Once Upon A Time
It was about 6:30 in the morning and the sign on Florida’s Turnpike said Fort Lauderdale. It was the year 1959 and we had heard about the place – a spot kids from the north were visiting for spring break. Our La Salle crew annually tuned up in the spring by visiting Florida to race, in separate meets, against Rollins, Tampa and Florida Southern. And then the guys took off for Fort Lauderdale to undo all the health benefits of that exercise. They lived to tell about it and what they told made the town seem like an exciting place. We were headed to Miami but got off the turnpike to check out this famous place.
There was nothing near the turnpike except flat fields. We must have been on Sunrise Boulevard, although the name meant nothing at the time. We drove east, through nothing, for what seemed a long time. We were beginning to wonder if Fort Lauderdale were on the beach, or in the opposite direction, although we knew the ocean lay somewhere to the east and we had the distinct impression that the town was on the ocean. We passed what seemed to be a bar, shaped like a teepee, and maybe a gas station and a few isolated buildings, and then we came to what seemed new housing, then passed a few stores and what looked like the beginnings of a town, and then we we were shocked to behold the Atlantic, glistening blue in the morning sun. We took a right, drove along an empty road, and an empty beach and small hotels, and after what seemed a short drive, the road turned us back the way we came in. This is Fort Lauderdale?
About five years later we came to interview a man in Palm Beach. My publisher and I stayed at the Boca Raton Hotel (as it was then known) and he wanted to visit the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale. We found it outside of town, standing alone among sandy fields. Five years later, when we had moved here to buy Gold Coast magazine, one of the first stories was on the 15th anniversary of the Mai-Kai. It was surrounded by buildings in all directions. We told the owner, Bob Thornton, we had been in his old place. He said there wasn’t any old place. Such was the growth of Fort Lauderdale, and South Florida in general, that when we began hanging out at Nick’s and meeting guys like Bill Thies and Bill Bondurant, we heard them talk, almost nostalgically, about what a great place this had been to grow up in.
Forty years later, we realize that 1970 was practically the ground floor. Construction was everywhere on the beach and half the world seemed to want to be in Florida. We think back now on what had been halcyon years, when Florida and Fort Lauderdale represented the future, fresh and clean and free of big-city problems. Those thoughts take inspiration, the wrong kind, from stories in the media, including one today, about people leaving the state. The papers said young people can’t make a decent living, and are crossing the country for work commensurate with their education and aspirations. And we have known for some time that retirees, whose money for decades has fueled the state’s growth, are often looking elsewhere, ironically to escape the problems of too much growth. Traffic, crime, taxes, crowds, pollution and sometimes chaos – the things they came to Florida to escape.
We have all the big-time stuff, football coaches getting fired, Ponzi schemers galore, politicians indicted, and elements of government which, somewhat insanely, still favor development over quality of life. We see people trying to restore the Everglades to what they used to be, and fighting people who are bent on encroaching farther into the river of grass. With houses and stores empty, they want to build more.
And we think back, a bit sadly, to a time when we looked for what was supposed to be a famous town and learned it was hardly there.