South Florida connotes a certain lifestyle in media and popular culture. Miami’s bright, tall energy has always been intertwined with the Florida Everglades’ quiet, flat landscape – low, grassy plains soaked with swampwater and edged by dense jungle. The seam where these two opposites meet is neither active nor passive; it is, instead, a third thing, where man’s activity has subtly modified the landscape, and nature has slowed man’s pace closer to its own. My recent experience at the edge of the Everglades had a sort of off-kilter Caribbean or Central American sense of place that felt exotic and familiar at the same time, a pleasant tension that reassures me there is still an edge to Florida where the scratchy blanket of protective regulation is thrown off to reveal informal, naturalized structures that blend beautifully into the natural environment.
Southwest of Miami lies the city of Homestead, Florida, famous for being the front door through which Hurricane Andrew entered Florida in 1992. Today, Homestead is an exurb of Miami, with a relentless street grid extending west and south. Homestead’s suburbs are newer vintage housing, schools, and commercial strips grown after Andrew’s devastation, stopped only by the hard edge of the Everglades National Park. Along this line, the housing and farmland stops, and the wide River of Grass takes over.
Homestead’s western frontier is a jagged edge, a sort of squared-off, rasterized curve defined by a patchwork of rear property lines and rural roads. On one side, houses pop up in between rows of beans; on the other, a jumble of ficus and palmetto. At more than one location, abandoned asphalt strips crumble into the jungle’s interior, a subdivision extended a little too far. Here, no one ever built a home, the empty lots passing into a suburban archeology of rusted street signs and vine-choked fire hydrants, a developer’s dream faded away.
Back in the agricultural areas, open fields with crops alternate with tropical fruit groves. Mango, papaya, banana, and coconut bloom in the spring, wafting fragrant scents in the early morning air. Workers in the field are dwarfed by the flat landscape, a world away from the America’s eighth largest metropolitan area.
In this farmland area, the vernacular building style colorfully mixes shipping containers, chickees, and barn tin in a deliciously un-Miami-like way. The traditional Seminole chickee lends a tropical, exotic flair to this spotty rim of humanity pressed against nature’s vast size. Thatched palm fronds create a natural insulation barrier blocking the sun’s heat, and the fully open sides allow the tiniest of breezes to move air through the space underneath. This native response to the land is more appropriate than the thick-walled, stucco-buttered architecture imported from arid Spain and grafted onto Florida’s natural character.
The Seminoles take the opposite approach: Work with nature, have a light touch, and when a hurricane blows it away, build it again. This zen approach to fulfilling man’s need for shelter is decidedly unmodern and soft, and its presence at the edge of the Everglades lends a certain amount of respect to the power of nature just beyond.
Unconsciously, civilized life is stripped away layer by layer on the margin of the city. Abandoned subdivisions and Native American architecture both mark man’s over-reach into the wilderness. Yet another marker can be found on buildings constructed by modern means, where layers of veneer are stripped away, revealing raw materials, unpainted and unadorned, standing crude and timeless against the trees and the sky. The edge’s presence can be sensed where structures start to dissolve into informality.
Everglades National Park is a hard, urbanized boundary on the map, but on the ground it is an ironically blurred zone where the slow-moving river of grass influences human activities. The nuanced edge continues into the Everglades themselves, where Florida’s subtle water-nature is uninterrupted. Water flows in a gentle, slow sheet across Florida’s flat limestone bed coated with organic material barely thick enough for life to cling to. Where the limestone base dips a few inches, grass fails to grow; where a nub rises up above this hard plain a few inches, unique tree islands gather. These islands are so densely vegetated as to admit no human, their edges wrapped in a thick tangle of branches and leaves, a sort of bonsai-forest in miniature. Urban civilizations of insects, birds, and other small creatures inhabit these infrastructures, city-states of nature out of man’s reach.
In between approaching jets and the distant rumble of airboats, a larger silence takes over. Penetrating the membrane between inside and outside makes possible a certain perspective on the question of man’s activities in the context of the larger world. Confining our efforts to areas that are already strongly modified by human activities suddenly makes sense. Boundaries, once created, harden over time, and the softness of the western edge of humanity against the eastern boundary of the Everglades seems destined to harden. In its current state, this snapshot of the feathered, nuanced edge of civilization seems to be delicately balanced between the rural and the natural. Agricultural industry on the periphery of the great conurbation of Miami moves at the pace of seasons and rainfall, making a rhythm that is in between the seasonal flow of the Everglades and the nanosecond street culture of contemporary western civilization.
Florida’s ubiquitous industry, tourism, mixes with agriculture even here with airboat rides, fruit stands, and alligator wrestling shows peppering the edge of the wetlands. The Everglades vernacular architecture is not quite agricultural, yet not quite contemporary Florida either.
The flavor of these places has more connection to the Caribbean tropicalism one finds on islands like Puerto Rico, Barbados, and Hispanola. Endlessly adaptable shipping containers sit cheek-by-jowl with chicken coops and thatch awnings to create an ad hoc pedestrian space under palm trees. All is a little too clean and, well, inspectable to be really offshore; but it’s also a little more relaxed than the strangely uptight postmodern built environment we’ve come to expect in America.
Heading east out of the Everglades is a somewhat wistful journey forward in time. Mango-treed rural roads abruptly give way to fruit processing plants, which back up to grocery store strips, and the standard parade of global brand names enters the windshield, a gateway back into contemporary America. Stoplights take longer, traffic pace quickens, and today’s Florida, like a hairshirt, envelopes you in a cocoon of highly regulated infrastructure put there for your own protection.