Florida's Interstate-Adjacent Fantasy

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As 2015 wanes, many swimming in Florida’s new wave of growth are still being carried by a swift current. Everywhere one gazes, new apartments can be seen that accommodate some of the million-plus new residents who have moved here in the last five years. With over 140,000 people migrating to Florida from other states during 2014, and over 100,000 people moving to Florida from other countries, Florida’s GDP is predicted to have grown 3.2% in 2015, the highest in the country and well ahead of the national average. The tide has definitely come in.

For natives and long-term residents, it feels like everyone up north woke up one Tuesday morning and said, “Hey honey, let’s quit our jobs, move to Florida, and get an apartment overlooking the interstate.” From Tampa to Daytona, mid-rise wood frame structures loom over semi-trucks and cars that whizz by, a new voyeur culture in the making.

At first glance, the recent growth seems low quality and monolithic, blandly designed and structured to meet a uniform real estate development formula. The land along Interstate 4 is cheap and available for development. Like coral reefs that grow on the poisonous crags of undersea volcanoes, however, these apartments are an infrastructure for an ecology of both dreams and nightmares. Dispossessed by capitalism, many laid-off Americans seek a new start in the apartments of the Sunshine State. In these drywall-lined niches grow polyps of hope.

Some newcomers come to Florida with job offers. Along with those taking advantage of the economic climate, there are others who show up without employment; many without jobs move to Florida and fill apartments only with the hope of a new life and prosperity. Such is the Florida of the nation’s imagination, a place of such bountiful employment opportunities that one can pick a job off a tree, like a wild orange. Do-over dreams hang in the air around these giant rental reefs, interwoven with expectations of an easy, low-cost retirement lifestyle. “I have several friends,” writes one retiree, “who all went south from Connecticut to Ft. Lauderdale years ago, and drifted north to Melbourne over the years… it seems like a nice place to live.” An image of retirees drifting around the state, like so many jellyfish drifting along a reef face, seems idyllic.

Many have suffered more severe economic hardships. The third busiest bankruptcy court in the nation none other than the Middle District of Florida, housed in sunny Ft. Myers. Those without the means or the qualifications for a mortgage often retreat into Florida’s apartment culture, licking their financial wounds. Setting one’s sights a little lower and squeezing into a small apartment cosigned by a family member may be a humiliating, but necessary step towards a new beginning. The symbiotic relationship between debt and dreams can be seen through the glass walls of these buildings.

Quite a few renters are also paying off student debt. “We cannot afford a house right now. Maybe not ever,” writes Selena in Florida about the student loans she and her husband have. The rental life, tinged with a very bitter dose of recent reality, is the color of all of the aspirations that swirl around the stucco, false mansard roofs, clubhouses and glittery swimming pools.

The Florida resort lifestyle, jammed up against the interstate highway, is an unlikely scaffold for dreams. Percolating between the swaying palms are new beginnings, fresh starts, and resolutions to do better. Some of these dreams may blossom and grow out of the balconies and windows of these monolithic blocks of monthly rent, making these apartments a nomad’s brief sanctuary on the journey back to prosperity. These are the lucky ones, the temporary renters; those who stay in an apartment for a year or two while getting back on their feet.

As viewed from the middle lane of I-4, these giant rental shoals, and the thought of the imagination that supports them, seem at once reassuring and terrible. Reassuring, because the idea that Florida is universally beloved still makes Floridians smile. Terrible, because this new biodiversity is voracious, and brings with it congestion. These mid-rises inhale a dense population, only to exhale them out onto Florida’s flat expanse of rooftops that spread ever further into Florida’s vanishing natural environment.

Like coral reefs, which grow in the ocean where the surf is most active, these apartments grow in Florida where the weather is most active. The hurricane capital of America, the lightning capital of the world, and the humid heat are the real parts of the lingering illusion of a tropical wilderness that comes with this postcard paradise. Once arrived, many of the newcomers find the weather intense. Hopes and dreams cling to the apartments like barnacles, fluttering from the windows and balconies, despite the heavy summer rains.

Apartment dwellers are a transient lot, often staying not longer than their lease term. When one moves out, workers clean and repair the unit to be ready for the next. Each new dweller from out-of-state brings his or her own illusions of Florida. Others bring a more grounded reality from their previous Florida experience. Either way, the dwellers' new impressions blend with the redolent ecosystem of hopes and dreams surrounding the edifice.

These Florida apartments are inspiration-gardens, attracting migrants seeking a better life. Only the individuals who dwell within them can activate their hopes. As rather expensive offerings, they are not analogous to the New York tenements of the nineteenth century, which were full of families crowded off of the European boats. Instead, these are high amenity, middle-income places to live. They act in the same way, as a distribution system for dreams, but are far more luxurious and appointed than the slums of old.

The urgent, massive dream-reef construction project that has gone up alongside I-4 is in its peak phase, with a few nodes already complete between Tampa and Daytona. Apartments are clustered like a gigantic fringe along the denser population centers: Lakeland, Lake Buena Vista, Orlando, and Winter Park. Those living in earshot of the interstate’s mighty roar of traffic must have an ironic, contemporary sense of place. As a concrete reality, the I-4 corridor is not a particularly prestigious address. But as an abstraction that speaks of today's politics, it has an importance of the first magnitude. If these two opposites— the dream of the America we desire and the reality of the America being constructed now — can be reconciled, then Florida’s growth is a healthy ecosystem that offers hope for the future.

Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.

Photo by Cooper Reep: Typical new mid-rise on I-4 in Florida