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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Conspicuous Consumption

"A port rots ships, and the men in them" is a quote attributed to Lord Nelson, and he didn't even visit Fort Lauderdale to know that. Perhaps our view of this city is jaundiced by being forced to sit here in the marina waiting for a ship, but I'm afraid that this place encapsulates all that we dislike about the modern American way.

Sometimes described as the Venice of South Florida, Fort Lauderdale was carved out of the swamp by digging drainage canals and using the soil to make usable land either side. This has led to a city criss-crossed by waterways, all on a neat grid system of course. Each one is lined with waterfront homes and each home has a boat. Almost all of these are power boats, and few are under forty feet long. Multimillion dollar yachts languish alongside multimillion dollar homes. There are even covered storage 'garages' for large boats and three boat high racks for smaller powerboats to be stored until the forklift gets them down for their owner. These boats appear to rarely move, and a good proportion are for sale.

Now it would be easy to vent a stream of jealous rhetoric about wealth at this point, but really anyone can do what they want with their money, can't they. But each boat, and house, here represents an enormous consumption of the world's resources and maybe it's better that these boats are rarely used, at least they don't burn a hundred gallons of diesel an hour sitting at the dock. Yet having travelled some of the poorer parts of the Caribbean, the contrast is stark and demoralising. The concern is where all this money has come from. We are now all too aware of how inflated asset prices have led to the economic mess we all face in greater or lesser ways, and I can't escape feeling that much of the wealth here has been skimmed from the top of every over-priced house, stock and business transaction. As this area has also seen a lot of actual and alleged Ponzi schemes (of the Madoff, Stanford etc type) and there is also a long history of drug smuggling in these areas, it's reasonable to assume there are some ill gotten gains around here whichever way you look.

If you are foolish enough to walk around the city, it soon becomes clear that this is a city for the car owner. Nothing is on a human scale, not the highways - all four, six, eight lane. Not the city streets, hundreds if not thousands of yards between each place you might want to go. Not the buildings, there is no discernible downtown or main street, the few streets of sensible sized stores are isolated from each other and have been boutiqued. Groceries, get in the car. Pharmacy, half a mile further on. Ice cream, next mini-mall. You don't do Fort Lauderdale on foot. The closest to a downtown is where city hall is, we guess, but it's a soulless area of four lane roads surrounding twenty story buildings. Most of them are newish, with glittering marble, chrome and fountains. They are, of course, the banks. I think we've already considered where the money for that came from. Pity anyone with a stock portfolio, retirement plan or average house in the suburbs.

There is, thankfully, a working bus network every twenty minutes or so, and inexpensive. Most people we talk to are surprised to hear it exists. We can use it to get to the stores, but walking from store to store is lengthy, hot and the crosswalks are not timed to help you crosswalk, all that traffic has to keep flowing. Once inside the buildings, the temperature contrast is extreme. From only slightly uncomfortable eighty-five degrees outside, it is a slightly uncomfortable sixty-five inside. Air conditioning only has one setting here - icy. The weather suggests as lightweight clothing as possible, but if you are heading for a store, take a sweater. We went to the cinema with the kids and froze for two hours, it was the coldest we have been for a long time. The energy required to cool a building to that level is ridiculous, I cannot understand why it would be done, but it's everywhere.

The inhuman scale of the city, and the need to move around it in isolation and self-contained 'comfort' means that we haven't really met anyone here. Over the past eighteen months, if we have been anywhere for more than a few days we are suddenly having drinks with the neighbours, recognised in town, playing on the beach with new friends. Perhaps here the beach is the only way that will happen, and it will probably be other visitors but even they keep their distance.

Experience, as ever, shapes a knowledge of what we do and don't want from our lives. If Fort Lauderdale has a virtue, it is that it has made us ever more resolved to live a life of low consumption, walkable and reasonable, in a world where relationships matter more than belongings and we matter more than the dollars in our pockets. Get me out of here.
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