If one were to rely on pop culture, you might get the following impression of Tampa:
I laughed my head off at the first 90 seconds of that Daily Show episode, and so should you.1 There are many reasons why we are the butt of so many jokes, and the manatee-riding St. Pete resident is but the tip of the iceberg for us. Just for example, in 2008, if you had to guess whether it was the former bee-costume-wearing pro wrestler, the owner of the Mons Venus strip club, or a staid accountant who would win an upcoming county commissioner race, you would have been right to pick the accountant–but the others had run for office first, and the former pro wrestler was the incumbent.2 We have not one but two Miami Herald columnists who poke fun at the entire state: Dave Barry and novelist Carl Hiaasen. You just think Dave Barry writes for the entire country. Who do you think taught him to think of all humanity as a collection of the funniest critters alive? Despite the jokes one can fling at the state, there are some wonderful things about life in Florida and Tampa, and many of them are unknown outside the state.
- Florida has amazing fauna and flora, even apart from the humans. We have alligators and bald eagles, possums and swallowtail kites. We have ospreys and Sandhill cranes, red-shouldered hawks and lemon-sulphur butterflies. We have green anoles and live oak trees, and if you have visited Florida primarily to see Da Mouse and related theme parks, you have missed the real Florida. Go see the Everglades or J. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the Florida Keys or one of our many county and state parks. Do not miss the beaches and don’t assume they’re the only part of natural Florida you want to see, either.
- Fresh strawberries in winter, and other produce you can get in New Jersey and Michigan but nowhere near February, as well as community organizations that fight for farmworkers.
- More generally, we have an array of grassroots civil rights organizations and community groups that will surprise many outside the state, from the Dream Defenders to the Florida Immigrant Coalition, Catalyst Miami, and many others.
- Florida is home to a large number of incredible reporters, including many fabulous education beat reporters. I am lucky enough to live in the circulation area of the Tampa Bay Times, which has consistently had among the largest and best stable of local and state education reporters in the country. And there are plenty of other good reporters around the state as well.
- Florida skies are like nowhere else in the country. I have seen magenta in the east before sunrise in winter, angry thunderheads in summer, and tangerine sunsets all times of year. You are rarely bored looking up in daytime here.
- Classical music community. The Florida Orchestra has a great bunch of musicians, and I’m completely biased because I know several of them. We also have the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, the Tampa Bay Symphony (a volunteer group I’m playing in currently), and opera groups in St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Sarasota. And there’s the School of Music at USF with its new performance spaces and all sorts of ensemble groups.
- No snow this last winter in Tampa, and at once point this year Florida was the only state in the country without snow on the ground. Okay, you better know about this.
- Gasparilla is not just the name of a drunken parade and beadfest justified by rumors of historical pirates. It’s also the excuse for a local race, a children’s parade, a film festival, and an art festival. Ahoy, hand me that grog, a ticket to see an independent film, and a Wegman!
- The amazing mix of people. You like people-watching? Florida’s the place! Okay, you may be thinking of the sidewalk along South Miami Beach (and I can’t disagree with you there, though I may not join you on a Saturday night), but there are so many outdoor places where people gather, it’s easy any time of year to take a short trip and hear at least a few languages being spoken, see families of all types, and find yourself having conversations with people with very different experiences. It used to be the case that many rural counties in Florida were almost-all-white or predominantly African-American (in a very few cases), but as of 2010, there were only sixteen counties in the state where more than 80% of the residents were non-Hispanic White.
- Did I mention the weather? Yes, the summers are hot. We’re the bullseye for hurricanes, and our coastlines are vulnerable to many of the effects of global warming. But many places east of the Mississippi have stretches of summer that are at least as unbearable as Florida. It’s just that your nasty heat waves last three weeks. Ours last five months. And while it may feel sometimes as if the dankness is thick enough to do so, you don’t have to shovel hot air off your driveway and sidewalks. Ah, but winters… what winter???
Many neighbors of mine might pick other things they love about the state, and they might hate some on my list. I’ve found beauty and wonderful people everywhere I’ve lived in this country, and I expect to continue to find that in Arizona. I certainly found that to be the case in Florida.
- I laughed at a lot more than the first 90 seconds, but only the first part and Aasif Mandvi’s standalone video about Tampa is where I was laughing at and on behalf of my own town. [↩]
- Eventually, accountant Kevin Beckner would beat Brian Blair to become the first openly-gay county commissioner in Hillsborough County history, and he was re-elected to a second term [↩]