Some call it the Accidental Region. Long and slender and lacking a single cohesive center, an area whose regional identity is still a work in progress, South Florida is the result of a hundred small cities that have spread like blotting ink over sand and marshland for the past 50 years.
And over the next two decades, another 2.2 million people — 249 every day — will move into this already crowded corridor stretching from the Florida Keys to Indian River County, according to the South Florida Regional Planning Council. Most will settle in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties —the epicenter of the state's explosion in Hispanic households.
"The reality is that our western wall is the Everglades, and our eastern wall is the ocean. Those are the only boundaries that matter," said Julia A. Trevarthen, director of the Institute for Community Collaboration, a nonprofit public policy group based in Hollywood that is doing a study projecting what South Florida could look like in 2060.
Within those borders, the 21st century community being formed is as complex as any ever seen in America. No ethnic group will dominate, many will live with a global foot still planted in their native countries, and race, language and color will be only entry points into a megalopolis that already is larger than 35 states.
Seven out of every 10 people now moving into South Florida were born abroad —more than a third of the entire region is foreign-born. Largely, but not exclusively, Hispanic, they come from dozens of different countries that are a mélange of race, ethnicity and history.
"One of the most interesting things about South Florida is that just because someone is Hispanic in Broward or Palm Beach County, you can no longer assume they're from Cuba or Puerto Rico," said Dario Moreno, director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University. "They may be from Venezuela, or Colombia or Argentina. Or they may not be Hispanic at all, but Brazilian," who speak Portuguese, not Spanish.
"Likewise, just because you see an African face in Broward County, that doesn't mean any more that the person is African-American," continued Moreno. "They could be Jamaican, Trinidadian, Guyanese, or from somewhere else in the West Indies.
"That's why you travel to parks now in south Broward on a Sunday afternoon and see so many people playing cricket," Moreno said.
More than a third of South Florida's population today is Hispanic, about 2.1 million residents — roughly two-thirds of the state's entire Hispanic population.
The Latinization of South Florida is now so far advanced that geographers no longer talk of "white flight." That's long since past. Rather, it's "congestion flight" — second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans and others who are moving up into Broward and Palm Beach counties to escape the crowding in Miami-Dade.
The region is growing younger. The widening gap between births and deaths is being accelerated by the departure of retirees to cheaper destinations, such as Tennessee and North Carolina. The proportion of younger families with children is growing, the numbers of childless "empty nesters," shrinking. For five decades, more than 20 percent of seniors who moved from one state to another chose Florida as their new home. That changed in 2000, when Florida's numbers dropped below 20 percent, according to the U.S. census. By 2005, 16 percent of the total population was 65 years and older — a percentage that steadily drops as one moves south through South Florida. For the first time in decades, Broward and Palm Beach counties also have seen growth dip while the number of exiting late boomers is increasing.
At least 50 percent of the population of South Florida moves every five years. So rapid is the movement that Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach are now considered "flow through" counties by regional planners as residents move up and down the coast seeking new jobs, bigger homes and more opportunity. "There's this cross-pollination across the counties, more and more each day. The lines are very blurry as to how people actually live their daily lives," said Trevarthen, who lives in Boca Raton but commutes to her job in Hollywood.
South Florida is home to 1,400 multinational businesses, and that number is expected to grow exponentially over the next decade. Expect an Asian increase — the one group underrepresented here — in the next decade as Japanese and Chinese firms use ports and the other resources of South Florida as a platform for ventures throughout Latin America, some experts say.
The good news is that such investment likely will correct the salary gaps that have driven many people out of the region. The bad news is that this process will take time, economists say.
"The cost of living just became too great — I saw my property taxes on one building go up from $4,000 a year to something like $19,000 before it became too much," said Carol Johnson, 60, who moved to Tennessee from Fort Lauderdale two years ago. She and her husband are building a new home.
Many others will move in to replace them.
"There may be traffic, congestions, but there's also a real energy to the place for people in their 30s, for young families," said Christopher Moore, 33, an industrial engineer with Florida Power & Light Co. who lives in Jupiter.
Raised in North Carolina, Moore has traveled in Africa, India and Europe for his education and job. He loves the fast-paced blend of work and leisure this region offers. He's typical of the cosmopolitan "knowledge workers" South Florida needs to compete against such global commercial hubs as New York City, Silicon Valley, Tokyo or Shanghai.
Moore admits he doesn't know his neighbors well. His community is his family, the parents of his children's friends and other young professionals, not necessarily the people next door.
South Florida as a region brings into question the very idea of community. Mobility increases as commuters routinely cross one, two and sometimes three counties every day on their way to work. The lines that distinguish each community are rapidly becoming obsolete. Does anyone really know where Fort Lauderdale begins and ends? Plantation? Boca Raton? West Palm Beach?
Replacing these outdated borders is an increasingly fluid population that crosses city limits and county lines.
The influxes from abroad are creating cultures within cultures, and bringing much of the diversity within Latin America into South Florida.
In Lake Worth, Javier del Sol, a 52-year-old longtime community activist and teacher, often emphasizes to Lake Worth's Guatemalan youth that they are Indios — the descendants of the native people of Latin America, not the Spanish-speaking explorers who fought them.
"These people are not Hispanic — many of them speak Indian languages, and they're very rural," said del Sol, who is of non-European, Mexican-American heritage. "These are very poor country people. They have very little in common with Hispanics from urban centers."
South Florida residents with children in school may stay fixed, but their kids don't. They move and change schools based on grades and aptitude. Their commutes may be longer than their parents.
"We all move around a lot more, I guess, than my parents did," says JoAnn Soero, a 15-year-old from Hallandale, who has, like many children in South Florida, bounced from one school's magnet program to another school's gifted program with little regard to geography. She has attended schools in Pompano Beach, Hallandale Beach and Hollywood, with an ever-changing cast of classmates.
"But I like that. You meet more people in different schools. You have a much greater variety of friends," says the junior at South Broward High School in Hollywood. "I mean, I don't think any of my friends' parents were born in South Florida or even the United States. I think that just makes life here so interesting. I can't think of any otherplace I'd really want to grow up right now."
Atop all of this is a globalized system of travel, commerce and communications that's 24/7. It's the cell, Web and satellite communications that connect children to their friends and parents, parents to their workplace, and non-natives to their countries of origin.
The working class is forced to be even more mobile than the upper middle class, who often can afford to live closer to their work. Landscapers, waitresses, housekeepers and handymen — they often must move to find affordable rents.
"When you're a housekeeper, you don't get to retire — it's not something I can afford to think about," said Dorothy Claisse, a housekeeper in her 50s who lives in Fort Lauderdale. "It's getting more and more expensive to live here, and that means you have to look for more and more houses to clean."
Claisse finds herself ranging farther, and looking for more work each day, just to keep up with taxes and the cost of living in South Florida.
"But at some point, there's only so many you can clean in a day, so you just find a way to make do," said Claisse, who has lived in South Florida 30 years after moving down from Long Island, New York. "The only reason I stay is the same reason a lot of people I know stay. Your kids are here. Your grandkids are here. If they ever left, then I probably would."
Those personal ties, the frail roots that have created two- and three-generation families over the past few decades, are among the few things that keep people in place in South Florida, demographers say. They also bring in other sons and daughters to care for aging relatives.
"The sense I get of the population here is that there is not that connectedness to South Florida," said Dick Ogburn, a researcher at the South Florida Regional Planning Council in Hollywood.
"Instead, we are a churning population. We are in constant movement and change. And people's loyalties, the relationships to which they feel most strongly, are not to a physical community. It's culturally, linguistically, religiously to the place that they're from."
Tim Collie can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4573.