Like many parts of the world, Florida’s Atlantis is underpopulated.
Urban and semi-urban underpopulation is a serious problem for the drifter because people are interesting (grand, noteworthy, odd, laughable, sexy, irritating) and the expanses between them are not, though I’ve come to enjoy such reaches on their own terms: parking lots, one-acre intersections, monocultural parks, golf streams, strip this and that. An assortment of facades, visual dodges, spectacles of enticement bordering what Shakespeare might have called the sad spectacle of wrack.
Atlantis is a gated community of friendly people inside a gated nation-state of friendly people. It’s wealthy enough, but in the hierarchy of West Palm Beach, Atlantis is several significant strata from the top, or front. Aunt Mollie’s house doesn’t have a front-row seat on the Atlantic, but four miles inland it has its consolations: fifty feet of floor-to-ceiling glass display a nicely sculpted golf tarn with a complex community of big attitude-rich wading birds sporting neolithically kinked bodies: great blue herons, wood storks, ibises, pelicans, and color-enhanced ducks. A veritable Peterson’s Field Guide pageant set against fantastical banyans. Peripheral flashes of house lizard. A thick-necked duck shakes down our neighbor three times a day and has begun casting proprietary glances at our patio.
Aunt Mollie is gone now, and like so much “real” estate in America the house will soon, from my wife’s family’s point of view, evanesce. Or to preserve the Atlantis metaphor, it will go under.
It would be a mistake to think that Atlantis’s relatively lofty socio-economic position accounts for its underpopulation. The adjacent working-class district is closer to the ocean and, if anything, less populated. The area is a wasteland devoted to the veneration of a single entity—the automobile (together with its accessories, malls and corporate cack).
The cycle is set for bust right now, but it was no different during boom. The cycle might have two extremes, but it is never a bi-cycle. This has to change.
It has become a truism to say that Florida is overpopulated. Whatever the intentions of people who pass this information along, the effect is to make Florida’s cluster of environmental disasters into a kind of manifest destiny where no one in particular is to blame because everyone is. We’re apparently all at fault for being alive or for wanting to enjoy the sunshine.
I speak from years of experience as a drifter and haunter of Floridean scrapland. The problem is not people but cars.
The premise of overpopulation rhetoric is, ‘all other things being equal, there are too many people’. Under this ‘all other things being equal’ codicil, all sorts of destruction are given a pass, or passed as a given, as for example, ‘if everyone drives a car, or if everyone lives on half an acre and ties down another eighth of an acre in parking spaces, or if everyone runs their AC at current levels’. But why grant these brutal ifs? People can be happy in this sunny, breezy climate without all this paraphernalia.
The rhetoric of overpopulation is to find culpable a person’s existence, which she cannot help, rather than her practice, which she can. As if being were at fault, not driving. What would Hamlet say?
The last census a decade ago found some 1500 souls per squared Atlantis mile, and the whole of Atlantis is not much more than that very same square. A giant rented electric sign now urges residents to submit to the next census. Tyrants have been subjecting subjects to the rack/wrack of the census at least since a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
Atlantis and its environs could support ten times as many residents, or a hundred times. But you shouldn’t take my word any more than some expert’s. As anyone who’s ever had three nice room-mates and one obnoxious one can tell you, it’s not the numbers that matter.
I had a team-mate on my junior-high football team who was such a jerk I bet he could overpopulate the state of Florida or any state just by showing up.
Possibly the yield of organic veggies per compost-rich acre suggests an upper limit on population, possibly not. What’s clear is that semi-urban and urban Florida needs a much bigger population to be interesting, and much less car culture. It’s time to stop repeating the mantra about overpopulation when the real problem is corporatism and cars. Granting the false premises of overpopulation is the heavily paved road to a hell of good intentions.
I’m a gregarious guy. Too gregarious, by some counts. If I walk the 3.9 miles from Aunt Mollie’s to the beach on non-sciatica days, the number of Cuban, black, fat, old-white-guy, or sexy pedestrians I’m likely to interact with is zero, and the number of drivers is a thousand. Let’s reverse that. Put sexy first.
If you’re a Florida driver and you’re fretting about overpopulation, here’s hoping you can start worrying about a real problem instead.
Atlantis. Wish you were here.
—early April, 2010
DAVID Ker THOMSON has thumbed his way through Florida full many a time. firstname.lastname@example.org