Floridians speak about the duality of their state, how the Florida above Orlando is a different world from the one below – economically, socially, politically, etc. This is apparent when you travel through the whole state for a few weeks (we mainly noted south Florida’s aversion to trailers). Socially, Northern Florida is part of the South, and Southern Florida is largely an amalgam of the Northeast, the Midwest and Latin America.
What struck us most on this trip was the difference between the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, not just socially, but also architecturally and urbanistically. Decades ago my dad pointed out that I-95 ran down the East Coast, and I-75 ran from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast, so this largely determined where retirees settled. (And meant that comparable real estate was cheaper on the Gulf Coast, as Midwesterners just wouldn’t pay as much as Northeasterners). It’s not really that clear anymore; in Rabbit Is Rich, Updike’s character wintering near Ft.Myers observes that he expected to be surrounded by Midwesterners, but all his golf buddies are New York Jews. So while the social differentiation may have become less apparent, the differences in the built environment are even more clear. The pattern for development on the Atlantic coast was set in the early 20th century, with cities, public beaches and gridded neighborhoods, over which the postwar pattern of highways and sprawl were layered. The Gulf Coast was remarkably undeveloped until after WWII, so the overwhelming organizational principle is that of postwar car-oriented development and sprawl, with the city centers resembling the “edge city” fabric more than any pre-war, pedestrian-oriented city.
We spent some time in Miami, which is remarkably booming, packed with extremely expensive condo towers, flashy cultural institutions, etc. It’s truly one of the global cities, more connected to the society and economy of Latin America than to the State of Florida.
But once you look past the glitz of these towers, there is that complexity of culture that you get in a real city. The Wynnwood neighborhood is that kind of light industrial zone near the center of town where artists and hipsters are taking over, with cafes, galleries, and lots of street murals.
We also went through the smaller beach cities in the area – Ft. Lauderdale, Hollywood, etc. The early 20th-century promenades and boardwalks have been reinvigorated, and even on a really windy day a stroll along the beachfront is entertaining and lively.
The Gulf Coast is a different world. We have been going there for years to visit my family in and around Naples, which has a very small historic core of shopping, and neighborhoods of beautiful older homes along the beach.
There is public beach access here, but no commercial development – no boardwalk, no crowds, nothing kitschy. The area began to boom in the postwar era, with large developments, towers, and some of the most insanely awful houses I’ve ever seen:
all of this is much more privatized, with many gated communities and limited public beach access. Even when an area is at a pretty high overall density, such as in the condo developments, it’s a car-based pattern, with any commercial development miles away.
St. Petersburg was our favorite of all of them – a pleasant downtown near the bayfront, an area of cafes and restaurants that seemed liked a South Beach for people who aren’t models, and an older residential neighborhood near downtown that was charming – a mixture of 1920s eclectic houses, all of which seemed well-adapted to the climate (and former lack of air conditioning).
Tampa, the big, booming city on the coast, is profoundly awful. There are a few remnant historic buildings and districts, but the downtown has a collection of unrelievedly terrible big buildings from the 1950s to the present that may be unparalleled anywhere else.
Looking at the detailing of the lower cube attached to it, and other details around the plaza, I realized that they were dressing this monstrosity up in Kahn-like moves and details! Squares, water channels running off the end of the plinth, and this evocation of Exeter:
Most major American metropolitan areas from the 19th-20th century are centralized, with a dense core, and rings of lower density development around it. I think all of South Florida can be conceived of as one gigantic metro region that has been straightened out. The dense older urban areas are all along the Atlantic, with density stepping down away from the coast. This area has all the pros of bigger, older cities, such as culture and excitement, but also all the problems – insane traffic, highways cutting up neighborhoods, poor older neighborhoods, crime, etc. There is not that much late-20th century edge city development, as it ran into the Everglades.
The Gulf Coast is where they have put the postwar Edge City. Completely car-based and privatized, with an extraordinary road network to accommodate this. Everything is new and looks alike. The cities resemble the Edge City clusters along highways much more than they do prewar cities, with even downtowns being car-oriented. If you think of South Florida as one area, it’s not that much different from other major metropolitan areas, except that it has a 100-mile wide swamp as a greenbelt between the older development and the newer. The Northeast/Midwest origins of the residents doesn’t play out that strongly anymore – now the Atlantic coast is for people who like cities, and the Gulf Coast is for people who like postwar suburbs, with the problematic cities a comfortable remove away.