The Boomtown That Shouldn't Exist and Lies that Came True
Categories: Survival, Sustainability, Urban Issues, Power Solutions, Inspiration, Extra
CAPE CORAL, Florida—the ads promised paradise, “Legendary Lazy Living” in a “Waterfront Wonderland.” The brochures sold the Florida dream, “an enchanted City-in-the-Making (average temperature: 71.2 degrees)” without winter, worries or state income taxes. Cape Coral was America’s land of tomorrow, just $20 down and $20 a month for a quarter-acre slice of heaven: “Breathtaking, isn’t it? How could it be otherwise when Nature was so lavishly generous to begin with?”
The Raso family moved from Pittsburgh to Cape Coral on September 14, 1960, lured by that sunny vision of affordable utopia. At the time, the vision was just about all there was. The City-in-the-Making was still mostly uninhabitable swampland, with just a few dozen homes along a few mosquito-swarmed dirt roads. “We were pioneers in a station wagon instead of a covered wagon,” recalls Gloria Raso Tate, who was 9 years old when she piled into the back seat with her three sisters and a mutt named Peppy.
The Rasos quickly discovered that in some ways, nature had not been so lavishly generous to Cape Coral. They arrived in town the same hour as Hurricane Donna, which was shredding Southwest Florida with winds of 120 miles per hour. They spent their first night in paradise in a house with no roof, which was breathtaking in a way the ads hadn’t foreseen.
“My mom was not a happy camper. She thought the storm was a sign we never should’ve come to Florida,” Raso Tate says. “But my dad was Mr. Positive. He believed in the dream, and nothing could change his mind.”
Raso Tate’s true-believing dad soon became a top salesman for Cape Coral’s developer, Gulf American, peddling paradise on layaway, promoting one of the most notorious land scams in Florida’s scammy history. Gulf American unloaded tens of thousands of low-lying Cape Coral lots on dreamseekers all over the world before the authorities cracked down on its frauds and deceptions. It passed off inaccessible mush as prime real estate, sold the same swampy lots to multiple buyers, and used listening devices to spy on its customers. Its hucksters spun a soggy floodplain between the Caloosahatchee River and the Gulf of Mexico as America’s middle-class boomtown of the future, and suckers bought it.
The thing is, the hucksters were right, and so were the suckers. Cape Coral is now the largest city in America’s fastest-growing metropolitan area. Its population has soared from fewer than 200 when the Rasos arrived to 180,000 today. Its low-lying swamps have been drained, thanks to an astonishing 400 miles of canals—the most of any city on earth—that serve not only as the city’s stormwater management system but also its defining real estate amenity. Those ditches were an ecological disaster, ravaging wetlands, estuaries and aquifers. Cape Coral was a planning disaster, too, designed without water or sewer pipes, shops or offices, or almost anything but pre-platted residential lots. But people flocked here anyway. The title of a memoir by a Gulf American secretary captured the essence of Cape Coral: Lies That Came True.
It really captured the essence of Florida, a precarious civilization engineered out of a watery wilderness, a bewildering dreamscape forged by greed, flimflam and absurdly grandiose visions that somehow stumbled into heavily populated realities..... Read on to the rest of the story.....