I am from Florida. This can be hard to admit for those that know better, but usually people think it’s cool.
Florida is a place of heat, alligators, humidity, talking mice and a hardcore past. Over 500 years of it, if you start with the European invasion; I mean the ‘credited’ discovery of Florida by Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513. But of course there were people living in Florida when he landed and likely it had already been ‘discovered’ by an Englishman (John Cabot), a Saint (Brendan) and a Viking (nobody caught his name). Let’s just give Juan credit for being the first Spaniard to land in La Florida (and name it that) and for founding the lovely city of St Augustine.
This year, St Augustine celebrates 500 years of continuous habitation, the oldest ‘city’ in the USA. What has actually taken place over those 500 years are the typical battle-worn tales. Invasions, fortifications, change of rule, etc. It was all heavily sanitised and romanticised in my school history lessons. Now it is just commercialised. Although, there are still glimmers of historic significance beneath and behind the chain-restaurant faux Spanish facades and shops selling treasure maps.
There is a great deal of ‘difficult’ history to be told in St Augustine. It isn’t all just ice cream shops and pirate paraphernalia. The first stop is always the Spanish fort Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the USA. While its history is interesting, there was little interpretation surrounding the site. That is because they want you to pay $7 to go inside. Not a big deal, but it would be considerate to put more outside for those who a) cannot afford it, and b) might be enticed to go in via the gratis juicy tidbits you sprinkle about the place. It was a blazing hot day when we were there and the fort was crawling with people. Good place to get your 17th century cannon fire fix though.
Cathedral Plaza near the Bridge of the Lions is a green space full of monuments to this and that. But some serious stuff went down in that exact spot. It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to stand in places that history happened and know about it.
The Freedom Trail (cell phone audio tour) was a nice find, although our cell phone wouldn’t connect for some reason. It was good layering—just in the street right on the building it is referencing.
Finally, the Ximinez-Fatio House claims to be the first museum in America to interpret women’s history during the 19th century. The history of the house was quite cool – strong women buying property and running businesses in the late 18th/early 19th century. We were keen to visit, but it was lunchtime and the Cuban sandwiches down the street were calling, so we will have to go back next time.
While I have been going to this quaint seaside town for years, it certainly gave over to kitsch commercial tourism ages ago. It grieved me a bit, but this is Florida, what the masses want, the masses get. There is so much accepted and indulged fakery around with Disney et al that an interpreter is hard pressed to get people interested in anything real.
It also made me consider how sloppily treated many ‘first’ landing sites are around the ‘New World’ as well. Botany Bay has little that speaks of its role as the founding of the New South Wales colony. And Captain Cook’s parking spot in Gisborne declares little fanfare either. In fact, as both sites are industrial ports they are not really pleasant places to visit, or have interpretation at all.
I am not saying we need commercial companies to come in and exploit the hell out of long-ago moments in time. But it does seems like while we are ‘proud’ of being here, we don’t much want to think about the details of how we got here and what really happened as a consequence.
But that is another blog.