It was the early 1970s. We were new in town, still trying to figure out which way the ocean was, but we had learned that Maggie Walker was a reliable source. She was assistant editor of Gold Coast magazine, and when she suggested a piece on a fellow who had a renewal plan for Fort Lauderdale’s downtown, we trusted her judgment.
Thus we learned about Stan Smoker, who had come to town in the 1950s, leaving behind a family business in Indiana. He took a job driving a truck for $40 a week, and went on to become a developer who saw the future of downtown Fort Lauderdale when the tallest building was about five stories high and Las Olas Boulevard was filled with gray windows of vacant stores. At the time, Commercial Boulevard, several miles to the north, was the center of entertainment.
The article included a double page rendering by the architectural firm of Gamble & Gilroy. It seemed absurdly optimistic, showing new tall office buildings and condos and featuring a new library and art museum. All expected to happen within a few years. It did not happen—not then. The economy took a downtown, and the city’s major department store, Burdines, even moved out to the new Galleria Mall. It was a time when Bill Farkas, the new downtown development director, built tennis courts to give the appearance that something was happening where old buildings had been razed.
Stan Smoker never lost faith in his concept, however. He had acquired land on both sides of the New River and on Las Olas, and eventually, his vision rose from the ground. He died this week, at age 94, having lived long enough to see his concept fulfilled even beyond his ambitious plan, and having his foresight memorialized in Smoker Park, along the south side of the New River, part of his original holdings.
Smoker’s optimism was his style. His son Ed, now a developer, told the Sun Sentinel his father wanted people to like him. They sure did, and he made friendship seem easy, with a happy personality that made you feel like the most important person in the world. Until the last year, when his health declined, he remained highly visible and little changed from the enthusiastic fellow of the 1970s.
Nowhere was that energy more apparent than when, a few years later, Maggie Walker again brought his name up in connection with his plan for developing Scotland Cay in the Bahamas. She went over to cover the story, along with photographer Bob Ruff. Her piece made it sound like a great place for a second home, free from commercial overkill. It featured a shot of Stan relaxing at one of the few homes on the island. You can feel his exuberance in the photo.
Again, his instincts were correct. Not only did he attract prominent Gold Coast people to invest in the island, he also sold to Europeans. Years later he credited the magazine for helping him put Scotland Cay on the map. It probably would have worked as well without the publicity, but appreciation was part of Stan Smoker’s engaging way.
For this Gold Coast pioneer, optimism was its own reward.
He had a pretty good job for a young guy. Roger Ailes was the producer of the popular "The Mike Douglas Show," at the time based in Philadelphia and a pioneer in the field of daytime TV talk shows. But the 28-year-old Ailes had not had a national reputation until he suddenly became the star of a best-selling book. Joe McGinniss, also in Philly at the time, had quit his job as the young featured columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer to follow the campaign of Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential race.
McGinniss was a liberal, but somehow he conned his way into Nixon's campaign, to which Ailes was the media adviser. Ailes had met Nixon through the Douglas show and bluntly told the future president that he did not understand the power of TV. Impressed, Nixon hired him. Joe McGinniss and Ailes hit it off, and the writer got a remarkable behind-the-scenes look at a very contrived made-for-TV campaign. A big part of the story was Ailes, who concealed nothing from the writer, including his often irreverent and highly amusing comments about his own candidate, and his cynical contempt for the intelligence of the American voter. Ailes designed a campaign in which Nixon avoided the legitimate press; instead, he appeared at mock town hall meetings filled with hand-picked supporters who asked questions which, while ostensibly sincere, were crafted for Nixon's prepared answers.
It all came out in the blockbuster book, "The Selling of a President – 1968," which made both McGinniss and Ailes familiar names, at least in political circles. The praise it earned Ailes as a political operator also hardened his conviction that news could be manipulated to present political propaganda as legitimate reporting. It was not a novel concept. The Nazis were pretty good at it decades earlier, but that was before TV. We know that McGinniss/Ailes story well. We wrote about both men during our days at Philadelphia magazine.
Ailes always seemed to have had a right wing bias; he thought liberals dominated the media, but for years, he was a hired gun. He worked a time for NBC and gave the ardently liberal Chris Matthews his first shot. But mostly, he consulted for Republicans, with notable success. He earned professional respect for helping Ronald Reagan conceal his growing senility and provided the grossly unfair racist ads, which propelled the first President Bush to the White House. But it was not until 1996, when he launched Fox News with Rupert Murdock's money, that his idea of a news organization devoted to conservative, mostly Republican values, became reality.
Twenty years later his success is obvious. Fox News is a leader in the news field. Until he recently got ousted for sexual harassment, Ailes made money Donald Trump would admire.
Roger Ailes’ concept has fulfilled his ambition of countering the liberal media bias with a "fair and balanced" network. He launched a corrupt propaganda machine with that patently dishonest slogan. To the surprise of almost all serious journalists, it worked. We wonder today how much 20 years of daily news distortion has molded U.S. public opinion to the extent that a Donald Trump, with all his crudeness, prejudice and ignorance of foreign affairs, can seduce such a large portion of the electorate.
Polls show he is most popular with white men without a college education. We feel certain most of that group are those who have given up newspapers, if they ever read them, and probably have little use for conventional NBC, CBS and ABC newscasts. But what surprises us is how many of our intelligent, college-educated friends also seem to prefer Fox's fair and balanced distortions of any story with political implications to the traditional news format established by such TV news icons as Edward R. Murrow, Huntley-Brinkley, Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid.
Die-hard Fox fans will point to MSNBC as the left-wing equivalent of Fox's right-wing filter. But there are differences. MSNBC does not deny its bias toward progressive opinion; it actually promotes it. But it also draws on NBC mainstream stars, such as Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams, to achieve a degree of balance. This week’s repeated harsh criticism by "Morning Joe" Scarborough about Hillary Clinton's (rare) Sunday interview on Fox regarding her email controversy is the kind of reverse form candor you rarely see on Fox.
Fox does present alternate views. It discovered that people fighting on camera pull better than undiluted propaganda. It also may be tired of being the butt of jokes by the real people in our business.
This rant appears after two weeks vacation in the North Carolina mountains, watching Fox every day, switching back and forth to other news channels for comparison. Some political stories are covered much alike, but the most important ones take on the Roger Ailes slant. One that stands out is the repeated economic refrain—the country is going to hell, and we need change. Growth is slow, wages stagnant. When people hear that day after day, they tend to start feeling sorry for themselves.
Fox does not mention that when President Obama took office, things were really scary. The stock market had collapsed. Sales signs dominated neighborhood lawns. The auto industry was in peril. Our magazine company sales dropped a full third in a matter of months. Executive salaries went down about as much. Now, friends, that was real trouble in River City.
Today, unemployment is low. The stock market is at record levels. Warren Buffett, who is entitled to an opinion, says things are pretty good. You may even hear some of that on Fox, but you have to listen fast. It won't last long.
The big story in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer struck close to home, even from 1,300 miles away. Two financial guys are under investigation for enormous campaign contributions to various Treasurers of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who control billions of dollars of state money to be invested with whatever investment firms the treasurer deems fit. In this case, the state treasurer saw fit to turn that money over to firms recommended by the two financial guys who had just sent $150,000 each (on the same day) to the treasurer's campaign chest. Before that treasurer left office, she received $475,000 in contributions from the two financiers.
This was back in 2000, but it was just the beginning of a pattern that went on for more than a decade involving various public officials. The financial guys are described as "finders," and their political contributions amounted to around $3 million over the years. The fees they received from the money managers who got contracts amounted to many millions more over the years, enabling the two men to enjoy satisfying lifestyles. We will not name the two financial guys; they have not been charged, and one of them is from our alma mater, which has never produced anything but saintly figures—unless you count a few sons of Mafiosos. The Inky (local parlance) revealed that an official already convicted has been wearing a wire for the feds for two years, taping conversations with one of the financial guys. If you are that guy, you really don't like to read that in the paper.
It is all part of a federal "pay to play" probe in Pennsylvania, which has earned a rep as one of the leading states for that kind of corruption. Florida was not ranked in that category, but given the climate of the last few years, we surely deserve consideration.
It appears that the feds are looking at the possibility of political contributions being considered criminal bribes. That should be welcome news on the Treasure Coast, where a movement is underway to have the authorities look into the massive contributions from Big Sugar, which have increasingly controlled state government and particularly influenced local legislators who ignore the people who elected them, with disastrous results for the environment.
The important difference between the contributions in Pennsylvania and those in Florida is their impact on the state. Pennsylvania involves facets of government most people never think of—and are hardly affected by the legal bribery. In Florida, the contributions have produced environmental damage, which directly affects thousands of people, seriously damaging the economy of beautiful counties on both sides of the state and creating a health hazard for those who live and work there. Compared to Florida, the Pennsylvania corruption seems almost trivial.
Our guess is that given the recent and totally predictable consequences of discharges from Lake Okeechobee, which the disaster named Gov. Rick Scott blames on the federal government rather than his own political hacks who have caused it, the feds have to take notice. Political corruption in Florida is worse than Pennsylvania. And if the feds are not on this case already, they should be.
The Champ was sitting up in bed, topless, a sheet up to his waist, eating some kind of cream pie. It was a hotel room in Las Vegas, and it was filled with people. Sort of an informal press conference. The Champ was scheduled to fight Floyd Patterson in a day or two. He looked at us and said, in a soft voice, “You want some of this pie? It’s really good. Don’t be shy. Have some.”
If that sounds like a strange scene, it was. This was a young man who was generally portrayed at the time as obnoxiously angry; who had just abandoned his “slave” name, Cassius Clay; who had been taunting his opponent as an Uncle Tom; who had recently been photographed, raving like a maniac, standing over a prone and supposedly unconscious Sonny Liston; who almost surely had taken a dive at a championship fight in Maine. And here he was in bed late in the morning, acting almost sweet and instantly likeable, seeming anything but the baddest dude on the planet.
We happened to be there that morning in November 1965, because we had just left a job as a columnist for The Delaware County Daily Times in Chester, Pennsylvania. We had gone to Philadelphia magazine, which was in the early stages of inventing the city/regional magazine. At the magazine, we followed up on a story that had begun in Chester. Liston was the heavyweight champion. He was an extraordinarily powerful puncher, but he was tainted by mob connections. Richly deserved, by the way. To clean up his act, his management contract had been taken over by the Nilon brothers, Bob and Jim, of Chester. They were in the business of providing concessions at major sports events, and very successfully. Their attorney was a young fellow named Garland Cherry who, for obvious reasons, went by the name Bill.
Bill Cherry, who died in 2010 after a long and distinguished career, was already a local legal star in the 1960s, having shown considerable independence in a suburban Philadelphia county, which was dominated by a corrupt Republican machine.
We wrote about him and the Nilon brothers, first at the newspaper, later at the magazine. He liked our stuff, and invited us to be his guest at the fight in Las Vegas. Liston was no longer champion, but Bill Cherry had written an agreement to promote the first fights of the man who dethroned him—now known as Muhammad Ali. Thus, that brief morning glimpse of the Champ eating a cream pie for breakfast.
The scene seemed odd at the time, but only over the years has it made sense. Clay/Ali was two people. One was the brilliant self promoter—arrogant and entertaining—whose gifts in the ring backed up his bravado. The other was the man behind the mask, the fellow he would have been even if he had not been one of the most famous celebrities of his time.
We have been checking out comments from various sources since his death this month. He lived in Philadelphia for a time, and his presence there was heightened by his rivalry with Joe Frazier, who also lived there. Their three fights were classics. Ali also trained in Miami and always connected to his native Louisville. People who knew him in all those venues recall not so much the showman, but a man who was always approachable, and who genuinely liked people, especially children who idolized him.
Almost all who knew him outside the circus of boxing found him warm and affectionate—the young man eating cream pie in a hotel room. He was also a family man, aided by four wives. His daughters, as articulate as if they had grown up at fancy prep schools, show a warm and loving father.
The stories of his famous insults of opponents are now revealed as largely part of the game. A respected boxing writer says that fight in Las Vegas, where he allegedly tortured the former champ, Patterson, was part of the show. Ali later gave Patterson another fight, which Patterson did not deserve, because he heard Patterson had tax problems and needed the payday. And although he taunted Frazier and called him a “gorilla,” he showed up at his funeral in 2011, even though very sick himself. Officially, Parkinson’s disease was the culprit, but it is now agreed by those in the boxing arena, that he was the victim of too many blows to the head, a condition familiar in boxing that we used to call “punch drunk.”
Speaking of punchy, which is associated with memory loss, we did not stay in Vegas for the actual fight, and after 51 years we can’t remember why. It must have been a family matter. The Champ would understand.
Recent decisions by several South Florida governments are some of the most controversial cases of elected officials ignoring the concerns of residents in favor of developers.
It has been some time since any proposed development drew the opposition that the Bahia Mar redevelopment on Fort Lauderdale beach has. We can’t think of any project that was so opposed by residents that they amassed 1,200 signatures, and even called for a moratorium on new development until planners address the traffic problems.
Maybe you need to go back to the 1970s when Boca Raton, alarmed by the rapid high rise development to the south—mainly in Fort Lauderdale—led the voters to pass a density cap, stopped development cold for more than five years until the courts ruled the law unconstitutional. And this was a time when Fort Lauderdale development was just starting; the tall buildings in Broward were mostly confined to the beach. Fort Lauderdale’s downtown was stagnating, and its redevelopment efforts were so stymied that city planners installed tennis courts where old buildings had already been razed—just to give the impression something was happening.
Times change. Fort Lauderdale, and other parts of South Florida, have grown so much, so fast, that residents are resisting new development on the grounds that it is destroying its way of life in some of South Florida’s oldest, and most expensive neighborhoods. The Bahia Mar issue is unusual in that it is public land that is being slated for high rise development at a time when residents have had more than enough development. And these are not just any residents. They are people on the high priced Las Olas Isles, as well as other downtown neighborhoods, who find themselves choked with traffic heading to and from the beach. The four (of five) city commissioners who voted for the project are taking heat, none more so than Bruce Roberts.
Buddy Nevins, whose Broward Beat is one of the most influential blogs in the area, called former police chief Roberts a “pro-developer stooge” for asserting at a meeting last week that high density decreases traffic. His comments infuriated some residents in the City Hall audience who battle traffic daily, Nevins wrote. And the people who live here feel betrayed by elected officials who seem to be approving everything, no matter what the people who voted them in think.
If anything, the situation is worse in Palm Beach County, which still has considerable open land on its western perimeter. That is by design. Almost 20 years ago voters overwhelmingly approved an agricultural preserve for some of the state’s richest farming country, but recent decisions by county commissioners have begun chipping away, permitting development and setting a precedent for more land owners to sell for more growth. It also seems a betrayal to people who live in that low density area, who bought with the understanding that their rural lifestyle would be preserved.
The frustration of those fighting unwanted development in both the Fort Lauderdale beach case and the Palm Beach County agricultural preserve is summed up nicely in this excerpt from a letter last week in the Palm Beach Post. Reader Tom Twyford wrote:
“It is obvious to me, and many others, that the general public has very little voice or influence in the development approval process until it is far too late.
By the time a concerned citizen gets his or her three minutes at the podium, the decisions have basically been made. Developers, and their team of lobbyists and lawyers, are already on a first-name basis with county and municipal leaders, and planning and zoning staff, who more often than not recommend approval of the proposed projects—or generally much of what the developer wants.”
That’s gentle criticism compared to some of those responding behind the shield of anonymity on the Internet. Words such as “fix,” “bribe” and “corruption” are used. We find it hard to believe that any Fort Lauderdale commissioner got enough in campaign contributions from the Bahia Mar developer to buy their vote; we are not so sure about Palm Beach County, which has had some nice scandals involving public officials and crooked real estate deals in recent years.
Move a few miles north and it is a different story, in a situation much more serious than the aforementioned events. Business on both sides of Lake Okeechobee, relating to fishing and tourism, is being destroyed by pollution from discharges from the lake, and angry people are starting to react. Up there, campaign contributions in massive amounts (in one case almost $1 million over several years to a powerful figure) are clearly influencing legislators to vote against the interests of their own neighbors. The money comes from Big Sugar, which, supported by Gov. Rick Scott, has been resisting efforts to sell land south of the lake to store and cleanse the water now being discharged to the east and west, where nature never meant it to flow. This is even after Scott’s puppets on the South Florida Water Management District ignored the intent of voter-approved Amendment One, designed to provide funds for the purpose of Big Sugar land, which scientists agree is the only way to stop the ruinous discharges.
Gold Coast reported last October that the situation is so critical that a prominent citizen (and ex-politician) drew a standing ovation after suggesting to a group in Stuart, which represented almost all business interests, such large campaign contributions should be considered criminal bribes. That, of course, would require some serious investigation, probably by the feds.
If elected leaders continue to ignore, and in the Lake Okeechobee matter, even pervert the will of the people, it may yet come to that. It might be good citizenship to spread that rumor. Just don’t say where you heard it.
The announcement Wednesday that the South Florida Ford Dealers have signed on as a title sponsor for the Fort Lauderdale Air Show is great news for local business people who have worked to revive the show for several years. An auto company being associated with an air show may seem an odd coupling, but not to aviation historians.
The fact is the name Ford has been associated with airplanes from almost the birth of aviation. After succeeding in mass-producing his Model T Fords, Henry Ford became fascinated with vehicles that fly. Ford built the first successful commercial aircraft. The Ford Trimotor appeared in 1926, and was purchased by numerous pioneer airlines and 199 copies were produced before production ended in 1933. Among them was Ford’s own airline, Ford Aviation Transport, an airfreight outfit that was the first to fly air mail.
The Trimotor wasn’t pretty. The third engine in the nose was ungainly, and its air-cooled radial engines had no cowlings. Later designs in the early 1930s, such as the Boeing 247 and the Douglas DC-2, made it look archaic. But it was a sturdy and reliable machine, which achieved many firsts, including Richard Byrd’s flight over the South Pole, and many of Pan American’s flights from Miami to South America. It managed to keep flying for commercial purposes into the 1960s. A handful survive today, used mostly on tourist operations—in which the airplane itself is the star of the tour.
By World War II Ford had stopped building its own planes, but it became a major manufacturer of engines and aircraft designed by other companies. Its Willow Run plant, outside Dearborn, Michigan, had a production line a mile long. It built thousands of the Consolidated B-24 bombers, which along with the Boeing B-17 became the primary weapons in the campaign to destroy Nazi Germany’s industry. Ford built other airplane parts as well, and by the war's end it had built thousands of complete aircraft, plus 57,851 airplane engines and more than 4,000 military gliders.
This was in addition to building tanks, trucks and smaller vehicles, including 278,000 of the famous Willys jeeps. Ford even had a plant in Germany, which the Germans commandeered to produce its own weapons. As the Allies swept across Western Europe, German employees ignored orders to destroy the plan in Cologne and it actually produced its first post-war truck on May 8, 1945—the date the war in Europe ended.
It is probably too late for next week's show, but don't be surprised if Ford brings back its relic as a supporting actor in future airshows.
Five years after the story broke locally, it is going national. Recently, “60 Minutes” aired a piece on the story first reported by Dan Christensen’s Florida Bulldog, an independent investigative group that is filling the void left by the decline of major newspapers.
The story is a 9/11 mystery, which, if the government has its way, will remain a mystery as long as possible. Christensen and Irish journalist Anthony Summers discovered that some of the 9/11 hijackers were in contact with a highly connected Saudi Arabian figure in Sarasota. The man and his family, close to Saudi Arabia’s extensive royal family, were living well in a gated community until shortly before the terrorist attacks, and they left the country in such a hurry that they abandoned their house, cars and other possessions. Suspicious to put it mildly, but that is only the beginning of the tale. Nobody knew it at the time, but some of the hijackers had visited that home.
It turns out the FBI had a file on the Saudi family but never turned it over to the 9/11 commission. After denying it was withholding information, the FBI has released part of its file, but a number of pages remain sealed, despite a lawsuit brought by Florida Bulldog and several 9/11 commissioners, including former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. Graham and other 9/11 commission members, appeared on “60 Minutes,” making the case for the government ending the secrecy.
The TV story prompted another powerful figure, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to add her voice to those calling for more information.
The reasons for the stonewalling appear clear. Either the FBI is covering up bungling on its part, or, more likely, our government is afraid of the backlash against Saudi Arabia if its government, or any part of its complex power structure, were linked to this awful event. Considering the state of the Middle East, we need all the friends we can find over there.
Still, it is hard to believe that men with the clout of the 9/11 commissioners can’t prevail. It is hard to believe, unless one remembers that some 40 years ago the government performed a similar stonewalling act in a situation that was even more important than the 9/11 crime—if that is possible. And in that case a highly placed U.S. Senator was also trying to probe the murky corridors of the intelligence community. He was Pennsylvania’s Richard Schweiker, who died not long ago. Schweiker had privately looked into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and was convinced the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was anything but the “lone nut’ the Warren Commission had made him out to be. “He has the fingerprints of intelligence all over him,” Schweiker said at the time.
Schweiker was in a position to reopen the JFK investigation. He hired Gaeton Fonzi, at the time a partner in this magazine, to look into Florida CIA connections to the anti-Castro movement. Schweiker recalled revealing articles Fonzi had written previously for Philadelphia magazine.
He had a hunch that the anti-Castro movement, or at least the intelligence community working with it, might have connections to the President’s death. Fonzi soon discovered such a connection supporting Schweiker’s theory. An anti-Castro Cuban leader in Miami told him he had seen his CIA handler, who turned out to be high ranking, with Oswald in Dallas shortly before the assassination. That revelation led to five years additional work for Fonzi for the House Select Committee on Assassinations. It also led to Fonzi’s conviction that the CIA, if it had not masterminded the murder of an American president, had done everything it could to impede the investigation by the Warren Commission, and later his committee.
An example: The house committee hired Richard Sprague, a brilliant prosecutor from Philadelphia, to be its chief counsel. But as soon as Sprague tried to get information from the CIA, damaging press on matters unrelated to the JFK probe appeared in important newspapers. Sprague was forced to resign. He said at the time his troubles began when he knocked on the door marked CIA.
The stonewalling continued for five years. In fact, it still goes on. Investigators over the years seeking CIA information have met resistance. Key files are lost. Eighteen months of one man’s life as a spook were missing from his personnel file. It turns out that was the time he spent in South Florida working with anti-Castro groups.
Fonzi’s committee eventually concluded that there was a conspiracy to kill JFK, but take your guess on who did it.
Fonzi wrote “The Last Investigation” to get the truth out. In painful dribs and drabs over the decades, history has confirmed him. One hope is that it does not take that long for Florida Bulldog to get justice.
Sunday's Sun-Sentinel had a long piece on the turmoil at the North Broward Hospital District. To some readers, the article did not make any sense, but that is not the fault of the newspaper. It was simply quoting various players in this saga, at least those willing to be quoted and not hiding from the public eye. And those quoted were the ones who in several cases were not making any sense. They did not know what to say, or as it appeared, could not remember what they were supposed to say.
In one particularly absurd case, a commissioner claimed he was misquoted in a letter he wrote himself.
It was obvious that string pullers were at work. A prominent national public relations firm, one that has people working out of Tallahassee on various issues in which Gov. Rick Scott has an interest, was mentioned in the piece. The fact that the firm was even involved tells you a lot about the machinations going on with the hospital district.
For an outsider, it is hard to tell who is right or wrong, but one thing is obvious. The hospital district board is one appointed by Scott, and key positions at the district’s hospitals are affected by the board’s decisions. One gets the impression that some of the political appointees are solid citizens. But others appear incompetent, at least judging by their public utterances and behavior. And, amid layers of investigations, with investigators seemingly investigating each other, there is the hand of Scott, confusing the issue by removing key board members—the ones who appear to be most able—and approving a state investigation, which only adds to the chaos.
One can almost hear the conversations.
“Commissioner, you’re fired.”
“You can’t fire me, you have no authority. In fact, I’m firing you. Clean out your office.”
“I don’t have an office. Besides, I fired you first. Be gone, or I’ll have security escort you out.”
“I’ll have the police arrest security if you do.”
“I’ll have the FBI arrest the police.”
“I’ll bring in the 101st Airborne to handle the FBI.”
“I have friends in ISIS. They’ll cut people’s heads off.”
Behind all this nonsense is the underlying problem that the district has always been political. And some prominent doctors have been under a cloud over contracts. But at least no one can question the doctors’ competence. They are among the best in their fields—annually listed in Gold Coast magazine’s Top Docs feature, which comes up next month. You can hardly say the same for the political types who oversee them.
And now we have a powerful PR group repeating a tactic we have already seen at work in a more important venue. Scott filled the South Florida Water Management District with political hacks, few of whom had any background to justify their positions. Those people perverted the public’s intention in approving Amendment One, to provide money to buy U.S. Sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee to cleanse polluted water and end the disastrous discharges from the lake, which destroy the estuaries on both coasts.
You see the letters appearing in newspapers, reeking of a PR spin, saying the money was well spent on other projects relating to the environment. Those letter writers claim to represent the interest of the poor farmers around the lake (poor like in giant sugar corporations) and portray the critics of Big Sugar, The Everglades Foundation and other environmental groups, as representing “special interests”—such as the people of South Florida.
You see the same thing happening on a local scale with the hospital district. The difference is that Big Sugar’s spinners know enough not to misquote themselves.
Recent reports that The Wave streetcar for downtown Fort Lauderdale is going to cost far more than anticipated should cause city officials to rethink the whole idea of building an expensive, old fashioned system that is likely to make traffic worse, rather than better. That does not seem to be much of a return on an investment that is now pushing $200 million.
As planned, the streetcar will run on rails and be powered by overhead electrical wires. This is the kind of system that once was found in many cities, but today survives only as a novelty in a few places. San Francisco is one, but San Francisco has also preserved its cable cars, which are so funky and historic that they are a tourist attraction. They also make some sense on some of the extreme inclines in that city. New Orleans also has old streetcars, but they run unobstructed in wide medians of roads and therefore get people around pretty fast. Philadelphia once had an elaborate streetcar system, but the only one that survives has the advantage of running underground beside the subway system until it clears downtown congestion.
Most cities gave up streetcars decades ago because they ceased making sense. The advantage of putting a lot of people in one electric vehicle was an idea that preceded the widespread use of automobiles. Eventually their efficiency was offset when they slowed traffic by occupying traffic lanes, and their need to stop virtually every block to serve passengers.
There are cases where they still make sense, but only as part of a more elaborate rail system. A good illustration is Denver, where multiple-unit cars run on dedicated lanes in the downtown. They don’t impede other traffic and get the right-of-way at traffic lights. They stop every few blocks, but then they connect to the main rail corridors and become commuter trains, whisking people to suburban destinations such as Littleton, or the airport, 25 miles away. If The Wave connected to the FEC corridor where Tri-Rail plans commuter service, it would be a great idea. But that is not planned. What is planned is the kind of service other cities have deemed obsolete. And that includes the overhead wires that at least one public figure, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, sees as totally out of character with leafy Las Olas Boulevard. Note that promotional renderings for The Wave (above) show modern vehicles, but not the overhead wires. Nor do they show traffic backed up behind the rail cars, which is the reality of such a system.
Its proponents emphasize that The Wave is a first step in what could be expansion to the airport and west Broward. Nice idea, but only if the streetcars have a dedicated right-of-way, and there are no plans for that.
It isn’t as if there aren’t options, and vastly cheaper ones at that. Electric buses, running on batteries, are silent, non-polluting and require no overhead electrical system. With improving technology constantly expanding their range, they are gaining popularity. Some experimental electric buses have gotten more than 250 miles on a single charge. Chattanooga, which has serious air pollution problems, has run small electric buses on a downtown shuttle for 20 years. They run every five minutes and are great fun. They are also free, supported by parking fees, although patrons are asked to make a contribution of a quarter at the major terminal. We suspect most do.
This is a modern version of Atlantic City’s famous jitneys, mini buses that have run on several major streets since 1915. Buses, of course, share the same traffic lanes with other vehicles, but they are more flexible. They can pass stopped traffic, and often get out of the way when taking on passengers. It says here that The Wave idea should be shelved and electric buses given a shot. The system would be inexpensive and, if it didn’t work, you could always sell the buses to Chattanooga, who loves them.
Sunday’s Sun-Sentinel had an interesting piece on the history of spring break. It reported on a documentary tracing the beginnings of the now legendary spring rite of passage for college kids. It gave the usual credit to the 1960 film “Where The Boys Are,” but it also noted that as far back as the 1930s, Fort Lauderdale (then a very small place) attracted college swim meets. It also said that during World War II, college students came to Fort Lauderdale to ease the tensions of a war they might soon be in.
There is undoubted truth to the impact of “Where The Boys Are” in attracting the enormous crowds of young people who took over Fort Lauderdale’s beach, generating raucous behavior, which eventually caused the city to crack down and discourage the kids from coming in such numbers. Our late attorney friend George Hess was among those who came to Fort Lauderdale after seeing the film. George was from the Philadelphia area, but was in college in Colorado when the film inspired a visit to Fort Lauderdale. He enjoyed his spring break so much he was two weeks late returning to school. Moreover, after law school he returned to Fort Lauderdale to practice for the next 40 years.
We like to think, however, that one movie does not deserve all the responsibility for making Fort Lauderdale famous. Our first trip to Fort Lauderdale was in 1959, on a public relations assignment for RCA. That was a year before the film, and we knew all about Fort Lauderdale’s reputation as a college playpen. For some years in the 1950s the La Salle College (now university) crew visited Florida during the Easter break. A lot of northern schools do that today, but then it was unusual.
La Salle was a rowing power among smaller schools. There were three La Salle oarsmen in the 1964 Vesper Boat Club eight-oared boat, which won the Olympics. One reason for its success was the spring trip. It was still cold on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River; occasionally the river was blocked with ice. La Salle had a training advantage by coming to warm Florida. It rowed separate races against Tampa, Rollins and Florida Southern. Rollins was good competition, sometimes winning in Florida, but usually losing later in the season when it came north for the big Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia, by which time La Salle’s conditioning had caught up.
Anyway, after the rigorous three-race schedule within a week’s time, the La Salle guys came down to Fort Lauderdale to unwind. As the word spread on campus, guys who weren’t on the crew began tagging along for the adventure. It may have been just one school, but the spring break charms of Fort Lauderdale were common knowledge at La Salle and its famous Boathouse Row several years before the film appeared.
The film took the event national, of course, and there we were in the mid-80s when Notre Dame brought two busloads of students to participate in the frivolity. By then, the crowds not only immobilized A1A, but had spread to the routes leading to the beach. Florida resident Mark McCormick was aboard one of the buses, which was stuck in traffic. We mean really stuck. It was on Sunrise Boulevard near the Galleria, literally within walking distance of its destination—the Sheraton Yankee Trader Hotel. But it was not moving.
Mark suggested to the bus driver that he show him a shortcut by cutting over to Las Olas Boulevard and coming to the hotel by the back door. The driver said he had his orders to follow this route, and no other. He was a real marine. Mark then got four friends to disembark, and walk the mile to our place near Las Olas. The boys hung out for about half an hour, before we took them down Las Olas and up Birch Road (still one of South Florida’s best and little-known shortcuts).
It had been at least an hour since they jumped bus on Sunrise Boulevard. We arrived at the Yankee Trader just as the Notre Dame buses were crawling to the entrance. Such numbers of young people and the fact that they shut down A1A for several days did not go unnoticed by the city fathers. We did not know it then, but the days of such numbers were numbered.
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