In May 1981, a sinkhole opened up in Winter Park, Florida, the tony suburb just north of downtown Orlando. Over the course of that day the ground gave way, swallowing five Porsches from a repair shop, a small home, and the deep end of an Olympic-size swimming pool.
The event brought national attention to my hometown; all three national television news networks came to report the story. Years later I would open my college geology textbook and find a picture of the Winter Park sinkhole staring back at me. Eventually, my textbook explained, the sinkhole had been filled with water and christened Lake Rose by the city. But I already knew that. We had picnicked through the years in the new park built beside it. I took social dance and etiquette lessons for Junior Cotillion at a small building just up the street.
This past weekend in the early hours of Sunday morning a far bigger hole opened up in the city of Orlando. One that can never be filled. Once again the media have descended on Orlando, but this time there are far more than three television networks covering the events. All the world watches.
Some of the reporters have started using Orlando’s nickname, the City Beautiful, in their coverage. The name dates back to at least 1908 when local officials borrowed it from the “City Beautiful” urban planning movement transforming places like Cleveland, Detroit, and Denver. In those cities, progressive city planners designed parks, museums, and public plazas to beautify and organize the urban landscape. In Orlando, a rural cow town at the time, City Beautiful represented something different, an aspiration rather than a reality. A hope that the small assortment of ranchers and citrus growers could one day develop into a full-fledged city.
It did, and the nickname stuck. Today, it’s included on Orlando’s city seal. You can read it on signs and markers throughout the city. Every time I fly home to visit my family, I look for the large sign as I exit the airport grounds: “Welcome to Orlando, The City Beautiful.”
In 1971, Walt Disney World put Orlando on the map for visitors from around the globe. Yet if Orlando became synonymous with Disney for those tourists, it remained a separate world for those of us who grew up there. We thought of Disney as near Orlando, but not necessarily of it.
We visited the theme park plenty of times, of course. But Orlando was our home, and the City Beautiful’s natural splendors provided our daily entertainments. We ran barefoot through the warm afternoons; spent endless hours in backyard pools. We hid lizards in our pockets and smuggled them into school, passing them back and forth when our teacher looked away. The street I grew up on dead-ended into a small creek. With a short hop, we crossed the water and scampered into the swampy woodlands behind it. There we swung from thick vines and gathered palmetto fronds to make into forts. A magical kingdom of our own.
People don’t imagine this when they think of Orlando, if they think of the city at all. It’s a shame how few tourists venture north from the airport towards the City Beautiful itself. There they would see how Orlando has earned its nickname by its handsome downtown — just blocks from the Pulse Nightclub — and its growing collection of high-rise office towers; by the quiet neighborhoods that blend stately Victorian, Art Deco, and foursquare style homes; and by the hundreds of brilliant blue lakes that speckle the landscape, all shaded by massive Southern live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
Amidst this heinous tragedy, that visible beauty might seem superfluous now, if not fleeting. Yet outrageous and unimaginable horrors clarify and remind that the most beautiful things are not what we see, but what remains unseen: truth and decency and human dignity and, above all, love. Above all, love.
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Orlando has just entered its rainy season. All summer, thunderstorms will mark each afternoon. They are terrifying and glorious events, Florida thunderstorms. Out of nowhere, dark, fat rainclouds appear and black out the once-blue sky. Rolling thunder sends people scurrying for cover. A shatter of lightning cuts open the heavens, bringing heavy rain down. An hour later it is all gone. Just more blue skies and even brighter sunshine. Light after darkness.
There’s a different darkness in Orlando now, one that lingers far longer than a summer afternoon. For many, the darkness will only grow in the days ahead as dull shock gives way to pounding anger before opening up into throbbing grief.
But there’s also a different light gathering to pierce the hate and the hurt and the horror.
My family and friends there tell me of the three-hour lines to donate blood. They text me pictures of familiar spots draped in rainbow flags and lit by white candles. They forward me the prayers from their churches “to those in the LGBT community.” I watch it all from New York, never more homesick for the place I left more than twenty years ago.
A beautiful city, the City Beautiful. May it ever be.