Orlando in mourning. Adrees Latif/Reuters

Orlando after tragedy: much more than world’s theme park

Orlando has long been characterized as a place of transients, a perpetual churn of people moving in and out. Orlando is a stop, a stepping stone, not a destination. The city once even referred to its homeless as “transients” – as if they were something temporary, rather than permanent.

I certainly felt temporary when I took my first job in journalism as a reporter for The Orlando Sentinel in 1974. Three years here, five tops, and then on to a bigger paper in a bigger city.

But as happens, Orlando took a hold of me in ways subtle and significant. Forty-one years later, I retired from the paper in June 2015 and took a job teaching journalism and mass communication at the University of Central Florida.

Yet even as I stayed in one place, I wondered why I felt no strong sense of place to Orlando. That’s always been the rap on Orlando: There’s no there there.

Well, there is now. The mass murder attack on a gay club filled with young Hispanics is very much an attack on Orlando itself, a city with a young demographic, racially and ethnically diverse, and gay friendly.

Over the past four decades, I’ve witnessed a city reinvent itself as the result of seismic social, cultural and demographic change.

A place for reinvention

Pulse was a place where people could be themselves. Indeed, Orlando is that city where people come to reinvent, or discover, who they are.

They move here from Iowa, Georgia, New York, Puerto Rico and Great Britain, looking for something better than what they left behind. If they stay, they end up changing the character, the culture, the identity, of Orlando.

When I arrived in the mid-‘70s, Orlando was a city still struggling with integration. It was predominately white, largely Republican and overwhelmingly conservative. It had an Old Guard who ran the town, but they had the vision to make the place hospitable to Walt Disney. As Carl Langford, Orlando’s then-mayor, quipped:

Show me a mayor in the United States who wouldn’t just love to have Walt Disney sitting on his doorstep as a neighbor.

Walt Disney comes to Florida in 1965 to scout locations for his second-ever theme park. State of Florida

Orlando today has a young demographic. Unlike South Florida and the Gulf Coast, Orlando, a former citrus trade town that transitioned into a tourism hub, was never a retirement destination.

With a median age of 32.8, Orlando is a city of 240,000, of which the largest group (11 percent) is between 25 and 29 years old. Many of them are employed at the area’s theme parks or attend the University of Central Florida – the nation’s second-largest university. Others, like my sons, were born here and stayed here because of job opportunities, friends, family and familiarity.

Orlando is racially, ethnically and internationally diverse: 41 percent white, 27 percent black, 25 percent Hispanic, 18 percent foreign-born.

The growth of the Hispanic population – from 4.1 percent in 1980 – is largely Puerto Rican and comes from two directions – the island itself and transplants from the Northeast. Of the 60,000 Hispanics who live in the city, more than half are of Puerto Rican ancestry.

Politically, Orlando is solidly Democratic. Registered Democrats in Orange County outnumber Republicans 42 percent to 29 percent. The last Republican presidential candidate to win Orange County was Bob Dole in 1996.

Mr Mayor, Buddy Dyer. State of Florida

The city of Orlando is much more liberal than the rest of Central Florida and the state. Buddy Dyer, a liberal Democrat, was first elected Orlando mayor in 2003 to replace Republican Glenda Hood. He has now won reelection four times, most recently in 2015 with 63 percent of the vote.

A seminal cultural battle

The city is also among the most accepting of gays. In 2014, Orlando was listed as the 13th “gayest city” in the nation by Advocate, a gay magazine.

But while Orlando may be accepting, it is also home to the LGBT-bashing Liberty Counsel, which challenges gay rights in court and has been vocal in the transgender bathroom debate, as well as other conservative and fundamentalist organizations.

In 2002, those opposing forces faced off in a bitter and vitriolic fight over an Orlando ordinance that proposed banning discrimination against gays in employment, housing and public places The law won a narrow 4-3 passage, but the victory set the stage for all that followed: the city’s domestic partnership registry in 2012 and an anti-discrimination ordinance in Orange County in 2010, making Orlando one of 255 cities and counties in the U.S. to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Gay Day at Walt Disney World. jericl cat, CC BY-SA

Some of this is the influence of Disney, Orlando’s largest employer with 60,000 workers, which began offering same-sex partners health benefits in 1995. And while Walt Disney World doesn’t formally sanction Gay Days, it has done nothing to discourage the annual six-day event that attracts 150,000 LGBT visitors to the theme park, all wearing red t-shirts, despite an eight-year boycott of the attraction by the Southern Baptist Convention.

These gay-friendly policies are also, however, the result of gay community leaders convincing elected officials that anti-discrimination ordinances made the city more attractive to many corporations looking to relocate.

“If you’re not an inclusive, diverse and fair-minded city, you’re going to have trouble attracting the quality talent that makes your city successful,” Mayor Buddy Dyer told the Watermark Online, Orlando’s gay newspaper. “As much as it’s a fairness issue and an equality issue, it’s also an issue of how are you going to make your city succeed?”

Looking to the past, this is a similar approach to the practical, image-conscious decision by Orlando leaders in the 1960s that prevented racial violence during the civil rights movement by working with local civil rights activists and business owners to voluntarily desegregate motels and restaurants.

At that time, Orlando established an identity closer to Atlanta than Birmingham, more like Miami than Jacksonville.

But Orlando lacks the sense of history of an Atlanta or the ocean of a Miami. The transient nature of Orlando, with its tourists and turnover, works against a natural sense of place. It takes some time, and effort, to discover the city’s true identity.

I found my sense of place when I recognized Orlando for what it is: an amazingly clean, relatively new, progressive, medium-sized city that is welcoming to both visitors and newcomers.

Young people, and the multitude of “cool” bars and restaurants that cater to them, give the city an energy and vitality that was missing when I first walked down Orange Avenue in a downtown emptied by the suburbs and malls. The diversity – all those people from all those different places – gives the city something of a cosmopolitan feel and counteracts the tendency to become provincial. In my years of reporting, I met people from all over the world, and every corner of the country, who chose Orlando over their hometown or nation of origin because there was something here (safety, jobs, a good place to raise children) that they didn’t have back home.

In 2005, I decided to explore why after all these years I didn’t feel a strong attachment to Orlando. I wrote a series in search of what creates connection and community.

One of the stories was about the community of disaster: how traumatic events bring people together. Neighbors who never knew each other grew close after the tornado, the hurricane, the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Orlando, June 14, 2016. Carlos Allegri/Reuters

You can have a neighborhood, but community occurs only when the people living there realize they have something in common beyond mere proximity.

Those inside Pulse felt that sense of community on the dance floor and at the bar. They shared an ethnic heritage, a sexual identity, a generational perspective. They shared a place, a drink, a moment of joy.

And when a madman tried to take that all away, he created a greater sense of community that comes from a shared grief. There is a there there in the hearts and tears of Orlando.