Lately I’ve been reading numerous articles by extremely passionate Orlando-area citizens, who declare their love for the City Beautiful. They write about the thriving literary community, the bursting tech industry, the outstanding colleges and universities, and even the highly touted food and art scene.
And in nearly every article, each well-meaning writer relates angry disgust that media outlets from across the nation are just now discovering that Orlando isn’t a “cultural wasteland” after all. And as a by-product of that anger, every writer then wants to redefine who we are or wants to describe Orlando as having a rebirth. (As if all our greatness had disappeared until just recently!)
Perhaps this common theme of needing to redefine what Orlando is comes from the fact that most of these writers start their articles by explaining they moved to Central Florida “several years ago” for school or work or to retire. And like many, they didn’t expect to fall in love with the City and were thrilled to see how much it had to offer in the aforementioned literary, arts, food, tech et al. (How ironic they now take exception to the fact that outsiders don’t also know this.) These writers say, “You don’t know the real Orlando. We’re not just Disney.”
While I certainly appreciate these eager citizens wanting to tout how wonderful our area is, I find myself bristling at the term “redefining” because feels like we weren’t good enough before these people arrived in Central Florida and decided to give us a new definition.
You see, I was born and raised here, just like my mother was, and just like my grandmother was back in the 1800s. There are a number of us here, actually, native Central Floridians that have always known what Orlando is and don’t need new arrivals to suddenly tell us what we are and what we have.
We’ve Always Had a Literary Scene
Yes, even before Jack Kerouac.
Back in 1926 Rollins College began the Animated Magazine. Since paper and printing supplies were still in somewhat short supply due to the fairly recent first World War, then-college President Hamilton Holt decided that the articles should be read aloud on stage instead of printed. This turned into an annual event that used to draw thousands. In the crowd sat dignitaries from around the world, including Secretaries of State and even former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The Animated Magazine lives on today, under the tutelage of editors like U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and has helped bring about the annual Winter with the Writers, which is where I got to see Maya Angelou when she visited back in 2007.
With the Orlando Public Library opening in 1923, and the Zora Neale Hurston Festival operating for nearly 30 years now, this is just further evidence the literary scene is not having a rebirth but has quietly been here all along.
We’ve Always Had an Art Scene
One of the nation’s oldest, largest, and most prestigious art festivals happens right here at the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival. The Orlando Museum of Art was established in 1924, the Maitland Art Center in 1937, and we’ve had the Crealde School of Art and Jamali for over 40 years now. Add in the Polasek Museum and the world’s largest collection of Tiffany glass at the Morse Museum, and we’re doing just fine.
Famed actor Buddy Epsen’s father started the Central Florida Ballet Company in 1945. “I dared not start a ballet company here in Orlando because the idea seemed hopeless,” Epsen was quoted as saying. “Now there are several companies throughout Florida.” Epsen’s company was later taken over by Edith Royal, whose “Ballet Royal” supplied generations of dancers to the great stages of the world.
And even earlier, Ruth Pounds started a dance school in 1935, which taught both my mother and then me how to dance, sit, curtsy, and all the etiquette required of a cultured young adult.
The area has always had beautiful architecture thanks to those like Gamble Rogers, II, who helped create the beauty that attracted leading artists, business tycoons, and top politicians to settle in the area.
When President Dwight Eisenhower dedicated the opening of the basement radio station at Rollins College (still one of the longest-running basement radios in the country), we made indie radio hip long before we made boy bands hip in the 1990s.
We’ve Always Had a Tech Scene
Lockheed Martin opened its doors in 1956. (My mother worked there afternoons in high school!) Shortly thereafter, the Kennedy Space Center was built nearby to oversee the Apollo missions. We watched those missions, and later those of the Space Shuttle, right from our backyards – and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t get much cooler than that!
Thankfully this tech industry also had a need for engineers; thus UCF was founded in 1963 and has grown into one of the largest universities in the nation. Add in the innovations of Walt Disney in the 70s, and then Full Sail University in the 80s, and yep, we’ve always had a tech scene.
We’ve Always Had a Food Scene
Food trucks did not make the food hip in this city.
We’ve always had great food, ranging from Dixie Crossroads and La Cantina to Le Cordon Bleu and Gary’s Duck Inn. From the 94th Aero Squadron, which served incredible food since World War I, to Ronnie’s Diner which opened in 1956, Orlando always had talked-about food. The fact that the establishments serving that food is changing, doesn’t mean there weren’t great restaurants before the new ones arrived.
With T.G. Lee Dairy and the many orange groves, we’ve always been farm-to-table. And when you add in Publix (founded in 1930), we were doing just fine long before this so-called rebirth.
We’re Growing, Not Rebirthing
Yes, it is an exciting time to be in Orlando. We are growing in many different, wonderful ways. Newcomers are bringing great assets, and companies are setting up roots and investing here. With strong leadership we will continue to flourish.
And while I admire the zeal these newcomers use to tell the rest of the world how great Orlando is, please don’t act like this is a new development in Orlando’s history. Don’t call it a rebirth or try to redefine it.
We are who we are, and always have been.
We don’t want to be New York, San Francisco, or even Austin. We want to be who and what we already are. We’re orange groves and Disney. We’re tech and and old-fashioned books. We’re art and great food.
But, we’re not the best thing since sliced bread… we were cool long before that hit the world back in 1930!
This guest post was written by Bess Auer, fourth generation Floridian and the first editor of the Central Florida Top 5. You can connect with her on Twitter at @Bess_Auer.