Fort Lauderdale Mayor: 'The Onion Did Not Make Me Cry'

May 10, 2013

The New River at sunrise: Apparently The Onion hasn't seen this.
Credit Eric Barton

Chances are you have a friend who forces you to make excuses for him. He’s just not good in big crowds. Or he’s like that because of the tough boss he has at work. He’s late all the time, but then, he’s just from Miami.

Living in Fort Lauderdale is like having one of those friends. It’s a city that’s often the punch line of a joke in a state that just can’t seem to stay out of late-night monologues.

Which is apparently why The Onion chose to skewer Fort Lauderdale in a satirical piece yesterday. To save you from clicking the link, the article claimed President Obama speechwriters were “pretty much at a loss” how they would praise the city should a tragedy strike here one day.

Maybe it’s an act of ridiculousness to respond to a fake news story in a news source with headlines like “EPA Warns Americans Not To Breathe.”

But Fort Lauderdale deserves better. Like that friend with the social anxiety issues, it’s misunderstood, mischaracterized and lumped into a Florida fantasy world created by visits to Seinfeld’s parents and somebody’s one trip to, gasp, Jacksonville.

“The Onion did not make me cry,” said Jack Seiler, mayor of Our Fair City. After seeing the article, his first reaction: “It’s an attempt at humor, I guess.”

There was a time, not long ago, when Fort Lauderdale was nothing but “palm trees, retirement homes, boat dealerships, a bunch of sunburned tourists,” as The Onion purports. These days, people under 18 make up a larger percentage of the population than old people. There’s also a thriving young professionals circle, as evident by the hundreds who show up to Emerge Broward happy hours and volunteer events.

That’s right, young people outnumber the elderly. Take that, Naples.

The article’s claim that the city “lacks any kind of cultural depth” might have been true a few years back, when the biggest tourist draw was the Elbo Room. But now the Broward Center for Performing Arts can refute that claim all on its own. Here’s a venue that ranks in the top 10 theater crowds in the country. It also boasts the nation’s largest free arts-in-education program.

Okay, so maybe you don’t dig touring musical numbers. Consider the party C&I Studios is throwing tonight – flip cup, beer pong, hipsters, artists – all smack in the center of a thriving arts district that packs in a cultural crowd for the monthly art walk.

Arty beer pong to Book of Mormon — that’s some Gulf Stream-deep culture.

Onion, you disappoint when you wrote that our “one saving grace” is our three T.G.I. Fridays. True, we do have one up on Federal Highway, pretty much in Pompano Beach. But what we have instead is a stellar restaurant scene headed by chefs including New York ex-pat Steven Zobel, former San Fran star Lauren DeShields, and local boy Johnny Vinczencz. Our saving grace, in fact, is a dining scene where T.G.I. Fridays is outnumbered by places sourcing local ingredients.

You’ve got us on our “abundance of strip malls.” It’s true that some of our finest restaurants – Casa d’AngeloGrateful PalateEduardo de San Angel – are accessed by a car-friendly plaza. Even our trendy boutiques, like Jezebel and Lilac and Lilies, make their homes in rectangle strips of businesses. We also have Las Olas. That’s the waves in Spanish, and there's often an ocean wind that drifts down the boulevard, where shoppers and diners stroll between the lighted palm trees at night. A little farther west is Himmarshee, where young professionals do happy hour before the late-night crowd pretends it’s Mardi Gras. Strip malls? Please.

It’s only partially worth mentioning your conclusion, the one about how we have a saving grace in the spring training played here. Thanks for the sentiment, but the last spring training team moved out a couple years back. Instead, we head down to Miami for the Marlins, over the border for the Dolphins, or out west to Sunrise for the Panthers – pro teams within a short drive paid for with someone else’s tax dollars. Sarasota, you can have spring training.

The idea that Fort Lauderdale would be the butt of the joke might have stung if things weren’t going so well, Seiler said. With 39 straight months of tourism growth and a staggeringly low 5.7 percent unemployment rate, the city is just doing too well to feel like The Onion had it right.

“I hear people all the time say this is the greatest place they’ve ever lived,” Seiler said. “I hear tourists say it must be amazing to be the mayor in paradise.”

Fort Lauderdale is a city that’s too often discounted. Philly transplants stumble in, expecting the beach town where they once did spring break beer bongs. New Yorkers book a room at the W expecting a quiet weekend. What they find instead is a city with a thriving downtown, a creative class, and somehow, for some reason, a reputation that keeps requiring excuses.

Eric Barton is a contributing editor at WLRN-Miami Herald News. This item was reprinted with permission from his blog, Barefoot Mailman 2.o.