So now we come to the final installment of this very, very occasional news column, which hasn't seen print since November 2008, right after the election. Not continuing this thing on a (more) regular basis is one of the regrets as I leave the Orlando Weekly to take a job editing a paper out west. There was never enough time, not enough meaty subject material to sustain it … all the usual excuses apply.
But back when I did crank it out on a weekly basis, Slug was a great soapbox to stand on and observe the twists and turns of Orlando as it tried to become a "real" city. Some of those attempts have been laughable (remember how Lou Pearlman was going to save downtown?) and some have been scandalous (Cameron Kuhn comes to mind). Some serve to remind how desperate Orlando is to be taken seriously (that would be the "creative village"), and some are going to haunt this city for a long, long time — anyone want to buy a condo downtown? Anyone at all?
So this may come as a surprise, because Orlando is a town that loves to hate itself, but I think we're a lot closer to the ephemeral idea of being "real" than we were in 2002 when I started at this paper. And virtually none of that progress is attributable to the city itself.
It's accepted to slag on Orlando for being a conservative backwater known more for mega churches and The Mouse than anything authentic, but that doesn't take into account that we have film festivals, public and performance art and activists who never tire of fighting for social justice. We have a broad and deep music scene that's always entertaining and occasionally brilliant. We have dining options that much larger cities would envy — you won't find better Vietnamese restaurants anywhere in the country. We have a downtown that's lively on most nights, even if it is in need of some diversification. And, if I do say so myself, we have an alternative newspaper that does a lot of solid, groundbreaking work on a shoestring budget. (And, as I am contractually obligated to mention, we have Billy Manes.)
Look around and you'll note that there are people doing very cool things here, building less-ordinary lives for themselves and enriching the city in the process. It's a good start. But it isn't enough.
Wearing cruelty-free sandals and irrigating your organic garden with rain you catch in a barrel isn't enough. Riding your bike down Colonial Drive because you have the legal right to do so isn't enough. Buying your locally sourced produce at a local farmers' market isn't enough. Being active in one of the many cultural cliques — that often refuse to talk with the other cultural cliques — isn't enough.
If you really want this town to become the next Austin or Asheville, if you want it to be a place built and managed for the benefit of the people who live here rather than the developers who turn a fast buck here, you've got to hold your nose and get your hands on the levers of power. Because here's an obvious fact: your elected officials don't give a shit about you. It's been proven time and again that being an incumbent in this town is equivalent to tenure. Unless you're caught with a choirboy or a sheep, there's almost nothing you can do to lose your place at the public trough.
How else is it possible to explain the idea that Orlando is building a new stadium for a billionaire and the project was never put to a vote? Or that the city is charging head-first into a disastrous financing plan for a new performing arts center that has no space for local arts groups? Or that the expressway authority exists only to collect money so that it can build more roads so that it can collect more money?
That's development for the sake of developers. It has nothing to do with making Orlando a vibrant, sustainable city. And it is the kind of thing that's been going on here forever, made possible by the people you don't vote out of office. People like Mayor Buddy Dyer, who never met a developer he didn't like; and city commissioner Patty Sheehan, who was once a progressive activist and is now a Dyer toady whose pet project is to make homeless people vanish; and city commissioner Daisy Lynum, who has been in office so long she may have literally gone crazy. It's also made possible by the people you don't elect: common-sense progressives willing to call bullshit when calling bullshit is required.
Now is the time and Orlando is the place. Organize. Demand social justice and fiscal sanity from your city and county. Scream for policy that puts taxpayers above the interests of billionaires and bounce the pols who won't comply. Build a base in the city, then the county, then the region. The implications would be statewide.
In other words, steal this city.
Bob Whitby was the editor of Orlando Weekly from August 2002 until April 2010. He's moving to Las Vegas to continue his tourist-town editing tour. His next stop is Branson, Mo. He is contractually obligated to mention the name "Billy Manes," but now he has fulfilled that obligation and is free to firstname.lastname@example.org