Editor’s note: This essay is published in the Fall 2022 issue of FORUM, the magazine of Florida Humanities. It is particularly apt when Election Day only two days away. From its founding in 1513 to its modern identity as a mega-state boasting 22 million inhabitants and 122 million tourists, Florida has evoked contrasting images of the sacred and profane: a Fountain of Youth amid desecrated springs, a Garden of Eden turned into commuters’ nightmares and a place where “home” is still Toledo, Kokomo and Kankakee.
Florida’s dynamism makes it an irresistible place to study. In 2005, journalist David Shribman argued, “It may be that Florida, rather than California, is the place where the future is viewed.” In almost every important index of modern American life today — the enormous numbers and influence of the elderly, racial and ethnic diversity, environmental challenges and catastrophes, and political melodrama — Florida tops the charts. The Florida of today is the America of tomorrow.
What is/was the Florida dream that brought so many to a place that, until a century ago, was a remote and sparsely populated frontier? The dream cuts across time and class, promising a better life. Florida’s birth myth, Ponce de León’s search for the Fountain of Youth, is the ultimate symbol of second acts and new vitality. Scores of cities claimed home to the original Fountain of Youth, hosting tourists who bathed in and gulped the sulfurous waters.