Commentary

A Carpetbagger Heads Home

We in New York have ideas about what people do, prefer, think, and enjoy "out there." Even if we're from "out there." I, for example, spent the past week in North Florida, where my father lives, and where I'm from.

My dad now lives in St. Augustine, Fla., the oldest continuously occupied (European) town in North America. I was walking around the tourist-packed center of town with my daughter a couple of days ago, thinking about how much more things have changed there in the past five years than they probably did for the 500 leading up to the 20th century.

Like most U.S. cities, it has grown dramatically over the past couple of decades -- and, outside of its legally enforced preservation district, much of it is unrecognizable. The typical riot of real-estate speculation and development is the rule beyond the town limits, and the environment is changing too, as winters get warmer. Exhibit one these days is the northward march of red and black mangroves, which are supplanting the wetland grasses that for tens of thousands of years had been a breeding ground for Atlantic fisheries. That's another story, but one that will certainly weigh on the economy and ecology of the state.  

There are still historical sections: Fort Matanzas is still there to fire the cannon ordnance daily at the ghosts of the French; the Castillo de San Marcos is still firing balls at the ghosts of the English; and St. George Street is still shaking down the tourists, especially over holidays. But now it's ringed by shopping centers, highways, strip malls, QSRs and the usual ornamentation of American retail commerce. Even in the hitherto-sacrosanct cloisters, arcades and cobblestone streets of the old part of town where walls are still made of coquina, there are now some familiar consumer retail, fast-food and hospitality brands, although they have conceded something to architectural ordinances. Never has a Day's Inn looked so Minorcan

How about the people? They had always been so different from what I've gotten used to up here that in some ways they seemed more foreign to me when I visited there than do people from other countries. Maybe that's because New York is populated as much by people from other countries as by those from other states. But even in that regard, North Florida -- which used to be white and black (and never the twain shall meet) -- is almost unrecognizable. On the I-10 drive from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, I pulled over at a rest stop. There were Filipinos, East Indians, Indians, African-Americans, and even a white person or two. The guy running the gas station a mile from the Suwannee River was Pakistani. What would Stephen Foster think? /p>

Still, culturally, it's very different there -- and I suspect that difference is not so different from every other place beyond urban U.S. In the South, for example, the term "affection" doesn't do justice to peoples' relationship to college and professional sports, particularly football. There is, in fact, no strict separation between sports, culture and religion. They bleed into one another. It's not an exaggeration to say that football is the Maria Lionza cult of the U.S., especially down there. It's a pantheon of teams, and God has box seats at every one of them. You would have to be crazy to wear a sweatshirt in Tallahassee that says "Go Gators."

My cousin lives in Orlando. He went to Virginia Tech. His interior paint scheme is in the school's colors. My best friend in Tallahassee had a "garnet and gold" bathroom complete with a Seminole toilet seat. So when I read this today, I wasn't remotely surprised. Nor was I when I read this. Maybe New York is the exception. No wonder sports marketing is king, and it's not because people don't “TiVo” it. Go, Gators! I mean, Seminoles.

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