Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I’m Glad to be Back from Sunny Florida

Landing at National after 9 days in the warm Florida sunshine, despite the snow and shivering cheery blossoms, I was glad to be home. The gray skies and biting wind did nothing to dampen my feelings.

My life in DC is so much better than any life I could imagine in south Florida, for one simple reason: cars. Yesterday, this article in the Washington Post confirmed what I learned from years of commuting to Tyson’s Corner, a time in my life that is happily behind me. In the Miami area, it is just about impossible to live without a car.

This means, to me at least, that the cities of south Florida can’t compete with DC when it comes to quality of life. The best in south Florida are usually situated on the barrier islands. The beach towns, stretching from Miami Beach to Ft. Lauderdale and further north to Palm Beach, are about the best urban spaces in this part of Florida. These places, while fancy, are rather sterile, with little street life to speak of. No one walking to the corner store or the gym or the dry cleaners. No one walking to the local bar or restaurant. You drive to these places. At night, certain blocks come alive, but these rest of the streets are dead save for buzzing traffic. Most people who actually live in these beach towns, reside in cold, absurdly large and fantastically expensive condominium buildings. I’m not sure who they are, but it doesn’t seem they venture outside very often, except when they burst forth from underground parking garages in their bass-thumping SUVs or sports cars.

However, I actually liked these areas much more than I thought I would. South Beach is a veritable outdoor museum of art deco architecture, which is not my favorite. But strung together, building after building, block after block, with palm trees and neon, it was wonderful! There’s a certain amount of life coming and going if you sit still long enough to notice, and of course there’s the beach. But this is probably a function of contrasts: go inland just a few blocks, and you find yourself in no-where land. The southeast side of Florida, from Homestead north to at least Ft. Lauderdale (and probably farther) is one vast sprawling suburb, from the edge of the Everglades to the high rises along the Atlantic. It’s one of the ugliest places I’ve ever seen in my life. And I grew up in the rust belt.

What makes Florida so bad is the lack of choice. If you have lots of money, you have more choices (same as anywhere else, I suppose). You can buy a condo in Miami Beach and walk somewhere, if you can find somewhere you want to walk to. But if you are a regular person, you’ll probably end up living in a place that you must use a car to get anywhere. You have no real choice. Everything is the same. In most neighborhoods in DC, where lots of regular people (like me) live, from the Hill to Columbia Heights to Georgetown, you can go weeks, months, even years, without ever driving a car unless you choose to. To me, there is an indirect correlation between time spent behind the wheel and quality of life. The less time driving, the better my life.

So now I’m back in my little corner of DC, stopping at my wine store on the way home from work, having a coffee on the side walk, watching regular people do mundane errands, and I’m happy. Despite the strange weather, I’m glad to be out of Sunny Florida.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I agree with you about the public transportation even though I live out by the Van Dorn Metro. I really appreciate mass transit having lived on the prairies for years. I really felt disenfranchised when I had to live for six months in Winnipeg last year because I didn't have a car. It's almost as if mass transit out there is designed to make you feel as if you occupy a lower rung on the social hierarchy.

I was surprised by how nice public transit is in DC - I'd heard about the crime rate, but the transit system looks as clean and safe as anything you would see in Toronto, Seoul, Tokyo, Osaka or New York.