Cape Coral, Fla., was built on a swamp by hucksters and could be wiped off the map by a powerful storm, said journalist Michael Grunwald. It also just happens to be the fastest-growing city in the U.S.
The boomtown built on lies
THE ADS PROMISED paradise: “Legendary Lazy Living” in a “Waterfront Wonderland.” The brochures sold the Florida dream, “an enchanted City-in-the- Making (average temperature: 71.2 degrees)” without winter, worries, or state income taxes. Cape Coral was America’s land of tomorrow, just $20 down and $20 a month for a quarter-acre slice of heaven: “Breathtaking, isn’t it? How could it be otherwise when Nature was so lavishly generous to begin with?”
The Raso family moved from Pittsburgh to Cape Coral on Sept. 14, 1960, lured by that sunny vision of affordable utopia. At the time, the vision was just about all there was. The City-inthe- Making was still mostly uninhabitable swampland, with just a few dozen homes along a few mosquito-swarmed dirt roads. “We were pioneers in a station wagon instead of a covered wagon,” recalls Gloria Raso Tate, who was 9 years old when she piled into the back seat with her three sisters and a mutt named Peppy.
The Rasos quickly discovered that in some ways, nature had not been so lavishly generous to Cape Coral. They arrived in town the same hour as Hurricane Donna, which was shredding southwest Florida with winds of 120 mph. They spent their first night in paradise in a house with no roof. “My mom was not a happy camper. She thought the storm was a sign we never should’ve come to Florida,” Raso Tate says. “But my dad was Mr. Positive. He believed in the dream.”
Raso Tate’s true-believing dad soon became a top salesman for Cape Coral’s developer, Gulf American, peddling paradise on layaway, promoting one of the most notorious land scams in Florida’s scammy history. Gulf American unloaded tens of thousands of low-lying Cape Coral lots on dream seekers all over the world before the authorities cracked down on its frauds and deceptions. It passed off inaccessible mush as prime real estate and sold the same swampy lots to multiple buyers. Its hucksters spun a soggy floodplain between the Caloosahatchee River and the Gulf of Mexico as America’s middle-class boomtown of the future, and suckers bought it.
The thing is, the hucksters were right, and so were the suckers. Cape Coral is now the largest city in America’s fastest-growing metropolitan area. Its population has soared from fewer than 200 when the Rasos arrived to 180,000 today. Its low-lying swamps have been drained, thanks to an astonishing 400 miles of canals—the most of any city on earth—that serve not only as the city’s storm-water management system but also its defining real estate amenity. Those ditches were an ecological disaster, ravaging wetlands, estuaries, and aquifers. Cape Coral was a planning disaster, too, designed without water or sewer pipes, shops or offices, or almost anything but pre-platted residential lots. But people flocked here anyway. The title of a memoir by a Gulf American secretary captured the essence of Cape Coral: Lies That Came True.
As Florida cleans up after Hurricane Irma, which almost precisely followed Donna’s path through the Keys to Florida’s southwest coast, some Americans are asking what the hell 20 million people are doing in a flood-prone, storm-battered peninsula that was once the nation’s last unpopulated frontier. Federal taxpayers will spend billions of dollars on Irma relief, even though Irma did not turn out to be the “big one.” A slightly different track could have drowned cities like Miami or Tampa, boosting that price tag to hundreds of billions. Americans are also paying for a $16 billion project to resuscitate the dying Everglades, just part of the costs they will bear for the build-out of the Florida dream.
Cape Coral may be the best place to gauge the future of the dream—and to see whether Florida has any hope of overcoming its zany developmental, political, and environmental history—because Cape Coral is the ultimate microcosm of Florida. It’s literally a peninsula jutting off the peninsula, the least natural, worstplanned, craziest-growing piece of an unnatural, badly planned, crazy-growing state. Man has sculpted it into an almost comically artificial landscape, with a Seven Islands section featuring seven perfectly rectangular islands and an Eight Lakes neighborhood featuring eight perfectly square lakes. And while much of Florida now yo-yos between routine droughts and routine floods, Cape Coral’s fluctuations are particularly wild. This spring, the city faced a water shortage so dire that its fire department feared it couldn’t rely on its hydrants, yet this summer, the city endured a recordbreaking flood.
Much of Cape Coral faced a mandatory evacuation during Irma, because the forecast called for as much as 15 feet of storm surge blasting into its canals, and much of the city is just a few feet above sea level. The Red Cross opened only two shelters in town, because it doesn’t open shelters in vulnerable flood zones. As the storm approached, Raso Tate was texting with those three sisters who joined her in that back seat 57 years ago—and a fourth sister born a few months later, who is, of course, named Donna. “We were like: ‘Oh, no, it’s happening again, this could be the end of Cape Coral,’” Gloria says. But Irma swerved slightly, so while it hit Cape Coral hard enough to knock out power lines and damage sea walls, it didn’t drown the city. “We got lucky,” she says. “So life goes on.”
Cape Coral’s planners expect its population to double again over the next two decades. Like it or not, Florida is going to keep growing, too, because Baby Boomers are retiring and the sun is still shining; since World War II, the state’s population has skyrocketed from 27th to third in the nation. The real question is how it will prepare for its increasingly crowded future and deal with the mistakes of its land-by-thegallon past. Even when communities like Cape Coral try to adjust to modern realities, it’s not easy to escape their original sins.
LEONARD ROSEN, the marketing dynamo from Baltimore who invented Cape Coral, was a visionary and a rogue. He and his brother Jack got rich selling an anti-baldness tonic made from lanolin, a wool grease secreted by sheep; they promoted it with some of America’s first infomercials, featuring the immortal tagline “Have you ever seen a bald sheep?” Leonard’s daughter, Linda Sterling, remembers him as a self-educated genius and warmhearted philanthropist, but also a relentless snake-oil salesman and incorrigible rule breaker. He drove the wrong way on one-way streets. He wore tennis clothes to meetings with his Wall Street bankers.
The Rosen brothers realized they could sell Florida as another miracle elixir, “a rich man’s paradise, within the financial reach of everyone.” They started with some rugged mangrove swamp and palmetto scrub known as Redfish Point, which they rebranded as Cape Coral. Their dredges and draglines dug drainage ditches through the muck, then dumped the fill along the banks of the new “canals,” moving enough dirt to fill a swimming pool every minute. Then they built homes on top of the fill to create a maze of “waterfront properties” where neither waterfront nor property had ever existed, the instant alchemy of Florida real estate. Sure, the water the properties fronted was basically plumbing for a suburbanized floodplain, but it still sparkled in the sun.
The Rosens’ real innovation was selling Cape Coral as frenetically as they sold their magic hair products. They gave away homes on game shows like The Price Is Right. They brought in celebrities like Bob Hope and Anita Bryant to promote the dream. They had telemarketers hawking lots with Glengarry Glen Ross–style blarney. They sent sales reps across the ocean— Gloria Raso Tate’s dad pitched paradise in London and Rome—and planted touts at Florida hotels and attractions, luring tour- ists to free steak dinners interrupted by salesmen shouting, “Lot No. 18 is sold!” and paid ringers yelling, “I just bought one!” Prospective buyers were offered free stays at the company motel—where rooms were bugged to help salesmen customize their pitches—and taken on company Cessnas for “fly-and-buys” to see lots the pilots reserved by dropping sacks of flour from the sky.
“Cape Coral was brilliantly orchestrated and terribly planned,” says Florida historian Gary Mormino, author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams. “They built an instant city on steroids—with none of the stuff you need to make a city work.”
The Rosens did build Cape Coral a yacht club and a snazzy pavilion featuring the country’s largest rose garden and a dancing fountain called Waltzing Waters. But those amenities were sales tools, intended to produce the illusion of a community for potential residents. There were no schools or churches or almost anything else in Cape Coral in its early days, just houses scattered randomly all over town. You had to read between the lines of the ads to grasp this inconvenient truth: “Supermarkets, department stores, theaters—plenty to do in the nearby thriving city of Fort Myers!”
This houses-only problem is no longer so extreme, but it’s still a big problem. The vast majority of Cape Coral’s 120 square miles was sold off piecemeal for singlefamily residential lots, so it took city planners more than a decade to assemble the adjoining parcels it needed to attract a Target, a task requiring negotiations with property owners as far away as Switzerland and Hong Kong. It took nearly as long to bring in a Home Depot. The Rosens also neglected to build Cape Coral any water or sewer infrastructure, and it has no direct access to the interstate—or even a good swimming beach—so it has struggled to attract businesses. Unlike smaller but betterknown neighbors like Fort Myers and Naples, Cape Coral has no colleges, no arenas, no significant corporate offices, no real tourist destinations, only one luxury hotel, a “downtown” with no focal point, and hardly any commercial tax base.
The Rosens also left a brutal environmental legacy that still haunts Cape Coral. They tore down most of the coastal mangroves that had provided natural storm protection to this exposed spit of land, as well as vital spawning and feeding grounds for its fisheries. They drained and paved wetlands that once absorbed the area’s floodwaters and recharged its aquifers; local wells ran dry from the start, and the city now mines its drinking water from a finite supply 800 feet underground.
“Cape Coral is what happens when you obliterate your natural resources,” says Cynthia Barnett, author of a book about Florida’s water called Mirage. “It’s supposed to be the water wonderland, and they’ve got one water crisis after another. When you borrow that heavily from the environment, the bill comes due.”
Still, it’s not a coincidence that the Cape Coral–Fort Myers area has recorded America’s most explosive population growth two years in a row, and a remarkable five years out of the past 13. For a lot of transplants, it feels like a subtropical version of their northern suburbs and villages, a city with a small-town vibe—plus sunshine and backyard boat docks. Brian Tattersall, an insurance broker from Barrie, Ontario, took me for a ride on his 29-foot Sea Fox through Cape Coral’s canals on one balmy afternoon. The Gulf breeze was lovely, even though we could see giant piles of Irma debris along the shore. There are several dozen Barrie natives living in Cape Coral, because word about afternoons like this travels.
“People say, ‘Are you crazy, living in Florida with all those hurricanes?’” Tattersall told me as we drifted through a slow-speed manatee zone. “Come on. Does this feel crazy?” He recalled a recent outing with his grandchildren where they saw dolphins and stingrays. “That’s what life is about, right?” I asked him whether he thought Irma would scare away the next generation of newcomers, and he scoffed. “No way,” he said.
Then he reconsidered: “Look, if we get 15 feet of storm surge, holy s---, that would take out Cape Coral.”
Another pause. He sipped his Bud Light. “Eh, even then, no way.”
Excerpted from an article that was originally published in Politico Magazine. Reprinted with permission. ■