After 24 years in South Florida, a look back and ahead

Much has changed, and some things haven't

In June 1989, I loaded up a Hyundai hatchback and headed for a new job — and new life — in South Florida. My first day at the Sun Sentinel was June 26. My first byline appeared four days later, after I covered a luncheon hyping the first Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream Park.

Free lunch and horse racing? I was in heaven.

Twenty-four years and more than 4,000 columns, stories and blog posts later, I'm still here.

And even though it's getting harder to describe South Florida (or the newspaper business) as heavenly, I still consider myself blessed.

A region once derided as "God's waiting room," where retirees came for their golden years, has turned into a vibrant, diverse, crowded, crazy, outrageous, funny — but never dull — place.

I came to South Florida at 23, carefree and single. I figured I'd stay a few years, then head back to the Northeast. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, went to college in Boston.

Now I've been here more than half my life, with a mortgage and 7-year-old daughter.

When I arrived in South Florida after a year in South Carolina, I called myself a sportswriter. Then I became a news columnist. Now the label that means most to me is "father." I'm taking my girl to San Francisco this week. I can't wait to see the look on her face when we zigzag down Lombard Street.

Over my time in South Florida, many things have changed, and some things haven't. When I first arrived, Interstate 595 had just opened, with an unfinished gap in the middle, a massive construction work in progress. It's still a massive construction work in progress.

Back then, Broward was still in the 305 area code and Palm Beach County had just gotten a new area code — 407 — to share with Orlando. Now Broward is 954, Palm Beach 561 and a rapper named Pitbull is Mr. 305.

Back then, there was no worldwide party scene on South Beach, just a desolate stretch of old hotels and apartments where the elderly sat forlornly in folding chairs.

Back then, the county to our south was known simply as Dade, not Miami-Dade. Dania and Hallandale had not yet added "Beach" to their official names.

Back then, cocaine was South Florida's drug of choice, frighteningly cheap and easy to obtain, smuggled by "cowboys" who raced high-speed boats. Now, pills like oxycodone and hydrocodone are the drugs of choice, although a bit more expensive and harder to obtain, after crackdowns on storefront "pill mills" in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Back then, New York-style delis and bagel shops seemingly dotted every strip mall in Broward and Boca Raton, New York Yankees games were broadcast on the radio (there were no Marlins), and many residents referred to South Florida as New York's sixth borough. Now, you're more likely to encounter Caribbean restaurants, Colombian bodegas and Asian supermarkets along State Road 7 in Tamarac and Lauderhill.

Back then, big insurance companies like State Farm and Allstate still insured South Florida homes, even for hurricanes. Then Hurricane Andrew came along and blew everything apart in 1992, leaving us with state-run Citizens and a host of unproven smaller firms.

Back then, Don Shula was the legendary coach of the almighty Dolphins and Dan Marino the superstar quarterback with a golden arm. Now the Dolphins play second fiddle to a mighty Heat basketball team led by legendary president Pat Riley and superstar LeBron James, with two straight titles to their credit and another championship parade set for Monday.

Back then, Hollywood and Boca Raton had their own daily newspapers — the Sun-Tattler and Daily News — and the three regional papers (Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post) were cutthroat competitors. There was no Google, Yahoo, Facebook or Twitter. The daily paper went for a quarter. Now we're all just trying to survive, with collaboration and content-sharing the new normal. For all those who still read and subscribe (and pass along comments, ideas and news tips), thank you.

I tend to get sentimental this time of year. I just celebrated my 47th birthday, and my parents just marked their 59th anniversary.

Usually I'd wait for a nice round number like 25 years to write this column, but I figured I might as well do it today. The Sun Sentinel's parent company (Tribune) recently emerged from bankruptcy, and is exploring a sale of its newspapers. There's no telling what might happen if new owners and bean-counters come to town.

But of this I'm certain: No matter what the future brings, I'm proud to call South Florida home.

mmayo@tribune.com or 954-356-4508

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