After being gone for seventeen years, nothing much has changed with Pinellas County. It is still a low-grade carpet of commercial junkspace from coast to coast, and the edges – where the value really is – aren’t much different than they were in the 1990s, with the exception of more. Not better.
The peninsula’s tragedy is twofold: for one thing, man replaced nature with something considerably less, instead of something better. The second tragedy is that last two decades of stuff has largely been worse, instead of better or even the same. Since its discovery in 1528 by Panfilo de Narvaez, man has graced the natural environment with plenty of paving, concrete blocks, chemicals and steel to completely cover it up, but none of this handiwork is particularly good, or even well thought out, as most all the county’s residents will tell you.
Hotels and condos have been erected on the coastline, but they haven’t added any overall quality to the waterfront. Instead, there are just more of them. The interior of the peninsula has remained a patchwork of squabbling municipalities unable to rise above the muck, and seem doomed to accept the lowest common denominator of humanity as their lot in life. Endless commercial strips, where America’s parade of brand names can be found most everywhere, still dominate the Pinellas County experience. The older brand names have been replaced by the newer brand names, but very few places have realized independence from this relentless global capitalism.
And why should they? Pinellas County produces nothing whatsoever, except for some moderately valuable beachfront real estate. The county has no natural resources and no endemic industry, and thus it remains about 280 square miles of cannibalistic consumerism, where minimum-wage shopworkers and service workers push pennies around between themselves, and the corporate capitalists skim the cream off the top of each transaction. Regionally, the county contributes nil to the net sustainability of Tampa Bay.
At the bottom edge of the peninsula, St. Petersburg sits like a grinning old grandmother, itself the originator of this ephemeral-city status, producing nothing but a quality of life and a place to just be. As a retirement community, St. Pete led the pack as an economy that fabricates its identity and reason for being out of thin air.
All of this was OK for a few generations, as we gratefully acknowledged and respected those who endured the Depression and fought the war and generally peaked our country’s character. As we slide into the dark ages, however, this Sybaris of the South may no longer be able to feed off of itself, and may be called upon to produce something, anything of value to contribute to the greater good of mankind.
One possibility is for Pinellas County to start buying up all of the stucco-smeared construction that litters the landscape, and mulch it and sell it for fill. City-building requires copious amounts of gravel and sand, both of which could be found in abundance in Pinellas County’s vertical material. The land that is uncovered beneath all this hardscape might then be ritually cleansed, and, like Detroit, returned to a naturalized state.
Pinellas’ soft edges were blurred, indistinct estuaries that varied by inches in elevation, and the whole of the land was a complex, marshy mosaic. Like a miniature Florida, freshwater sheet flowed over some parts and riverized others, and salt water from the warm Gulf of Mexico probably met briny Old Tampa Bay at least once over hurricanes and floods. This lack of definitive stature – not quite solid ground, not quite wetland, not quite navigable water – has translated into a human-made environment that is not quite city, not quite country, and not quite suburb – a blurred, shredded mass of real estate that has frustrated financiers for decades.
It is time to call Pinellas County a failed experiment, a lost cause, and a place that is best returned to nature. Nothing man has done to it made it better, and the sooner this is recognized and accepted, the sooner we can begin the process of emptying it out.
For it is the potential that makes one shudder; the beauty of the county’s beaches tragically wasted by cheap condos and crappy hotels; the miserably hot and humid interior beaten into submission by a million buzzing air conditioners, separated by poison-doused lawns and cracked pavement. Ordinarily, the hum of a city – its traffic, the planes taking off, and its rhythm — inspires a sort of thrill, a localized dance beat. In Pinellas, however, this fails to occur, and instead the city’s beat is annoying, one interminable stoplight after another, and the unfolding landscape of sameness is a headache. Escape to the coast yields disappointment, for the coastal communities aren’t quaint or attractive – even the junky mess of Venice, California qualifies as a higher-order vernacular made out of cheap cloth, but here the architectural character aspires to less. It is as if no one cares, there isn’t even a creative tension or sense of “what the hell, let’s experiment” with the space at hand.
And this is not for lack of an umpire. Government regulation of the built form is as onerous here as it is anywhere, with seemingly poorer results. The rules of the game are enforced just as strongly, but the game here seems to be half-played, the score isn’t tallied, and the players’ hearts are not in the field.
Lying midway down Florida’s west coast, Pinellas County acts as a kind of garbage can for America, with trash culture, trash capitalism, and trash society trickling down, finally coming to rest in this peninsula. The peninsula is now quite filled up, and the trash is stinking and fetid. But, like Kenneth Boulding once said, we cannot take out the trash on Spaceship Earth, and if we consider the Pinellas County problem, there is no other place to put it.
To re-direct Pinellas County into something much finer, the trash must be completely cleaned out. But that is only part of the problem, because new garbage will soon get deposited in. Tampa has long used Pinellas County as a dumping-ground for its low-wage, service-sector jobs that cannot afford to make it in the big city, and like much of metropolitan Florida, it suffers as a peripheral zone around the higher-income financial center. Pinellas County is a kind of receptacle for the things that Tampa does not want. Its multiple small towns remain weak and tribal, benefitting Tampa the most. This has not served the county particularly well.
So the second piece of business is to manufacture some kind of a self-operating lid for the trash can, a lid that Pinellas County can close. To do so, the tribes must unite to do the hard work of making a cover. It must be strong enough to deflect the trash elsewhere, and this requires a stock of moral capital absent from the county’s citizenry.
Whether any of this could happen is doubtful, and so compassion is in order. Like a patient dying of cancer, perhaps the best thing we can do for Pinellas County is to make it comfortable, give it what it wants, and let it slide into heavenly bliss. Perhaps Pinellas County can be better, but it is more likely that it will slide into a kind of Dark Ages suburban favela that is the fate of so much of America’s sad landscape.