As I wandered through the sea of TV trucks on Orange Avenue Tuesday, a strange sensation washed over me: That’s usually me.
I’m usually the one who parachutes into a community with a media badge to interview grieving families and document tales of ravaged lives. After hurricanes and wildfires. In the streets of New York after 9/11.
I’m usually the one wondering: Before the tragedy struck, what was this place really like?
Well, America, allow me to answer that about Orlando.
Let me to tell you who we are.
Yes, we are theme parks.
And yes, we are tacky. We are stucco mermaids and gift shops shaped like giant navel oranges.
But I have to be honest, America: That tackiness isn’t us. It’s you.
After all, we’re not the ones who crave three T-shirts for $5 or water-filled snow globes that say “Florida snowman.”
We are the place you want to come to escape your problems … well, unless you also want nudity and craps tables. Then you go to Vegas.
But far away from the parks — where hanging moss drips from live oaks and regal cypress trees stand guard (until we clear-cut them all to make way for strip malls) — most of us live in a different world.
And there — in walkable hipster neighborhoods and McMansion-filled suburbs — we are so much more.
We are artistic. Shakespeare and Tchaikovsky, Fringe Festival and Film Festival.
We are cutting-edge. With one of the best performing-arts centers in America, one the MLS’s most-popular soccer franchises and an NBA team that, at one point in time, knew what the post-season looked like.
We are foodies, flush with James Beard finalists with culinary hubs like the East End Market, which sits smack dab in the middle of one of those walkable neighborhoods I mentioned.
For all those non-theme-park reasons, the New York Times ranked Orlando as No. 13 last year on its list of “50 Places to Go” … right between Zimbabwe and St. Vincent.
If that all sounds incredibly sophisticated, well it is.
But it’s also misleading.
For here in Orlando, we are also poor.
We have some of the lowest wages of any major metro in America, thanks mainly to tourism attractions and hotel occupations that don’t pay living wages.
We have an economy built on the backs of people who scrub toilets on International Drive and have to take three bus transfers to do it.
For that reason, we are also a community in denial. We have grand dreams, but with wages that weigh us down like an anchor.
So we end up being a community full of dichotomies.
By now, you know we have a lot of gay friends and neighbors. But if you’ve been left with the impression that they have to hide in nightclubs, you’ve been misled.
This city flies rainbow flags downtown. And more than 100,000 people attend our Pride parades around Lake Eola. One year, I rode on a float – and half the city council was riding on floats around me.
There are no closets here. Orlando is largely an oasis of open-minds and acceptance in a state that makes headlines for intolerance.
Diversity is one of Orlando’s hallmarks.
Oh, you know what else we are? We’re brave.
We have alligators, mosquitoes, hurricanes, sink holes, tornados, snakes and cockroaches the size of toy poodles.
We have a summer that starts in March, ends at Christmas and involves 280 percent humidity for much of that time.
We are evolving, getting beyond our citrus-field roots and theme-park mindset to become a place where people want to live.
And they do want to live here, America. In fact, they leave many of your cities to come join ours. Check out the Census data.
We are faith-filled. And we are generous.
We are lots of things. But what happened in that nightclub on that one morning isn’t one of them.
That is not Orlando.