Miracle Grow

While reflecting on the city’s growth, Greg Dawson notes that the only constant is change

David Valejjo

Ever since moving here from Boston in 1986, I’ve heard that Orlando is going through its “awkward teenage years,” which makes it America’s oldest living teenager now that Dick Clark has gone to that great bandstand in rock ‘n’ roll heaven.

Hold the Clearasil. Seventy years ago a New York consulting firm prepared for the Orlando Board of Realtors a study that made Orlando sound like a mature, confident adult, “the financial, cultural and recreation center of Central Florida,” without a hint of teenage wasteland.

How does the same place go from clear-complected optimism in 1946 to adolescent angst in the next millennium? It doesn’t. Except for their position on the map, the two Orlandos, then and now, are not the same place.

Most of us came to Orlando from towns and cities outside Florida. Today they are bigger than when we left them a generation or two ago, but their basic DNA has not changed. In 1946 my hometown, Bloomington, Indiana, was a university town and it’s still a university town, the same place with more people.

In the same 70 years Orlando not only has grown larger, it has undergone a total makeover of its identity—a municipal version of Bruce Jenner morphing into Caitlyn. No one saw this coming because no one saw Walt Disney coming to plant strange new fruit in the land of citrus.

The bullish 1946 study projected an increase in Orange County’s population from 87,000 to 140,000 in 1955 (it ended up about 124,000). The vision was citrus-centric, and why not? That year two Orlando companies began commercial production of frozen concentrated orange juice. O.J. was the economic wave of the future that would raise all boats. 

“Employment gains in agriculture, food canning and processing, wholesale trade and trucking are predicated upon the growth of the citrus industry,” the study said. “Rapid population growth will give rise to greater construction employment and more jobs in logging, sawmills, stone, clay and glass to meet the need for homes and more work in furniture factories.”

Can someone point me to the nearest furniture factory? A glassworks? Does the Frito-Lay chip factory count as food canning and processing? The world of 1946 has vanished along with most of the orange groves.

The old Board of Realtors would blink bewildered at a snapshot of Orlando today with its service economy and homeless in the shadow of sports and high-culture palaces; simulation and bio-med labs where citrus grew and cattle grazed; and the people—a bouillabaisse of colors, ethnicities, persuasions and orientations reshaping a civic culture once as white as the bread produced at the Merita plant (closed in 2012).

By the time my family arrived in 1986 the morphing of Orlando was well under way. But change has continued to unfold before our eyes at the speed of time-lapse photography.

One evening we loaded the kids in the car and set out to explore our new city, heading east on University Boulevard from Semoran Boulevard. After a mile or so it grew spooky dark and we turned back lest we be lost in the wilderness—that same wilderness that is now a great white way of commercial enterprise and high-speed traffic all the way to the campus of UCF.

In the ensuing 30 years, as Central Florida fast-forwarded to the future, we witnessed the vanishing of local icons, traditions and landmarks, civic and personal. The original Brookshire elementary and Glenridge middle schools our kids attended; the Navy base; the round bank building; Tinker Field; Boardwalk and Baseball; the O-rena; signs for the “Bee Line”; the East India Ice Cream Co. and El Bohio Cuban diner; the Peabody Ducks; the funky Kumquat Sashay parade; Sam Behr, the “Tires Ain’t Pretty” TV adman.  

Most places you can draw a reasonably straight line between past and present. It’s hard to make even a crooked one from the two-dimensional Orlando of 1946 to the place of infinite kaleidoscopic change we call home. This is no teenager in the throes of an identity crisis. Call it Orlando 2.0.

Leonard Cohen was singing about America in “Democracy,” but I hear Orlando in his line about “the cradle of the best and of the worst. It’s here they got the range and the machinery for change, and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.”

Orlando’s bland, generic-sounding motto, “The City Beautiful,” was coined in 1908. Perhaps there’s a phrase that better captures the unique dynamism, for better and for worse, of an ever-morphing city. I’d suggest stealing from Monty Python:

“And Now for Something Completely Different.” 

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