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tv   Christopher Knowlton Bubble in the Sun  CSPAN  April 21, 2020 6:54am-7:22am EDT

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and the arrival of the key figures in florida in the years leading up to the boom in the giddiness of the frenzy it self which could be described as one gigantic party, followed by the pain and tragedy of the bust.
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i think these are very american stories. every generation lives through one or 2 such booms and busts and virtually everyone learns a few painful lessons from them. part and parcel of living in a free enterprise system with free-market capitalism. i like to think there is a more serious aspect to what i am doing. i have come to believe we need to look under the proverbial hood of these frenzies to understand why they arose, what went wrong and who or what might be to blame because the economy john kenneth gob race once wrote, quote, regulation that outlaws financial
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incredulity is not a practical possibility. in other words you can't legislate away human gullibility. how these events happened, and not to be seduced by such speculative frenzies because they do keep on occurring. these are cautionary tales. i soon discovered there hasn't been a definitive history of the florida land boom ever written, nothing i would describe as definitive or thoroughly researched. in fact very few histories of real estate development or real estate speculation ever written and that is odd given how many great american fortunes have been made in real estate. i think god too given real estate speculation dates back
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to the earliest days of the republic. you could argue christopher columbus was shopping for real estate for the spanish crown and the story of john jacob astor expanding the for trade into manhattan real estate. i see an obvious opportunity and the more i looked into it the more fertile the territory, for one thing, obviously rich subject matter, a chance to write about a fascinating period of american history because the 20s were in especially colorful decade, jazz, flappers, politicians, rum running, out capone, babe ruth, radios, automobiles, all of which i touched on in the book so here for instance is the book's description of our
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capone. six feet tall, weighing 240 pounds, the gangster dressed immaculately when he went out on the town favoring a dark blue double-breasted suit adorned with a pocket square and matching polkadot necktie, gold and diamond studded watch chain he was fiddling with and on one pinky finger a 4 carat diamond ring and platinum setting. frank j wilson, united states secret service agent who brought down by convicting him for tax evasion, recalled big how having dark eyes, thick lips, perfect teeth, a big flabby part and dainty, manicured nails. a 6 inch scar from a knife fight in a bar ran down his left cheek. when the mobster pulled out a silk handkerchief wilson got a with of his cologne, lily of
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the valley but back to the conceiving of the book there was yet another angle to the story. as with my first book there was an environmental story to be told, what happened starting in the 1920s to the everglades. florida's primary aquifer i don't need to tell you. specifically the building of the tamiami trail during the decade which cut off most or much of the water flow to the southern everglades with disastrous consequences, the wildlife and the entire ecosystem, shortsighted from economic development standpoint. that environmental story was an important component of this book because i firmly believe i can no longer separate economic
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well-being from environmental well-being. they are tied at the hip. british prime minister margaret thatcher, unlikely spokesperson for the environmental movement put it best in an address to the royal society 30 years ago. the health of the economy, could be dependent on each other. the world wildlife fund elaborated on the sentiment, all economic activity depends on the services provided by nature. florida's aquifer is a serrated in the name of progress. later a state will be heavily dependent on availability of that water and you don't get much more shortsighted than that.
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in getting started on the research i realized how significant the decade of the 20s was to american history as a whole. it is no exaggeration that it was the decade that defined contemporary america, popular culture and its preoccupations. for example this is the decade when we became primarily a middle-class society and a consumer driven society. the automobile and mass media for the first time. initially it was radio, television would soon follow. predominately urban and suburban in our focus but definitely a deeply divided between urban and rural.
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this is the decade we became sports obsessed. we saw the rise of the nfl for the first time, professional golf and tennis. to a similar extent we became sex obsessed for the first time at least overtly with young nubile women appeared half clad in advertisements, and paul fisher. the developer of miami beach and cheesecake in the ads he ran in times square to advertise in miami beach and also we became data-driven the first time and this is the decade when home mortgages and installment credit took hold. profound implications for what happened during the great depression. they shake the addiction to
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death ever since. most people, in the great depression, as they were going in, if they hadn't been wiped out like my great-grandfather. finally i would say this is the age when business comes to the 4 of the chief occupation of most americans. next thing i discovered is there were wonderful characters to write about, in particular the great developers of the era who were remarkably compelling. karl fischer in miami beach, george merrick in coral gables, addison meisner in palm beach in boca raton on and bb davis
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in tampa in saint augustine. to give a flavor for these men, a quick description of just one which is karl fischer and again this -- karl grand fisher was born into a middle-class family in greensboro, indiana in 1874. astigmatism so severe he was barely able to read a blackboard at school, he dropped out at age 12 despite his isolates, he was an avid reader, gifted athlete and gleeful show off. the best ice skater in indianapolis he could also walk on stilts a full story high, stand on his head, tight rope walk and outrun most of his classmates running backwards. one of his two wives would recall he was is nimble with
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his feet as with his hands. squat and slope shouldered fisher would grow into a dimple grinning boozer and poker player and unrepentant womanizer who peppered his talk with profanity. he chewed tobacco smoking a cigar at the same time after biting offense wallowing the scars. when he married his first wife jane in 1909, she was 24 and he was 35 but she was smitten, he was all speed, found him so dazzling i could hardly look at him. each of these developers would make a gigantic fortune equivalent to 600 million-$1.3 billion today. enthralled to their success
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they lose every penny of it. each of their stories is a real-life morality tale about greed and hubris and power much like greek tragedies and there was a fourth towering figure to emerge from this era and that is the environmentalist marjorie stoneman douglas, she would later go on to write the great book on the everglades in 1947. after years of devastation, the everglades were on fire and she serves in the book as a counter point to developers and shortsighted development, that ended -- she is the conscience of this book and she out of the developers happily by 50 or 60 years living to be 108, winning the presidential medal of honor.
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as i got deeper into the actual research of this book i began to suspect there is more to the story than met the eye, and overlook significance of the bust because the bursting of the land boom, what triggered the great depression. and to trigger the great recession in 2008. real estate, not the stock market, with leading up to the 1940s, i try not to in the book because i'm cognizant of how complex the economy is or even was back then. it is not one single cause of the great depression but as i
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say in the book and this is true, the collapse of the florida boom provided a dynamite and detonator, even though there is a lag time of a couple years when florida real estate collapsed in the national economy collapsed the same is true in 2008, real estate started to roll over in late 2006, florida and california, stock market decline in the mid-2008, it takes a wild for real estate collapsed to play out. for me that was the final piece of the literary puzzle as far as i was concerned. i had what i needed to make an engaging book, inherently interesting period of time,
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dramatic set of events, good characters and novel theme which i think a book like this should have. that is the story behind the conception of the book, how it came to be written. in the broadest terms it is the story of watershed decade, mom and pop to massmarketing from fiscal responsibility to reliance on consumer debt. from oral naïveté and innocence to urban maturity and sophistication as a nation, we had to go through the great depression to get there. let me finish by giving you an overview of florida in 1926 and see if this doesn't echo with
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you today and i am quoting from the book, florida of the 1920s, a precursor, in florida then as in the united states at the moment two affluent coasts, separated by a largely impoverished and agricultural interior, inequitable wealth distribution, racial intolerance, zeno phobia and rising nationalism, the kkk being the most emblematic back then. these were combined with a dangerous overreliance on laissez-faire economics and government structure where bankers and businesspeople wielded inordinate influence on
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policy. to complete the analogy, the political leadership of the day displayed a profound difference to the fate of the environment and society less fortunate. i find these uncanny, i remind the reader it didn't end well back then. at the risk of history repeating is real. the 20s was a glamorous prosperous decade full of sports stars, celebrities, starlets but also a reckless, disruptive, money upset, scandal ridden and polarizing decade too. in short, an era remarkably similar to the one we are living through today. i thank you for listening, i hope you read and enjoy the book and i am happy to take any
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questions. [applause] >> i read something that seemed rather apocryphal so i want to ask a question and you are the person to provide the answer. i read that in the 1920s, unscrupulous land developers attached oranges to mangrove trees and marketed them as orange groves. is that true? or is it just a story? >> i heard the same story. i couldn't verify that. >> it seemed rather apocryphal to me. >> the kind of thing that was possible, let's put it that way.
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>> i am curious, how do you think we should tell the story of george meredith today? >> glad you asked that question. i have a comment. at first i was very impressed with that. you can see it in his eyes. and i have to admit it came as a shock to me that he was not that important to me. i don't know how many of you know this but a bona fide crook when his business started to collapse in the 1920s he repeatedly -- it was out of desperation. what he did was unloaded properties come onto the city of coral gables. at the same time he leveraged the city up in order to purchase those properties.
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what the city defaulted on, wasn't paid off until 1961 and he got away with it and held the statute of limitations, the real estate collapse in florida crossed everywhere and was such a backlog. he was investigated ultimately by the fcc. they shamed him a little bit. it was fresh under the covers but the irony was they did it anyway. that story got swept under the carpet in time and you can understand why. who wants their founder to be a failed real estate developer guilty of criminal actions especially in this day and age?
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[laughter] >> the truth won out in the end. for you in coral gables you might find this interesting. that is great. i will be here to sign copies and happy to chat and answer questions as i do so, thank you again. >> thanks, we have copies of the book for sale. four five copies a piece. another round of applause. [applause] >> you are watching a special
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