Local historian looks at the unlikely story of Orlando’s emergence

A Q&A with Jim Clark, author of ‘Orlando, Florida: A Brief History’

The history of Orlando is best bifurcated into two distinct eras: Before Disney and After Disney. We know what happened After Disney. The 42 years since Disney World opened have seen exponential growth – unfettered sprawl, strip malls, congested highways, a low-wage tourism economy. But most of us know less about Before Disney – about the men whose names (Summerlin, Bumby, Phillips) adorn our roads; about how close Orlando came to being a forgotten suburb of a thriving Ocala or Sanford; about the age when stray alligators roamed Orange Avenue (the city had a designated gator wrestler) and freezes waylaid the citrus industry; about the dark history of racism (a county sheriff was a proud Klansmen) and graft (an Orlando police chief was indicted for bootlegging).

Worse, we don’t know how all of these elements, in place long before Walt Disney flew over the land that would one day bear his name (Nov. 22, 1963, the day of the Kennedy assassination), weaved a fabric into which this community is still very much entwined.

Earlier this month, The History Press published Orlando, Florida: A Brief History, written by University of Central Florida history professor and former Orlando magazine editor and publisher Jim Clark, who moved here in 1975 as a young journalist to work for the Orlando Sentinel. Tracking the very first settlers through to the three hurricanes of 2004, Clark offers a glimpse of the interlocking threads that made Orlando what it is today.

Below is a transcript of our conversation with Clark, edited for space and clarity.
Orlando Weekly: As I was reading about Orlando’s early years, the words that kept coming to mind were “accidental city” – the idea that, but for a few strokes of luck, Central Florida’s major metropolitan center would have ended up elsewhere.
I doubt the Chamber of Commerce would embrace the slogan “Orlando, The Accidental City,” but that is what it is. The day before Walt Disney flew over Orlando, he drove to Ocala to inspect it as a site for Disney World. Suppose he had seen what he was looking for and called off the trip to Orlando. We could be talking about the Ocala Magic and the Ocala Philharmonic. If the city hadn’t struck an amazing deal to acquire what is now Orlando International Airport from the federal government, Glenn Martin [of the Martin Company, now Lockheed-Martin] might have built his plant in Brevard County to be closer to the space program. If [cattle rancher] Jacob Summerlin hadn’t put up $10,000 to build a new courthouse in the late 1800s, the county seat would have moved to Sanford (then part of Orange County), and Orlando would have remained a small village.
 Sanford was the natural site for a major city; it had a port and the railroad hub. But Orlando had better leadership. Orlando’s emergence is an amazing story. We have been the cattle center of Florida, the citrus center of Florida and now the tourist center of Florida. Few cities have adjusted as well to changing economies.
There’s an interesting story in the book about how the city forced black families out to make way for the whites.
Orlando has a long, sad history of African-American removal. Jonestown was a black community near Greenwood Cemetery. It was largely made up of small houses and shacks, but they were owned by blacks. Whites began moving into the area, and the city forced the blacks to give up the homes they owned and move into public housing. They were forced to live in the Parramore area, but as the civil rights movement began, they began moving closer to downtown. One of the reasons I-4 was brought through downtown was to push blacks back into Parramore. Since then, the state, city and federal governments have built a wall of office buildings along I-4, pushing blacks back further. The original arena and new arena displaced more blacks, and the soccer stadium will continue the tradition.

What surprised you most as you were putting this book together?
I was struck by how everyone who comes to Orlando these days has their hand out for government money, and the politicians nearly break their wrists anxiously writing checks. And yet the three people who changed the course of history in Orlando – Dr. P. Phillips, Disney and Martin – simply showed up and picked Orlando. The government had zero role. [Ed. note: Disney did get a sweet deal from the legislature in 1967 with the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, essentially giving the company the right to function as its own municipality.] Previous leaders were able to create a pro-business environment without handing out money. 
What do you imagine Orlando would be like today had Disney taken his vision somewhere else?
Lots of people have wondered about this. Orlando was well on its way toward becoming a center for finance and technology. The arrival of the space program brought the Martin Company and other high-technology companies. The citrus industry had created a number of fabulously wealth men and women who were investing in the area. Orlando would have become a regional hub for all of Central Florida and a transportation center. Darden Restaurants picked Orlando before Disney came. On the other hand, the scores of great restaurants and shopping at Mall at Millenia are here because of the tourists.

That makes it sound like Orlando might have been better off without Disney.
Better or worse depends on your point of view. We might still be one of the 10 or 15 largest cities, but more like a larger version of Lakeland, or a smaller Jacksonville. One thing people tend to forget is the impact of the theme parks on culture: Many of the actors and musicians performing in theaters and concert halls have full-time jobs at the theme parks.

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