she said as if she could not be wrong. “No, I’m still here,” I replied, but this made no difference to her sense of entitlement. The employees I encountered at more than one Starbucks store were—how shall I put it—a piece of work. I called the company’s customer service on one occasion to report that a veteran (i.e., not new) employee didn’t know what a pull-over is.  Adding insult to injury, she refused to ask her manager. “No, we don’t have those,” the employee said, scolding me with her tone merely for ordering a French-roast pour-over because none was brewed.  It is Starbucks policy that if a roast is not brewed at the time, it is to be made by the pour-over method. The customer-service representative in Seattle said after I relayed the account, “You’re right; that really is beyond the pale—she doesn’t know what a pour-over is and she is not in training? Yeah, that is bad.” I agreed, adding, “That’s how it is here in Miami.” At another Starbucks, a manager explained that South Florida is challenged in the service industry. In other words, so many people are rude it is difficult to find nice people to hire. Several people living in the metro area told me that employees in the service sector there are notoriously rude, so I concluded that the culture must be really bad.

Doubtless the sordid reputation had reached many ears in North Florida by the time of Stoddard’s resolution in South Miami. He was conveniently ignoring this point when he sought to have South Florida play the victim role. They would just love to float us off into the Caribbean. Northern Floridians might want to send the commissioners there a thank you note, and not because much of the problems stemming from the rising sea-level would be obviated; rather, it may be more a question of culture—a decadent, pathological culture wanting out and neighbors to the immediate north willing to help them along to make their wish come true. In other words, the resolution might be a case of “be careful what you wish for; you might get it.”

[1] Adrienne Cutway, “Officials Want South Florida to Break Off into Its Own State,” The Orlando Sentinel, October 21, 2014.
[2] Ibid.