Thursday, March 24, 2011


Vic Chestnutt--"Florida" (mp3)
Guadalcanal Diary--"The Likes Of You" (mp3)

Back in the 1980's, when my grandmother lived in Ft. Lauderdale and my in-laws were just settling into their new condo in Venice, Florida, the concept of "Floridaville" smacked me in the face.

What is it, you ask? Floridaville is the idea, conceived by real estate developers, that old people don't want to have to drive very far for the services, stores, and entertainments that they desire and require, and so it becomes possible and profitable to repeat those same stores and services every few miles.

At that time, 20 or more years ago, this was only happening in Florida. And it has never stopped. I noticed during my trip to the condo this summer that now there are two Publix grocery stores within 2 miles of each other on the same road, just in opposite directions from the entrance of that large retirement community.

Now, of course, we all live in Floridaville.

Whether it's Starbucks or Bi-Lo, McDonald's or Panera , we can climb into our cars and pick four or five different directions to get to one of our favorite franchises. And now that they've got us hooked on so many prescription drugs, we can find drug stores a block away, across the street from each other, down the road, and every place in between.

This strikes me as insidious. You may remember that scene from the movie, Brazil, where the main character is driving out of town and lining both sides of the road are non-stop billboards. But, hell, we don't even need that. Why advertise a place on a big sign when if people will just drive a little farther down the road, they'll run into it anyway?

Or, take as an example, Starbucks. I know many of my compadres enjoy the convenience of a close-by Starbucks (remember when there was only one Starbucks outpost in all of Chattanooga?) for upscale coffee and romantic trysts, but, in spite of Starbucks' ability to imprint its brand and make it ubiquitous everywhere from Target to Timbuktu, Starbucks only seems like good coffee until you taste great coffee, and then you realize that Starbucks over-roasts their beans and clings to the notion that bitter=gourmet. Most Chattanoogans will never figure that out because the lag time just to get Starbucks here means that we still think it's cool to go there. And, heck, you'd have to drive across town to have even a shot of getting a better cup.

See, what you gain in Floridaville is convenience, but what you lose is choice. Or maybe something worse is happening: when you live in Floridaville, you lose your desire for choice.

Because now choice requires effort and choice might cost a bit more and choice is unpredicatable. You know you'll get the exact same breakfast at every Cracker Barrel from Minnesota to Mississippi; in fact, the menu is pretty much imprinted in your brain, if you're like me, so why take a chance on some seedy-looking place along the side of the road that looks like it's been there forever and needs a paint job? So what if their biscuits are far superior to what comes out of the Cracker Barrel box?

Perhaps all of this seems like much ado about nothing when the examples concern food and drugstores. Though, as we all know, it is easy to add clothing, books, cars, phones, colleges and God knows what else to the list.

If you've ever read Brave New World, then you know that we're living it. But here's the twist: instead of cloning us, as the societal directors do in the novel, manufacturing the human race using the assembly line techniques of Henry Ford, they've cloned everything else. Just about every single aspect of our lives has been cloned. And in doing so, they've pretty much succeeded in cloning us. They've achieved the uniformity of thought and behavior that they desired, but they did it through products, stores, good, and services, through brands and labels and logos of status.

And, cleverly, they've put so many products on the shelves and so many different chains to shop in that they've succeeded also in creating the illusion of choice. My daughter came home from school the other day furious that one of her friends was wearing the same thing that she already owned and that her friend had seen her wearing. 'She shouldn't have bought it,' the thinking goes, 'I had it first.'

But when we've been conditioned to act so that people of the same class and status shop in the same stores, drink the same drinks, swallow the same pills, how realistic an attitude can that be?


Billy said...

I wouldn't know good coffee if it came up and bit me in the butt cheek, and I'd like to keep it that way, thank you. The more discriminating one's taste buds, generally the mo money it takes to please them.

Reading your post somehow made me think of the burbs of New Orleans, the cracked pavements and grass sprouting up and the empty parking lots and the feel I'd just landed in some capitalistic post-war Lebanon.

Anonymous said...

For years I've said that the mall is the place you go only if you want a lot of the same thing - whether it's restaurants or clothing stores...whatever. You only assume you have choices, but there's really nothing different...just a lot of it.

George Dyer said...

This post reminded me of Chapter 5 of Naked Economics and even more of Barry Schwartz' The Paradox of Choice. His TED talk of the same name is very good and totally worth the 20 minutes to watch.

troutking said...

Your post reminds me of the feeling I had when I returned from a summer in Yellowstone last August. I remember driving down Brainerd Road and thinking, "What is all this SHIT??? I don't want any of this!" Soon thereafter I was reading this travelogue Through Painted Deserts by Donald Miller (of Blue Like Jazz fame) and he had a great passage about driving into Houston:
"I remember driving down I-45 a few months ago and suddenly realizing the number of signs, signs wanting me to buy waterbeds, signs wanting me to watch girls take off their clothes, signs wanting me to eat Mexican food or barbecue, backlit, scrolling signs wanting me to come to church or join a gym or see this movie or finance a car, even if I have no money. And it hit me that, amid the screaming noise, amid the messages that said buy this product and I will be made complete, I could hardly know the life that life was meant to be. Nobody stops to question whether they actually need the house and the car and the better job. And because of this there doesn't seem to be any peace; there isn't any serenity. We can't see the stars in Houston anymore or go to the beach without stepping on a Coke bottle or hike in the woods, because there aren't any more woods. We can only panic about the clothes we wear, the car we drive and whether the guy who cuts off respects us. We want to kill him for crying out loud, all the while feeling the need for new furniture and a new television and a bigger house in the right neighborhood. We drive around in a trance, salivating for Starbucks while that great heaven sits above us, and that beautiful sunrise is happening in the desert, and all those mountains out West are collecting snow on the limbs of their pines, and all those leaves are changing colors out East. God, it is so beautiful, it is so quiet, it is so perfect.

So...if I'm not in my office in the morning...I should be back in Yellowstone come sunset on Wednesday.

Bob said...

Trout, weren't you paying attention at Woodstock? Stay away from the brown acid!