Is South Florida’s Golden Age as America’s Party Town Coming To An Abrupt End?
I semi-retired to Fort Lauderdale from New York in 2002, so it wasn’t that l was down there when it was all happening, l actually witnessed it as it happened: Fort Lauderdale’s transformation from a spring break town and trailer park haven for retirees to an international vacation mecca for millions, including millions of gays who made Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manors the unofficial gay capital of the U.S., and the place to live if you wanted the closest thing to paradise in the continental United States.
Now in less than forty eight hours, it could all be gone …
After exhausting vacations abroad in the seventies and eighties, l was looking for a place to just hang loose and l quickly discovered that “Forever Summer” Fort Lauderdale was that place. By 1991 l had purchased a snowbird getaway one bedroom condo in Wilton Manors for just twenty five thousand dollars (later at the height of the market it sold for almost $200,000). It just happened to be a few blocks from the Alibi, that would become the epicenter for gay life in south Florida, which had just opened in what was once the site a “shooting” gallery for heroin addicts.
I had looked at properties in South Beach, Miami, as the art deco hotels of Miami Beach’s heyday in the thirties and forties were being saved from the demolition ball by preservationists, many of them gay, and some converted into condos selling for thirty five thousand dollars – yes. But l was already in my mid-forties and the gay guys were all too young and pretty. I opted for Fort Lauderdale and its diversity of ages and styles – and a healthy leather scene which at the same time was disappearing from NYC. To this day, Miami guys who want a man, not a boy, travel the thirty miles on IS 95 to have fun in Lauderdale.
The Fort Lauderdale Eagle was soon followed by the Ramrod which became a must see stop for any self-respecting leatherman from San Francisco to Sydney.
Yes, Fort Lauderdale, which still had segregated schools in 1970, was shedding its spring break image propagated by the movie, ”Where The Boys Are” to become an international tourist resort and a growing mecca for gays who were looking for a break from the winter or a move to a warmer, breezy lifestyle. The town certainly lived up to its self-effacing name, Fort “La-de-da”: a gay beach, Sebastian, and a nude beach just outside Miami, gay restaurants, and thanks to groundbreakers like the Alibi its own gay strip of bars, shops, and eateries. Plus two well established bath houses and eventually its own sex club for NSA sex even before the web.
Virtually every gym on the east side of Broward County, for which Fort Lauderdale is the county seat, had a sizable gay membership, and soon regeneration centers to stay young, offering testosterone and human growth hormones and non-invasive cosmetic miracles started popping up like pizza parlors.
And as the resident gay population grew, towns in the Greater Fort Lauderdale area, in particular, Wilton Manors went from rags to riches almost overnight. Real estate values skyrocketed as more gay guys and gals – and straights – wanted their own slice of paradise. I firmly believe the Gay Rush played a significant role in the first South Florida Real Estate Boom of the early 2000’s (which stung a lot of people when values plummeted in the Bust of 2007) and the current resurgence as more and more baby boomers with money, str8 and gay, are ready to leave the snow for fun in the sun. By 2015 Florida had supplanted New York as the third most populous state in the country, after California and Texas, its total population growing by 25% in just the years l was there.
Yes, South Florida was fast becoming the new Southern California – without the smog.
A cheaper cost of living than many comparative metros, a lively gay scene, particularly during Season when Fort Lauderdale became the world’s gay playground, a breezy lifestyle, and a strong network of care to the HIV positive also made South Florida a magnet for guys with little more to offer than their looks, content to work at low end jobs as waiters, bartenders, lawn guys, and house cleaners – or hustlers – or live off their disability checks supplemented by under the carpet work or even drug dealing, and more than a few looking for an easy way out as daddy’s “boy.”
And where free and easy sex exists, drugs like meth and unsafe sex which made South Florida the HIV capital of the country soon followed.
So if Irma is as devastating as predicted, will this Golden Age suddenly come to an abrupt end? Tourism and agriculture are Florida’s major economic powerhouses, so if the tourism infrastructure is decimated and the orange groves are blown away – we’re the largest producers of orange juice after Brazil – will the low end jobs that many gays now hold go with them? Will there be a mass exodus of drifters back to Des Moines, Iowa and Fargo, North Dakota? Will Florida overnight suddenly become a poor state for years to come? Will its strategy of attempting to attract the wealthy with real estate in the six figures now the norm, real estate the average Floridian making fifty thousand dollars a year could not afford, backfire as retiring Baby Boomers and international money and even people like me who stand to lose their homes reconsider investing in a place that now may be vulnerable to a new cycle of hurricane activity that could last decades?
To its defense, Florida has been trying to diversify its economy so that it is not vulnerable to the whims of the American economy; after all, tourism feeds off money made elsewhere. Right now, Amazon is looking for a major metro area with an international airport and large enough labor pool to build a second base of operation and theoretically Fort Lauderdale and Miami are cities that would meet the criteria. But would a large multibillion-dollar corporation establish a base in a state where a sudden storm could cripple its bottom line?
Whenever I brought up the subject of the inevitability that we would be hit by a bad hurricane, buddies and friends would scold me for being a pessimist. But after Wilma I realized that South Florida is like a Glass Menagerie, oh so pretty, but oh so fragile.
And as I sit here safely in my Pennsylvania home and watch this living nightmare unfold on television, I keep asking myself, if my house is blown away, would I rebuilt? Would the lifestyle I so coveted and even bragged about all these years ever return?
And my response to myself is always the same:
That’s a damn good fucken question.