Gary Mormino’s book on Florida, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams, is, in a word, masterful. He has  written a uniquely and distinctly superior account of “A Social History of Modern Florida,” as the author¬- a University of South Florida history professor—says in the book’s subtitle.

However, it is beyond social history. It satisfies my curiosity about people and places and events- yes, and myths and dreams ad scandals—as no other book on Florida history has done for me.

Here’s a test for Floridians who are interested in—and maybe fascinated by—the history of our state. See if you’re as knowledgeable as you’d like to be about the following:

Regarding the transformation of Jacksonville from the Florida city that faced more troubling crises than any other to one with a revitalized downtown, new civic and cultural buildings, and a consolidated government, plus a new, modern stadium and a prestigious medical center: How did all this come about in the short space of less than 30 years, and what part in the transformation was played by the consolidation vote?

It was pivotal, Mormino writes, made possible by a nearly two-to-one vote of the people. Other cities and counties have considered consolidation, but none has done it. Are there lessons to be learned from Jacksonville-Duvall County?

The author relates “an alarming tale of sprawl’s transforming powers.” New roads—the interstates in particular—made it possible, and attractive, for homeowners to partake of the luxuries of suburban life and for the stores and other businesses to abandon the downtown areas. Ambitious, creative, hard-driving developers such as Arthur Vining Davis, Henry Flagler, John D. MacArthur, the Mackle brothers, Walt Disney, Dick Pope, and many others brought to life dozens of new communities—“edge cities,” they were called—just outside all of the larger cities.

But then in the 1980s and 1990s, urban centers came back to life, spurred by downtown improvement authorities, public funds, and often private enterprise. Among several such developments, Delray Beach provides “a model case study for urban demise and renaissance.” It’s an interesting account, and so is the revitalization of downtown Orlando, with its “stainless-steel and glass-paneled skyscraper” and a wave of downtown condominiums.

Florida had three great land booms. The first was around 1770 when Loyalist British families fled the northeastern cities and settled around St. Augustine. The second was from 1920 to 1925, when Florida was seen as “a place of speed, glamour, fashion and celebrities.” The third rode on breathtaking shifts in technology and an emerging group of senior citizens and other retirees, along with coast-to-coast expressways. The nation’s media fell in love with the Sunshine State in the 1950s and 1960s, the author reports, and a new Florida land rush was on.

Mormino writes: “Miami’s raw energy dazzles and confounds. Miami, more than any other city in Florida, intrigues and repulses outsiders. Most Floridians insist they would never, under any circumstances, live in Miami. Most of the rest of the world, however, would risk life and limb to live in Miami.”

Gary Mormino’s book tells me much more about the contrast between Miami as “one of the world’s most important cities” and Orlando “Florida’s most influential city.” If Orlando were a nation-state, its economy in the year 2000 would have placed eighty-sixth in the world, just behind Puerto Rico. The population of Metro Orlando in 1950 including the four adjacent counties, was 185,000. By the 2000 Census, the Orlando area had surpassed 1.6 million. A former Orlando mayor said he spent 30 years of his life luring people to Orlando, but then he retired and moved to North Carolina.

The economic trauma that came with the end of World War II was felt in many areas of the state. Military base closings seemed to be everywhere as Florida’s 175 military installations were up for review. The site of one was converted to a tuberculosis hospital, another to a mental hospital and prison, still another to a community college, and another to Miami’s Metrozoo.

Tallahassee’s former Dale Mabry Army Air Field housed the firs males to attend Florida State College for Women. Panama City and much of West Florida, where military bases dotted the landscape, keenly felt the effects of post World War II demobilization.

The demise of Easter Airlines and Pan American, Mormino says, is “the story of good intentions gone wrong, financial mismanagement, labor strife, and greed.” To readers who are old enough to recall the death of those two great airlines, it’s a sad, sad story. And the economic, cultural, and public relations damage to Florida is incalculable. Mormino’s account of their birth and growth and their demise is arresting.

And there’s more, much more, that makes it hard to lay the book down. The interesting and useful information it contains compels the reader, but so does the writing style of the author.

Mormino is a gifted writer who knows how to tell a story. His deft use of language shows up in every chapter: “Florida has always straddled the line between respectability and scandal, between honest toil and an easy buck, between strict adherence to the Protestant work ethic and games of luck and chance”; or, “at the most remote crossroads and isolated archipelagos, the auto-mobile had conquered Florida.”
Raymond Aresenault, co-editor of the Florida History and Culture series published by the University Press of Florida—destined to be a classic, the culmination of more than 20 years of research and inquiry.

This book review by J. Stanley Marshall appeared in The Journal Of The James Madison Institute in 2007.