Saturday, August 18, 2007

Our town: SoHo of the South

Tallahassee Democrat, Aug. 11, 2006

By Adam Weinstein

I had a revelation at lunch the other day.

I was sitting in a little bagel joint near Lake Ella, mentally mapping out the responsibilities of a new job here at the Democrat, when I noticed three older working men enjoying their morning coffee at the next table. These guys wore jeans, faded T-shirts, ripped ballcaps and an impressive volume of free-range facial hair. If not for their age, I would have guessed that they'd just come from a construction site or a gun show.

But what really interested me was their table conversation. One man discussed his loving restoration of a century-old house in town, and all three piped up when the talk turned to furniture and art. It turned out that they'd all gone to First Friday, the monthly event that opens most of the city's art galleries to the public free of charge. A few of these burly bagel-munchers were artists themselves, and they began to rave about our town's rich cultural offerings as they pulled at their whiskers.

Discussing his friend's recent opening at a nearby studio, one group member exclaimed, "Tallahassee's just fun!"

This was profound to me. I'm new to Tallahassee, having spent most of my life in South Florida and my college years in Manhattan. When I first considered advanced study in international affairs, two schools accepted me: Boston University and Florida State University.

I chose FSU, and now, every time I tell friends or relatives that I moved to the Florida Panhandle for grad school, my reward is a baffled look and a silently-mouthed syllable: "Why?"

I understood the concerns at first. What's to learn in a sleepy capital where cattle, crackers and keggers outnumber newspaper subscribers?

If folks want a real high-brow experience, mocha lattes, literary discussions and art openings, they have to attend high-powered universities and reside in the hippest neighborhoods of New York, Boston or L.A.

Don't they?

Generations of stodgy intellectuals have passed down this received wisdom.

But sometimes even intellectuals can be dead wrong.

Tallahassee proves this. Like Madison, Wis., and Burlington, Vt., our big little city hosts an army of young, vibrant professionals and an inclusive cultural atmosphere that can't be beat. As one of the newest Tallahasseeans, I'd think we should bolster these trends and put our town on the map as a progressive mecca, a national model.

Ours is an amazingly diverse and tolerant town. Before moving here, I feared Tallahassee might confirm all those nasty rumors that city life instilled in me about the South and the Bible Belt. But I found a city where I could attend Episcopalian services, meditate with Buddhists and take Taste of Judaism classes - sometimes all in one day. Tallahassee is a place where my gay and lesbian friends, as well as my friends of color, are safe and welcome community members.

Entrepreneurship thrives among Tallahassee progressives, too. Stroll down to Lake Ella, Gaines Street or Railroad Square and you'll stumble upon Internet cafes, mom-and-pop eateries, second-hand bookshops, independent music stores and vintage clothing and furniture outlets run by capitalists with consciences. Sure, you'll find big corporate chains and box stores here, but in Tallahassee they compete with little guys that you won't see in larger cities like Miami or Tampa.

Then, of course, there is the art, the music and the plethora of parks.

Manhattan can eat its heart out.

Tallahassee's cultural richness is a well-kept secret, and that suits many townspeople just fine. We don't need a gentrified carbon copy of New York's pretentious Williamsburg or Philadelphia's pricey Manayunk neighborhoods. Besides, it's criminal to plow over any more of Tallahassee's beautiful open spaces and storied past for token improvements.

But until we beef up our progressive culture and wrap Tallahassee's image around it, out-of-towners will continue to scoff at the notion of our Panhandle paradise as an intellectual and artistic haven.

The hardest sell may be to Tallahassee residents who aren't aware of the benefits that young, intelligent progressives bring to town. Skeptics should check out the Cultural Resources Commission's online events calendar, so they can acquaint themselves with Tallahassee's best and brightest.

Its address, appropriately, is www.morethanyouthought.com

2 comments:

Wee Katie said...

Thank you, Adam. I'm about to move to Tally in August, and this is exactly what I wanted to hear. You're a good writer, too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this! I recently had to make the hard decision between FSU and NYU. It came down to financials and NYU was just too expensive. I felt like I kissed a dream goodbye. I hail from a town in Wisconsin about two hours north of Madison and so to read your comment on the similarites between Tallahasse and Madison was greatly received. Raised in the North, I did have some reservations about moving south but, your post has relieved some of that anxiety.
Thank you so much!