March 21, 2015
We spent much of the wicked winter in Naples, Florida where dangerously wealthy retirees and their ubiquitous wives, mainly from the Midwest, spend the cold months. Save the physical beauty, the warmth, the palmettoes it could be Oak Brook, Illinois, with a similar demographic, builder’s mansions, malls and golf clubs. Etcetera.
Biblical rainstorms plagued us from Chicago to Savannah so we saw little of the city Sherman stormed in the War of Northern Aggression. The landmark Riverfront Hotel, a converted cotton warehouse on the Savannah River, was casual at best, with that disturbing southern racial divide as in black staff, white guests. The same syndrome appeared in Paula Deen’s buffet restaurant, no more inviting than Waffle House. Forsyth Square featured in the hothouse fantasy Midnight in the Garden etc. was invisible in the storm. Some other time, perhaps.
St. Augustine was celebrating its 450th anniversary in the somewhat bedraggled historical district with its chilling Spanish fort where the European assault on Florida all began. The skies lifted in Naples just in time to see pelicans plunging balletically into the Gulf against a blazing pink sunset. We had passed the tropical Mason Dixon into Southwest Florida where the foliage and climate become Caribbean, colorful, exotic. Which is precisely why it is so suffocatingly, chokingly overcrowded with cars, condos, people, shopping centers. In 2014, over 97 million tourists visited Florida, and with 18% of the state water, and 20 million residents no wonder it has a higher density of population per square mile than California.
In February the Imagine Solutions Conference, a TED- style think tank where retirees can have the Renaissance Man Experience, took place at the Ritz seeking “general solutions” to world problems. Over 600 seekers paid $600 for lunch and to listen to local healthcare experts in a state with the highest number of Affordable Care Act enrollees in the nation. One seeker exclaimed, “holding a conference like Imagine Solutions makes a lot of sense in Naples, where there are so many smart retirees looking for something to do.”
Ah yes! Something To Do! A Plague of Volunteers is much in evidence at every turn in this city of 20,000 with the world’s largest chapter of the Circumnavigators Club. Each week the Naples Daily News lists 200 plus events and club meetings, for soroptimists, optimists, orchid lovers, pastel painters, rubber bridge players, alums of Notre Dame, Delta Gamma, Midwest high schools, the list endless……stock options, canasta, Corvettes, DAR chapters. Philanthropy is High Sport.
Florida is recovering from the Great Recession and yet more gated communities are breaking ground with land grabbing golf courses called Chambord or Tuscany (even a St. Lucia!) developed by Lennar builders. In 2015 SWFL tops the nation in job growth and a hot housing market and Naples and Marco (a sea of coastal) are exploding reminiscent of the 90s when Carl Hiaasen’s Sick Puppy described “Trucks, bulldozers, cement mixers, cranes, gasoline tankers….Here’s where the yacht harbor will be dredged. There’s where the golf courses go. That’s being cleared for the airstrip. And everywhere else: homesites. Very expensive houses also condominiums and townhouses and even some year round rentals. Duplexes and triplexes.”
Sadly and ineluctably Florida’s unique fragile ecosystem will not sustain the onslaught of even more prosperity. Though many of the winter billionaires have become feel-good conservationists their efforts are too late; the next generations need to make a buck from the weather, the weather, the waters, the waters, the exploitation of the fragments that remain of Old Florida.
There are facsimiles of Old Florida, like zoos for flora, called “preserves” that give one a sample of Nature in the past. The Southwest Conservancy has a patch of mangrove swamp near the heart of Naples, offering half hour electric boat tours down the Gordon River where one can see the expanding number of houses and the Bear Claw development lurking on the perimeter. Only a matter of time! The Naples Botanic Garden has 90 acres of a river of grass, a restored habitat which you whip by on a path before entering the gift shop. There are state parks and endless environmental learning centers but it’s all….well, you know.
The Land Preservation Trust and the Conservancy are dedicated to saving wetlands but this year saw a very steep decline in wading birds’ nests, and sightings of egrets and herons and ibis. Corkscrew Swamp is 13,000 fragile acres of wetlands where the ancient old growth cypress, 100 feet tall, are submerged in a shallow slow moving river. So beautiful! So refreshing! A chap in a Tilly hat and walking stick emerged from the forest as we were about to enter the two mile boardwalk and mumbled sadly, “This is the real Florida, the old Florida.” The Romance of the Swamp. We saw a couple of mammoth gators, two tiny turtles, two squirrels, two anhingas and one lonely white ibis in the hour’s walk though the Audubon guide said panthers and woodstorks are coming back one of the many promised sightings over the months.
We spotted two dolphin fins on a boat tour of Naples Bay and listened to numerous teasers about manatees but none materialized amidst all the racing speedboats. What we did see were ugly McMansions being constructed by corporations and syndicates, many foreign, and left uninhabited. They say 20% of the estates in Port Royal are empty. A panther was found hiding in a backyard of one of these rented mansions having swam across the bay from Keewaydin Island, a 22 -mile preserve. The cousin of the American cougar is losing more and more habitat and there are weekly postings of how many were killed on highways like I-75, 2014 being highest and 2015 surpassing that already.
“The growth is coming. The growth is coming.” warn local newspapers about Fort Myers. Today the blue collar river town, where in 1881 Hamilton Disston from Philadelphia came to dredge and drain the Everglades, is seeing a building boom on the Caloosahatchee River, nice but not the Gulf. The main attractions are the airport and the Edison Ford Estate, 20 acres of experimental labs where the great inventors tried to find a cheap source of rubber, from goldenrod to banyan trees, for auto tires. The gardens by Olmsted are stunning but tough to navigate with the mobs.
Old Florida, or what remains of it, became increasingly alluring as we took refuge from Mercato, Venetian Bay and Waterside (jewelry stores, sweatshirts and kitchen supplies) and escaped south to Everglades City for our annual crazy-fast airboat ride through the mangroves this time led by Shaun. Born on Chokoloskee Island as his father and grandfather were, this wiry Cracker lured a few raccoons out of the mangroves with Cheetos. The only Confederate flag we saw during this trip (and the only one since West Virginia!) was on a crabbing boat outside the Triad Café here which sold blue stone crabs.
The city was, as so many in early industrial Florida history, a company town built by another Everglades drainage outsider Barron Collier and is today a real backwater. The Rod and Gun Club hosted five presidents seeking great hunting and fishing and today is a restaurant. The 11th Annual Marjory Stoneman Douglas Festival in the wee Museum of the Everglades, the Old Laundry Building, built in 1927 was organized by Friends of the Everglades. It was founded in 1962 (the Rachel Carson era) by the conservationist when she was 78 the media age of the club members listening to Seminole Indians talk about powerful women in their culture.
There are six Seminole reservations in Florida but the Seminoles are long gone and you need only one-fourth Indian blood to be a tribal member now. The tribe is more involved with the Immokalee casino and live in their own gated communities though the history of the tribe resonates. A loose amalgam of many southern tribes, they welcomed runaway slaves before the Civil War and after the Seminole Wars retreated deep into the Everglades rather than be forced onto western reservations.
From Everglades City it’s a short drive over a causeway to Chokoloskee Island, a Calusa Indian shell mound, where the Smallwood Store founded in 1906 was a trading post in the heart of Ten Thousand Islands. In 1982 it became a designated landmark and museum. Totch Brown and his pioneer family were born in Chokoloskee and his book which we bought one desperate day in Barnes & Noble in Waterside, Totch!A Life in the Everglades, is wonderful oral history of the land and the life of this alligator hunter, fisherman, crabber, poacher, weed runner, singer and character of the Western Everglades. He appeared in Bud Schulberg’s Winds Across the Everglades which seems to be running permanently in some cinema or other. The Glades have inspired filmmakers and writers for a hundred years, the best of which is Peter Matthiesen’s Shadow Country a classic of the outlaw life in the Glades. As usual an informed literary imagination is the redeeming factor in the arduous sport of traveling.
For 150 years wetlands have been considered wastelands to be drained so today half the Everglades is gone and the other half is dying, au revoir to the unique flora and fauna not found anywhere else in the world. What remains of the River of Grass is 2,500 square miles of Everglades National Park, designated in 1947 as a subtropical wilderness of mangroves, hardwood pine forests, cypress swamps and sawgrass prairies. It is located next door to the Big Cypress preserve another 2,400 square miles of subtropical swamp one- third covered with cypress trees. You can a glimpse of the wilderness with a tram tour at Shark Alley on Highway 41 but no sense of the extent of the national park whose waters are disappearing or being ravaged.
The Everglades Restoration Plan 30 years and eight billion dollars later fresh water still does not flow in sheets across the sawgrass prairie. Jeb Bush crossed party lines to sign Clinton’s bill to balance restoration with growth management but alas uncontrolled development reigns, traffic, air and water pollution, ever more loss of trees and marches. Newspapers bristle with fights between developers and city councils struggling to preserve What’s Left even if it just a theme park like the Bonita Springs Everglades Wonder Garden.
One day we drove straight east from Naples to Clewiston, past fields and fields of sugar cane plantations and humongous belching sugar refineries, to see what once was the beating heart of the Everglades, its headwaters at Lake Okeechobee. It has of course been dammed up since the 30s by the Herbert Hoover Dike forever preventing its clear waters to return to the Everglades. The Sweetest City in the World now an old former company town was built for executives of the US Sugar Corporation and we stopped briefly at the famous Clewiston Inn where the Windsors once stayed before going bass fishing on the lake. It was dark and empty and the new owner from New Delhi said the restaurant was now closed.
We tried to see the lake but without a boat to go through the locks and levees it was accessible only on foot 35 feet high up so we settled for having a beer at Roland Martin’s Marina. At the Tiki Bar we continued to read Michael Grunwald’s extraordinary book The Swamp, one for the ages, telling the melancholy history of the ruination of Nature in south Florida from the 19th to the 21st centuries. Apparently the sugar farmers are still back pumping polluted water into to Lake O which is then released into the Caloosahatchee, fouling Estero Bay and continuing on as red tide into the Atlantic.
The March 8th New York Times reports, Miami Port Project killing off coral reef. The Army Corps of Engineers is ignoring environmentalists and creating even more of an underwater moonscape by poor dredging, poor management. It’s all a Lost Cause. “Alligator” Ron Bergeron a Fish & Wildlife Commissioner writes, “you have to decompartmentalize the system to where it has a natural flow from Lake Okeechobee to the central Everglades and on to Florida Bay.” That will never happen of course.
Before we left Florida we had to see Ave Maria a new town founded a decade or so ago by the Domino’s Pizza guy according to the strictest (loathe that word) Catholic principles. This Bizzaro Brave New World has a university whose president Jim Towey is the biggest donor to Jeb Bush. The alien cult like atmosphere After the Bomb empty with a creepy cathedral where the entire town was at a service on the Sunday morning we appeared.
We should have taken the four hour ferry from Marco to Key West since driving was at gruesome snail’s pace. Eight hours in half way through we gave up at Marker 61 and stopped at Marathon’s Duck Key and the Hawks Cay Resort along with half of the Jersey shore. The Preferred Group hotel definitely needed Leona Helmsley and finding solace at yet another Tiki Bar we could not help but notice the clear aquamarine waters, the exquisite beauty of the lagoon and the breathtaking natural setting.
Hoping to avoid The Flood we returned home through the Panhandle en route to Alabama’s I-65, the War on Terror Memorial Highway. In all our American travels over the years no state seemed more impoverished than southern Alabama with countless derelict shacks next to billboards for the Robert Trent Jones Trail. We arrived in Montgomery, trying to exploit its history to draw tourists, this time thankfully Civil Rights not the Civil War, on this the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma. We stayed at Hampton Inn next to the Hank Williams Museum and took a pass on the Zelda Fitzgerald and Jefferson Davis’ homes. We will definitely return to this living history museum someday.