Archive for March, 2009

Miami to Memphis — My Top Ten Insights

March 1, 2009

southeastmapMy two-week vacation has come to an end. I’m back in San Francisco, and will be returning to the office on Monday. I’m sad about having finished the road trip, but rejuvenated about the experience … and excited about what’s to come, now that I have the spirit to take things on. Looking back on these two weeks, there’s a lot I have learned … some profound, and some just plain obvious. It’s time to look back and reflect on what I’ve taken away from it all, before I go back to the grind of work. Without further ado, here are my Top Ten insights …

(1) Key West Needs Rent Control: Whenever you have (a) an attractive and quirky area, (b) huge demand from everyone who wants to be there, (c) a very finite supply of land, and (c) little to no capacity for growth, it’s no surprise the cost of housing goes through the roof. I’ve seen it happen in Manhattan and San Francisco, and Key West is experiencing the same phenomenon. Cruise ships have brought a new influx of tourists to the area … endangering Key West’s low-income folks who have been there for generations. Rent control is not the affordable housing panacea, but it allows communities to thrive and maintain their diversity. It’s tough being in Key West if you’re poor, and the city has no tenant protections. Key West is wonderful because you’re on an island at the edge of the world … with all kinds of funky and artsy people. Let’s work hard to keep it that way.

(2) Florida Has Ruined What Was a Precious Wetland: Before the white man drained the wetlands and built the worst definition of suburban hell, everything south of Orlando was like the Everglades … a vast expanse of marshes with all sorts of diverse wildlife. The Everglades National Park is only one-sixth of what it once was in its heyday, and after having spent a day there I know how beautiful and spiritual an experience it can be. It’s not just development that killed the Florida wetlands … it was the scale and opulence of driving around everywhere that has wasted millions of acres of land. The new Obama Administration believes in saving the Everglades, unlike the Bushes. Let’s see how much progress can be made to preserve it.

Sunset at Fort Myers Beach

Sunset at Fort Myers Beach

(3) Florida Should Invest in a Gulf Coast Route: California built Highway One on the Pacific Coast because it knew it had a gorgeous Ocean … and that it should be open for all. Oregon likewise has Route 101, and even Florida’s Atlantic Coast has A1A. But despite the Florida Gulf Coast being lovely, it’s hard to experience it by car from Naples to Tampa. Either you go to a side beach road and get stuck in traffic, or the beachfront is reserved for some opulent mansions. It’s less of an issue up in the Panhandle … Route 98 through the “Redneck Riviera” is well worth the drive … but it would be nice to have one scenic route the whole way, so all Floridians can enjoy it.

(4) Off-Season at Panama City Beach is Truly Off-Season: You can go to Key West in the summer, or New Orleans when it’s not Mardi Gras … and still find a whole lot to do. But Panama City Beach when it’s not Spring Break? Dead as a doornail. It’s kind of sad to have such a “cyclical economy,” when these places should be busting with activity. The beaches are snow-white and gorgeous, but there’s no one around to enjoy them.

(5) I’ll Never Make Fun of Alabama Again: Going to Mobile was meant to be pit-stop … where I would just get a hotel room for the night and do my laundry. How was I supposed to know it was the home of the original Mardi Gras … before New Orleans made it famous? How was I supposed to know there would be a great parade Downtown, followed by hours of drunken revelry? Mobile even has three gay bars, and you’ll never guess who gave me directions on where to find them … an Alabama country girl who went to Christian College, calls herself a “devout Republican” and loves Sarah Palin. Mobile was a highlight of my trip … I’ll never tease Alabama again.

An abandoned house in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward

An abandoned house in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward

(6) I Expect Obama to Do Something About New Orleans: Everyone knows our new President has a lot on his plate, but our national disgrace is what’s happened to places like the Lower Ninth Ward … more than three years after Katrina. New Orleans is not a good place to raise a kid, because there isn’t much to look forward to. The City is desperately poor, and does not have the resources to repave its streets, re-open its crumbling schools and provide the kind of services we would expect from a world-class city. On the other hand, New Orleans still has a more bohemian lifestyle than New York or San Francisco, because it’s affordable to live there. Which may not last forever … rents doubled after the Storm.

(7) People in Cajun Country Don’t Speak French: I went to Breaux Bridge and St. Martinville to find folks who speak my mother tongue. I saw a lot of signs in French, but Louisiana’s French tradition … even in Cajun Country … is more a gesture to the past, than any present-day reality. It’s not like going to French Canada or northern Maine, where everyone speaks the language. The few local Cajuns who speak French do so because their grandparents taught them, and “Cajun French” is really a garbled combination of English and French. Even the young folks who sing Cajun tunes don’t speak it … give us another two generations, and it’ll be like church choirs that sing Latin. But, I must say, the Cajuns sure know how to cook boudin and cracklin.

(8) Mardi Gras Doesn’t Just Happen on Tuesday: Literally, Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday” … the day before Lent, where Catholics can partake in drunken festivities and indulgences before 40 days of ritual sacrifice. But you don’t just have a mass parade on one day … the real Mardi Gras celebration lasts for weeks, with various parades on each day that eventually culminate with real debauchery on Bourbon Street. Mardi Gras is a wonderful celebration in New Orleans, because the city can use some joy with all its problems. Thankfully, folks don’t just wait for one day a year to let the good times roll … they make sure it drags on for much longer than that.

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi

(9) Casino Gambling Has Ruined the Mississippi Delta: The Mississippi Delta — where the blues was born out of the misery of black sharecroppers — has always thrived on creating a rich culture out of its poverty. But in recent years, the new “cash crop” isn’t cotton … it’s the gambling industry, as riverboats head up and down the Mississippi River and dock in places like Vicksburg and Tunica. It’s unfortunate that an industry which gives false hope to people about “getting rich quick” has found such a niche in this region. After getting some authentic live blues in Clarksdale, this area has so much more to offer than tacky casinos.

(10) Graceland is Less Opulent than Expected: Sure, Elvis Presley decked out his mansion with shag carpets and bright Seventies furniture more appropriate for a Las Vegas lounge. But the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s famous home was actually quite modest … and Elvis never forgot his humble roots, by honoring a promise to his parents who had struggled hard to raise him. He had them live with him at Graceland, and he spent the next 20 years of his life making worthy charitable donations in the Memphis area. Say what you want about Elvis’ red-baiting politics … the guy still had a Heart of Gold, and his impact on music cannot be disputed. Long live the King!