Monday, February 05, 2007

Paradise Dies

Years ago, when I heard my grandmother was ill, I jumped on a plane and flew out to Los Angeles to try to make some things easier for her. On a stolen side trip I stumbled into Hollywood and wandered those streets with names made famous by cheap television shows: Melrose, LaBrea, Sunset, Hollywood Boulevard.

I remember walking along the sidewalks, facing down, reading the names of the celebrities and the not-so cemented beneath giant golden stars. One of the biggest cinematic names of all time, Charlie Chaplin, was covered by a spill of aged coffee or something like it; a stain covering the glitz, rendering it nearly invisible as it hovered somewhere below grime level.

Look, there's Grauman's Chinese Theater but first, here you can buy four t-shirts for ten bucks. Or cheap knock off electronics like in Times Square. Hold your breath as you walk past these doors, the improvised bathrooms of the homeless. Aren't those Marilyn Monroe's hand prints up ahead? Where's the glamour now?

It was here that it first occurred to me that the glow can't last. The more attractive a place, the more magnetic it is not just to the people like the ones who made it that way, but to the hangers on, the fringe people of society, and the ones that try to make a cheap or easy buck. And people spill their coffees on Charlie Chaplin and no one comes to clean it up.

When I first moved to Florida two decades ago, the Tampa area was still small time enough to feel more like a work in progress. But for years we would hear about how many thousands of people were moving to the state each month. How long can this go on, we all wondered. Where will they all go? What will they drink? How will they drive?

Silly questions, it appears. Now, finally, a few more people are moving out of the state than are moving in, but it's close enough to be about even, the same as with California. In St. Petersburg, where I lived for much of the time, the orange groves it was founded on are all gone, replaced by acres and acres of subdivisions. And these aren't neighborhoods created in harmony with the environment. The landscape is bulldozed, burned, then bulldozed again before the builders come and cram as many houses as they can into these previously open, productive areas. They may even plant a tree or two on their way out.

The hydrologic line for Florida is about a third of the way down from its northern border. Below that, rainfall is supposed to supply the needs of the landscape, the people, and everything. But it can't. There's not enough any more. Desalinization plants are open now but they dump the removed salt back into the oceans. What will the rising salt content do the watery environment? No one knows.

Traffic used to be bad, really bad, just in south Florida, where if you were smart you knew not to honk your horn at anybody. Too many people have too many guns. Now it's bad everywhere you go, making travel time a factor for not just getting to the beach in time to pay for an open parking spot, but commuting to work, shopping for groceries, and everything else.

Drive past undeveloped land in Fort Myers and what does it all have in common? For Sale signs on seemingly every lot. More land to pave over, more houses to build, more demand for water and infrastructure that doesn't exist.

Property taxes have risen to crazy levels. They're capped if you own your home but that limit isn't portable; you have to pay the new rate if you buy a new house. Only wealthy out of staters can afford to purchase new homes now.

Homeowners and Flood insurance rates are also stratospheric. Supposedly it's against the law for companies to raise their rates to offset specific losses but it's a mighty coincidence that they've jumped up after the storms of recent years. We had to pay for flood insurance when we lived in a home in an area that had never flooded. I had an acquaintance who used to live across the street from a flood zone but was told his house was now being included and he'd have to pay. He'd never been flooded, either.

I saw a headline last week that said that a woman, a sheriff's deputy, and two others had been shot I had a suspicion and I opened the story just to see where the incident had happened: sure enough, it was Florida. Then the state mistakenly sent a summons to my new address made out to one of the seventh graders who tried to steal my car from my driveway in the middle of the day. Not the one who had been kicked out of school for carrying a hand gun, the other one. He was involved in two more pending cases. Maybe that explains why my damages reimbursement hasn't come for a few months. The kid's busy.

Why do we destroy these places? Why can't we at least try to preserve the character, the feel of these amazing landscapes? Sadly I think the only answer is that there is too much money to be made by developers. When that much money talks, the sounds of the birds singing or the sight of stars in the night sky are obscured by bulldozers and street lights. The land becomes a parody of itself and everyone loses, just not right away. Like global warming, by the time enough people declare an actual problem, the money's gone and the damage is done.

What do you have left? What happens when there are no more Floridas or San Diegos or Myrtle Beaches? Why can't we maintain rather than expand? Why can't we aim for equilibrium rather than nonsensical growth?

Hell, we can't even keep the shine on Charlie Chaplin. We've moved out of state, far away from any metropolitan sized area and what do we hear but how much this area has grown. We're part of somebody else's perceived problem now. And the land at the end of the road right by the freeway exit has been zoned for commercial use. I bet if they drain and fill the wetlands and level off the hill top, they could build a fine Target or something in there. You can run but you can't hide.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked your post, but regarding Hollywood's sidewalk of the stars--it was and is just another gimmick dreamed up by someone in marketing--like the Academy Awards themselves--to make movie stars more than they really are--men and women doing a good (or great job) in a difficult field. I too went the same place in front of Grauman's (my brother was getting married in W.Hollywood) so we stopped to see the "stars" because so many do. Talk about grimy. (And it wasn't the spilled coffee on Chaplin). It was the whole asmosphere. For the many beautiful and wonderful things the movies can do, that day, the cardboard facade just sort a flopped down flat, like in the cartoons, and the fakery, hype, and sordid aspects of the movie industry were exposed--at least symbolically--for me. So we just got back in the car and sped out.

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry about the typos!

1:18 PM  
Blogger Rick Ollerman said...

I think you're exactly right. The place is downright seedy. But if you sped away too soon, you may not have seen the hucksters pull up in their buses and start yelling to the tourists, "Who wants to come and see a game show?" (Or a sitcom or a whatever or a whatever.) That doesn't help. Apparently whenever they do a premier at Grauman's they give the place a complete makeover, albeit a temporary one. And there's a few more than 2300 stars on the ol' Walk of Fame; I wonder if that helps to dilute whatever impact the concept may have originally held.

3:20 PM  

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