The Florida Gold Coast: it’s paradise. From Miami to West Palm Beach, the beautiful beaches, warm winter weather, well-stocked art museums, luxurious gated communities, golf courses and upscale shopping malls and restaurants annually attract thousands of snowbirds and second homeowners, especially older folks. Founded by the visionary Henry Flagler, the Gold Coast is not just paradise for the 1% but also for middle- and working-class people who retire here to live the good life, avoid paying taxes in their home states and mix with those just like themselves.
Holed up in gated communities, they are protected by security guards, some of whom are armed, to keep out the riffraff. The royal palms help shield their eyes from the people who service them: the Latinos, blacks, homeless and poor, who are everywhere but are never seen. Paradise is isolated by the Gold Coast car culture, which separates people in the cocoon of their private vehicles: those who don’t drive take the community busses that shuttle them to the malls and the supermarkets. Nobody walks on the Gold Coast except on the boardwalks or around a lake or canal in their gated community. For the doctors, dentists, lawyers, investment bankers, business people and retired public service workers — almost all white — who live on the Gold Coast, those on the other side are invisible. And who are they, on the other side?
The beautiful landscapes and gardens are serviced by Mexican immigrants, some of who are here legally, some not. They cut the grass and trim the trees, hauling off the branches in barrels that they carry on their backs. The lucky ones, like Miguel, learn gardening and if they are really lucky, find some employers who value their skills. Miguel is from a small town in Guanajuato, Mexico, where his father was a farmer. But Miguel had higher ambitions, so he headed north to the United States. He took a long, hard and dangerous crossing into Arizona, crammed into an old van with other men with the same ambitions, and then on to Florida, where he was dumped on the street in a coastal town.
“It cost me a bundle,” he said, “but it was an investment.”
One that paid off, sort of. Friends of friends rented him a room and helped him find work as a roofer and a housepainter, and later, as a landscape gardener. He saved some money and went into his own landscaping business. He was cheated of his savings by a real estate agent, but was able to find some work with a crew in a fancy gated community, and didn’t have to stand on the sidewalks and in the downscale shopping centers, where Mexican men wait for day work with $10 per hour wages. And he loves this country.
“It’s not the paradise we heard about, but I have no choice,” Miguel said. He still has dreams of “making it“ and returning to his home in Mexico. But among most of the people he works for, who cares?
The other side of paradise is located just 50 miles west of the Gold Coast, on Lake Okeechobee. There are hardly any white folks here — maybe the fire chief, or the manager of the scenic hiking being built to attract tourists — but that trail is just one mile long. And there are only black folks fishing.
When I asked Evie, a black woman in her 40s caring for her three-year-old grandchild, what people do here, she told me, “Folks don’t do anything out here; me, I take care of my seven grandchildren. There’s no jobs here, all the young people leave and I don’t blame them. My son, he’s 21, he said, ‘Ma, I’m leaving and I ain’t coming back except to visit.’”
She continued, “He’s right, there’s nothing to do here, the sugar is all done by machines now, no jobs at all, folks fish here so they can eat. I used to have a job in West Palm Beach, but driving one hour each way stressed me out. One day the sheriff gave me a ticket for going 15 miles over the speed limit; when he saw my grandson in the back seat with no car seat, he was going to add on a $15 fine. I started to cry and I told him, ‘Where am I going to get a car seat, I have to drive all the way to Palm Springs for my job, at $4 a gallon for gas, that’s $10 right there, I can’t afford a car seat.’ So he let me go with a warning. Just a piece of luck, no way I could have paid a ticket! That’s when I quit my job.”
But it’s not just blacks and Latinos on the other side of paradise. Jimmy, a white, working class guy, with a small beard and a potbelly, wearing camouflage pants, a multi-pocketed fisherman’s vest, a baseball cap and military style sunglasses, stands on the road in front of a luxurious gated community, with his bicycle on the grass beside him. He holds a large sign hoisted on a pole that reads, “Dr. Stevens, The Worst Dentist Ever,” in huge letters and just below, in smaller print, ‘In my opinion.’” The opposite side of the sign reads, “Home/Office of a Cock-a-Hoop Arrogant Crybaby,” in huge, red letters, with the dentist’s Florida phone number beside it.
When I asked Jimmy about it, he said, “See, I went to this dentist for a gum problem and he wanted full cash payment up front. The doctors here all take Medicare, but a lot of the dentists want total cash on the line. The treatment made me feel worse so I called the guy’s office and asked his receptionist about a refund. She told me ‘We don’t give refunds.’ So I’m here, every day all day.”
He continued, “And I ain’t going away any time soon. Every couple of days I get a couple of illegals to stand with me; I dig them up at Home Depot, places like that, they’re all there looking for extra cash and will do anything for 10 bucks an hour. These people behind these gates, they think they can get away with anything, but this is America, I know my rights!”
Paradise and the other side of paradise rarely meet. You want to see the other side of paradise, take a bus: that’s how the homeless, the disabled, minority and poor people get around. But no one in paradise takes the bus. And so, the other side of paradise remains exactly that, the other side, where no one from paradise ever ventures.
Serena Nanda is a professor emeritus of anthropology at CUNY's John Jay College. Her most recent book is Assisted Dying: An Ethnographic Murder Mystery on Florida's Gold Coast.