For other rural cities in America, Sanford, Florida, home of the George Zimmerman trial, is useful as a cautionary tale: Define yourself now, before an incident like the shooting of Trayvon Martin defines you.
All of Florida is once again in an uncomfortable position, this time with the Zimmerman verdict. The state has by now earned a solid last-place position in its contribution to America’s culture. Its poor history was topped by its performance in the 2000 presidential election, but it includes lurid crimes going back well over a century. Most Florida residents quickly change the subject when the conversation gets around to asking what state you’re from, but Floridians must confront the fact – at least at home in the mirror, if not publicly – that we have a lot of hard work to do. Florida’s social ills, including racism, run deep. Its public-relations image as a tropical paradise of sandy beaches belies the real Florida lurking within, and its urban geography reflects a state that has still deep schisms that are not going away between residents.
When Henry Sanford built a railroad town in 1877, calling his place "the gateway to South Florida,” it quickly succeeded as a population magnet, swelling to a size far larger than sleepy Orlando by the turn of the century. Bustling with railroads, citrus, and celery, Sanford was a testbed for Spanish oranges, later sold as the “Valencia” variety. Like many Florida cities, it was home to both a black and a white population, and in 1891 the railroad workers to the west incorporated a new town called Goldsboro. One of the first African American towns in Florida, Goldsboro lasted twenty years until white Sanford petitioned to absorb it. Even a century ago, African-American urban success was a challenge to the status quo that was too much to stand.
Sanford lies on the northernmost edge of Seminole County, north of Orlando, a place named after a tribe whose history is another whole litany of sorrows. Today, it's a place of lakes, wetlands, and green rolling hills, with neighborhoods and commercial strips sandwiched in between — a sort of exurban enclave of Orlando, slightly more affluent than the average Florida household. A historic town, Sanford is a symbolic landmark more than a true city center, and suffers from being a bit too far from Orlando to be considered a realistic commute.
This unfavorable geography helped preserve the town’s distinctive historic architecture, as the forces of growth found more accessible real estate to develop elsewhere around it. Mostly new-ish, mostly white-ish subdivisions and commercial strips carve up the land along north/south corridors: US 441, Interstate 4, and US 17-92. Rural Florida has mostly been banished out of Seminole County by this miasma of growth that rings the north side of metropolitan Orlando.
Sanford preserved its downtown core and much of the surrounding neighborhood as National Historic Districts, keeping a strong sense of place but inhibiting modernization. Downtown, like a stage set waiting for players, hopes in vain for some kind of re-identification. Art galleries, restaurants and antique shops suggest a tourist destination, not a thriving, productive community. Second floor windows loom over Main Street with mostly empty eyes. The waterfront, a few blocks away, is absurdly disconnected from the downtown core. An obligatory six-story stucco condo — naturally almost empty — sits at the point where the city meets Lake Monroe, Sanford’s tribute to the great banking crisis of 2008.
Sanford’s struggle to survive has led to a grim sense of despair among many who gambled on development and continue to wait for the gentrification payoff. With the railroad and agriculture economy mostly gone, its quaint and highly affordable neighborhoods have yet to attract throngs seeking the good life.
So, in 2012, the city began a public campaign to reinvent itself. But the Trayvon Martin/ George Zimmerman case did this instead, tying Sanford to a troubling lack of progress in civil rights and race relations. It has laid bare the most difficult social problem in America, and pointed a fair share of blame squarely at Florida.
What happened in this case may be analyzed for some time to come, but it is not just a Sanford phenomenon. Florida’s geography seems to beget slightly deeper divisions than most other places do.
A have and have-not condition is almost certainly ingrained into the state’s subconscious culture. With over a thousand miles of coastline, half of which is beaches, Florida’s main contribution to the country’s economy is that of waterfront real estate; second homes for the wealthy and retirement communities. The interior is chock full of golf courses and theme parks that reinforce a sense of affluent leisure. This divides, not unites, into servant and served.
For the service workers in Florida, the living conditions are vastly different, with little or no upward mobility. A lack of connectivity between citizens, as well as low taxes, exacerbate problems in the state’s education system. Growth has created a big bottom, as well as a big top, with little investment in between.
Oceanfront condos and houses make good profits for lenders, and the state has gone from a glut to a bubble again. What this boom-bust economy may be doing, however, is helping to redefine Florida as a sort of third-world economy, uncomfortably latched to the underbelly of America. Anyone traveling to leisure destinations in the Caribbean, Asia, or much of South America may recall venturing off the hotel property, only to be immediately struck by a different living standard. Such a difference is striking overseas. Here in the Sunshine State, it's more subtle: a little less emphasis on schools, a little less melting-pot culture, a little more politically regressive… nothing one might notice while here on vacation. But it has been eating away at society’s veneer over time, and the Zimmerman trial has cast a harsh light on the realities in much of Florida.
With its emphasis on tourism and growth, Florida will remain a geography of privilege. For the unprivileged, it is a state of danger that is getting worse all the time. Gun law makes this land of sunshine and warm weather a cold, harsh place if you are not on the golf course, tanning on the sand, or in your beachfront condo.
And for those who want to make this place better? We have a lot of very hard work ahead if we are going to rebuild a state of compassion and shared ownership out of the ashes of our contemporary culture.
Richard Reep is an architect and artist who lives in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and he has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.
Photo by Christine Wood