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Miami to Memphis -- My Top Ten Insights

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It's great to be back in San Francisco, after a two-week vacation driving through the Southeast. I've always had an enthusiasm for the open road; as Willie Nelson put it, "goin' places where I've never been; seein' things that I may never see again." I feel rejuvenated after this experience, ready to get back to work ... as I return to the office today. Looking back on these two weeks, there's a lot that I learned ... some profound, and some just plain obvious. I always have fun on these trips, but it's good to report back on the educational components. So without further ado, here are my Top Ten insights from Miami to Memphis ...

(1) Key West Needs Rent Control: Whenever you have (a) an attractive and quirky area, (b) huge demand from everyone who wants to be there, (c) a very finite supply of land, and (c) little to no capacity for growth, it's no surprise the cost of housing goes through the roof. I've seen it happen in Manhattan and San Francisco, and Key West is experiencing the same phenomenon ...

Cruise ships have brought a new influx of tourists to the area ... endangering Key West's low-income people who have been there for generations. Rent control is not the affordable housing panacea, but it allows communities to thrive and maintain their diversity. It's tough being in Key West if you're poor, and the city has no tenant protections. Key West is wonderful because you're on an island at the edge of the world ... with all kinds of funky and artsy people. It's crucial to keep it that way, and rent control is a solution.

Sadly, Florida has a law that bans local jurisdictions from passing rent control -- one of those pre-emptive statutes the real estate lobby quietly passed in state legislatures before any city could implement it. A lot of other states did the same, and progressives should have really been paying closer attention.

(2) Florida Has Ruined What Was a Precious Wetland: Before the white man drained the wetlands and built the worst definition of suburban hell, everything south of Orlando was like the Everglades ... a vast expanse of marshes with all sorts of diverse wildlife. The Everglades National Park is only one-sixth of what it once was in its heyday, and after having spent a day there I know how beautiful and spiritual an experience it can be.

It's not just real estate development that killed the Florida wetlands ... it was the scale and opulence of driving around everywhere that has wasted millions of acres of land. The new Obama Administration believes in saving the Everglades, unlike the Bushes. But let's see how much progress can be made to preserve it.

(3) Florida Should Invest in a Gulf Coast Route: California built Highway One on the Pacific Coast because it knew it had a gorgeous Ocean ... and that it should be open for all. Oregon likewise has Route 101, and even Florida's Atlantic Coast has A1A. But despite the Florida Gulf Coast being lovely, it's hard to experience it by car from Naples to Tampa. Either you go to a side beach road and get stuck in traffic, or the beachfront is reserved for huge mansions. It's less of an issue up in the Panhandle ... Route 98 through the "Redneck Riviera" is well worth the drive ... but it would be nice to have one scenic route the whole way, so all Floridians can enjoy it.

(4) Off-Season at Panama City Beach is Truly Off-Season: You can go to Key West in the summer, or New Orleans when it's not Mardi Gras ... and still find a whole lot to do. But Panama City Beach when it's not Spring Break? Dead as a doornail. It's kind of sad to have such a "cyclical economy," when these places should be busting with activity. The beaches are snow-white and gorgeous, but there's no one around to enjoy them.

(5) I'll Never Make Fun of Alabama Again: Going to Mobile was meant to be a pit-stop ... where I would just get a hotel room for the night and do my laundry. How was I supposed to know it was the home of the original Mardi Gras ... before New Orleans made it famous? How was I supposed to know there would be a great parade Downtown, followed by hours of drunken revelry? Mobile even has three gay bars, and you'll never guess who gave me directions on where to find them ... an Alabama country girl who went to Christian College, calls herself a "devout Republican" and loves Sarah Palin. Mobile was a highlight of my trip ... I'll never tease Alabama again.

(6) I Expect Obama to Do Something About New Orleans: Everyone knows our new President has a lot on his plate, but our national disgrace is what's happened to places like the Lower Ninth Ward ... more than three years after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans is not a good place to raise a kid, because there isn't much to look forward to. The City is desperately poor, and does not have the resources to repave its streets, re-open its crumbling schools and provide the kind of services we would expect from a world-class city.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal doesn't even want federal stimulus money, which has made national headlines ... but is simply another pattern of the Republican state's general contempt for the City. Virtually any progress for the poor and blacks in New Orleans came from the New Deal and Great Society, federal programs that literally saved them from the state. My big test for President Obama will be what he can do to help New Orleans get out of its dire situation. On the other hand, the City still has a more bohemian lifestyle than New York or San Francisco, because it's still affordable to live there. Which may not last forever ... rents doubled after Katrina.

(7) People in Cajun Country Don't Speak French: I went to Breaux Bridge and St. Martinville to find folks who speak my mother tongue. I saw a lot of signs in French, but Louisiana's French quirks ... even in Cajun Country ... is more a gesture to its past, rather than a reflection of any present-day reality. It's not like going to French Canada or northern Maine, where everyone speaks the language. The few local Cajuns who speak French do so because their grandparents taught them, and "Cajun French" is really a garbled combination of English and French. Even the young folks who sing Cajun tunes in local bands mostly don't speak the language ... give them another two generations, and it'll be like church choirs that sing Latin. But, I must say, the Cajuns sure know how to cook boudin and cracklin.

(8) Mardi Gras Doesn't Just Happen on Tuesday: Literally, Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday" ... the day before Lent, where Catholics partake in drunken festivities and indulge before 40 days of ritual sacrifice. But you don't just have a mass parade on one day ... the real Mardi Gras celebration lasts for weeks, with various parades on each day that eventually culminate with total debauchery on Bourbon Street. Mardi Gras is a wonderful celebration in New Orleans, because the city could use some joy amid all its problems. Thankfully, folks don't just wait for one day a year to let the good times roll ... they make sure it drags on for much longer.

(9) Casinos Have Ruined the Mississippi Delta: The Mississippi Delta -- where the blues was born out of the misery of black sharecroppers -- has always thrived on creating a rich culture out of its poverty. But in recent years, the new "cash crop" isn't cotton ... it's the gambling industry, as riverboats head up and down the Mississippi River and dock in places like Vicksburg and Tunica. It's unfortunate that an industry which gives false hope to people about "getting rich quick" has found such a niche in this region. After catching some authentic live blues in Clarksdale, this area has so much more to offer than tacky casinos.

(10) Graceland is Less Opulent than Expected: Sure, Elvis Presley decked out his mansion with shag carpets and bright Seventies furniture more appropriate for a Las Vegas lounge. But the King of Rock 'n' Roll's famous home was surprisingly quite modest. Elvis never forgot his humble roots, by honoring a promise to his parents who had struggled hard to raise him. He had them live with him at Graceland, and spent the next 20 years of his life making worthy charitable donations in the Memphis area. Say what you want about Elvis' red-baiting politics ... the guy still had a Heart of Gold, and his impact on music cannot be disputed. Long live the King!

Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published. He also kept a personal blog of his Miami-to-Memphis road trip.