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Thursday, January 20, 2011

An Hour (And Halfway Around the World) Away

Last month, a Certain Party and I -- along with some friends and (briefly) my mom -- spent some time in Florida.  The beginning of the trip was our annual week on the beach on Captiva Island, and this year, for variety we drove across the state to visit a former co-worker and her husband near Palm Beach, then up to Orlando for a few days in the theme parks.

Our route, skirting the southern and eastern edges of Lake Okeechobee, took us through orange and sugar country, a part of Florida most visitors never see.  We had lunch in Clewiston, a busy if not thriving town with a big K-Mart and a Goodwill store, and shared the restaurant with a cluster of Mennonites, their traditional dress incongruous with the brightly colored Formica and florescent lights. 

We made a wrong turn in Pahokee, whose nickname "the muck" was aptly chosen; it is surrounded by thousands of acres of soggy fields.  Once a thriving center of commerce, big agribusiness has left Pahokee chewed up in its wake.  Most of the businesses have closed, and the 6,000-odd residents were left without much opportunity or hope, as President Obama learned when interviewed by town resident Damon Weaver, then 10.  Many residents seemed to be just hanging around, waiting for something -- anything -- to happen.  The only other ticket out seems to be football, as this tiny town has sent at least seven players to the NFL.
Pahokee 4, by Christopher Dick 2006.  Series on Flickr.
Used under Creative Commons License

From there, it was only about an hour to Hobe Sound, where our friends live.  The acres of fields and weathered shacks abruptly give way to gated driveways, manicured lawns, faux-Spanish patio homes and lush  non-native vegetation. An hour away, but it could have been halfway around the world as we chased alligators on golf carts and enjoyed drinks by the pool. 

As kids we visited Florida a number of times, always driving down.  I remember only snippets of those trips, but I'm old enough that overt signs of institutionalized racism were likely quite evident to someone who knew to look for them.  Now, as so many of America's towns have been pounded into corporate cookie-cutter sameness, it's harder to get a sense of what was, and easy to forget how badly we acted, not very long ago.  But you only have to look at the differences between places like Hobe Sound or even Clewiston and Pahokee to see that -- while some of us have been lucky enough to enjoy the fruits of progress -- there are still plenty of us who have been left behind. Those distinctions are not always drawn on racial lines, but the pattern of boxes you check still makes a big difference in how big your slice of American Pie will be.

Thus I was glad to hear that the Cathedral Church of St. Peter & St. Paul in Washington DC (known by most as the National Cathedral) is in the process of installing a bust of Rosa Parks above a doorway.  I learned recently that it was at the pulpit in this same church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the last Sunday sermon, entitled "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution"  before his assassination in 1968.

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