How Do We Dwell in Orlando?

When I came to live in Orlando, I tried to find people who had grown up in the area. I wanted to find out what about this area made it what it was, made it a good place for those who called it home. What I found was interesting.

First, hardly anyone I talked to actually grew up here. Some were from Florida, but elsewhere in the state. Others were from outside of the state. In my department of 19 faculty members and 2 other staff, only two people are actually from this area.



Second: When I located those locals and asked them my question, almost invariably they would refer nostalgically to the past. They would tell me about the Orlando of the past, not of the present. When I asked them where I would go to find the Orlando they remembered, they were usually hard pressed to identify a place. Mostly it was in some small town outside of the city.



Third: The way that most people identify Orlando, as the home of theme parks, is not the way that people who live here want to identify it. I have yet to meet someone who wants to be known as living in the home of Disney. This goes even for people who like Disney. There is, therefore, a kind of negative definition happening here. Many who live in Orlando know what it is not, but they do not seem to know what it is.


Fourth: Given that many people are here from elsewhere, it is more likely that a person sojourns here, rather than dwells here. Sojourning is to tarry in a place briefly, to simply pass through. Most people I have met here are relatively recent arrivals, and many do not plan to live here forever.


Fifth: When one sojourns, one does not invest meaning in a place. In fact, sojourners usually hope to draw on the meaning that already exists, to participate in "local culture". But what happens when the meaning that may be in a place is so buried by recent development that it is all but invisible to a sojourner?


Sixth: Dwelling is never done alone. Dwelling happens as we invest meaning together in a place, not only when we agree as individuals to engage in common projects, but also when we recognize that our very individuality is made possible by our dwelling together. We make our meaningful choices in a world that already exists. So, if we pass through a place as sojourners, and hence are chiefly individuals without a community, where is that community supposed to come from?



Seventh: If Heidegger is correct that dwelling and building are related, what do our in Orlando buildings say about our ability to dwell here, or our mode of dwelling? And, how do we dwell in those buildings? Included in "buildings" are the roads and general infrastructure.

Some observations:

  • Driving patterns: As one might expect in a place where people think solely individualistically, driving in Orlando seems to largely be motivated by self-interest. The road is not a collective space, but a competitive one. Rules of the road do not tend to have moral weight, but are the result of cost-benefit analysis; for example, there is no problem with speeding or running a red light, except if you get caught.

  • Building patterns: All places, especially commercial ones, are built as destinations. There is no real sense that a place needs to fit in with an overall scheme or community identity (since, after all, it is hard to find these anyway). So, there are many strip-malls, each of which attempts to attract as much attention as possible.

  • Parks and Lakes: Orlando has many lakes. Many of these have in essence been privatized, however. There are some which are available for public use, but many that are not. It is not just the loss of recreational space that is the issue. With as many lakes as Orlando has, traffic patterns and, hence, building patterns, are fragmented. In some other places, this has led to small communities within a larger city; in Orlando it has largely meant urban sprawl as smaller surrounding towns have developed quickly and grown together.

Eighth: Because of all this, Orlando has become for many new people a kind of black hole of culture. This, despite the fact that there are several good museums, film festivals, more art festivals than can be counted, and a thriving music scene. Many people who come here do not or cannot find these things. And, they do not define the area in the way that music festivals or other cultural events define other cities.

Culture is a reflection of meaning in a place. It is never completely absent. Yet, the connection between culture and place is tenuous. People bring culture to a place (witness the Irish pubs all over the world, the Chinatowns and Little Italies), but that only happens when a critical mass of people with the same culture assemble in a new place. If you have an entire place of immigrants from different places, there are no shared historical places, and little in the new place to nurture culture.

Ninth: What is the result of all this?

1. At worst:

  • Orlando could experience the kind of urban decay that was previously associated with deserted downtowns in older cities. In less than a year, two restaurants across the street from me have gone out of business. The buildings sit empty.

  • If the sense of placelessness continues, crime could rise. To the extent that people do not feel attached to this place, some may have little problem with taking advantage of others.

  • Orlando could become (and some think it already has become) a slum for people with money.

2. At best:

  • Orlando could find new ways of building place. This will not happen through more development or new buildings that try to capitalize on some current or fleeting public interest or mood. And, it will not happen through corporate action, designed to find what motivates people in order to market it back to them.

  • Some of the good efforts of people within Orlando may find "traction". In other words, some cultural or social initiatives may reach a critical mass, and people who actually live here may start identifying Orlando positively, rather than identifying it as "not Disney".



So, the question is an honest and difficult one:

How might one dwell in Orlando?

Dwelling is never completely lost or rendered impossible, and yet it is a more difficult task in some places than in others.