George Packer on Hillsborough's failed transit tax campaign and other tales of the Bay area

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The Tampa Bay area was at the epicenter of the subprime mortgage and subsequent foreclosure crises, issues that originally brought Packer to Tampa in 2008. The Florida housing market was also the subject of his February 2009 New Yorker piece called "The Ponzi State."


Packer returned to the Tampa Bay area at different intervals over the next few years, and one of his book's chapters is all about Hillsborough County's unsuccessful 2010 vote on a transit tax, which would have helped fund the start of a light-rail system. He profiles Karen Jaroch, the Tea Party activist whose evolution from suburban mom into a political player is described in detail.


"I guess I saw light-rail as the one story happening in Tampa Bay that offered a way out of the dead end that the housing boom and the housing bust had created," Packer said. "The growth model had run its course, it had hit diminishing returns if not exploded in everyone’s face."


Acknowledging that light-rail wouldn't have cured all the problems the region was dealing with, he said it would have been a major step forward. But the 2010 nationwide political climate was hostile to "Big Government," and asking Hillsborough voters to support an increase in their sales taxes was going to be a reach — especially with an invigorated Republican Party led by Tea Party activists.


"I think there were powerful forces against it," Packer said, "including an attachment to the older way of life that is very hard to change. (It) sort of fed into people's suspicions of government, and of urbanization and of more European or Northeastern non-Sunbelt models; although there's light-rail all over the Sunbelt too in Phoenix and Salt Lake City and places like that ... so it just seemed like the one issue that concentrated all the competing ideas and forces at work in the middle of that disaster that hit Tampa Bay a few years ago."


One of Packer's heroes in The Unwinding is Tampa Bay Times reporter Michael Van Sickler, who the author venerated as an exemplar of good old-fashioned, hard-nosed reporting. He also allowed Van Sickler, an Ohio native, to tell his own story about his passion for cities and trying to make a difference through his journalism.


Packer said a theme of The Unwinding is the erosion of key institutions in our country like the government, schools, banks and the press. He said Van Sickler represents an antidote against the "noise" that dominates our media landscape in 2013.


"He (Van Sickler) sort of contrasts to this wide open and kind of chaotic and in someways trivial landscape that Andrew Breitbart comes out of in the book. Against that there's Van Sickler and there's the Times doing what papers have long done and trying to a make it meaningful when the competition is, you know ideological websites and cable news and social media, so his work fit very well with the themes of the book at large."


The last chapter titled "Tampa" is a heartbreaking saga of a family barely making it under tough economic conditions. Packer said the story of Danny and Ronale Hartznell is not at all representative of Tampa, but of the rough conditions for many people now who aren't college educated and don't have a safety net of friends or family to help them.


"They're sort of close to the bottom of the economic latter, but ... they don't drink and do drugs and divorce and abandon their kids the way we feel of people living in extreme poverty are often doing. They're living this very intact, loving cohesive family life. But they have nothing around them to support them. Sort of isolated socially, they don't have family or friends, they don't have education or careers they can fall back on, so they're kind of living in a Wal-Mart economy, literally, Wal-Mart is the center of their world in many ways: it's the source of employment, it's where they shop for everything, it's not a place they love by any means, so I don't know that they're indicative of Tampa Bay, so much as they're indicative of what the working poor have to deal with in America today. They make their own mistakes, plenty of them, but they also have so little help, and there seems to be no community around them to support them."


There are a couple of chapters devoted to Silicon Valley, but I told Packer that I enjoyed his most recent piece in the New Yorker about recent attempts by major players in the Internet capitol to become more involved in the political system. The story outstandingly reflects a lot of the narcissism that some of the best and brightest off Sand Hill Road seem to espouse in their discussions about politics and the political process. The story is also very accurate (according to my friends) in how he depicts the fact that San Francisco is changing right now due to the wealth of 20-somethings working for Google, Twitter and the like who are busting the city's already outrageous housing prices to totally squeeze out the remnants of a middle class.


Packer used his response to my question to connect how lawmakers in Tampa Bay would love to have the problems that are affecting the San Francisco Bay Area.


"One community's problem is another community's dream, and I think it would be a good thing for Tampa Bay for a bunch of software start ups and other companies start coming to downtown Tampa. It would help it become more of a real dynamic urban center so that the growth comes back into the city rather than to the county."


George Packer will be at the Oxford Exchange (420 W. Kennedy Blvd.) in downtown Tampa on Friday at 7 p.m.

Most authors can only dream of receiving the high-profile roll out that George Packer has enjoyed since last month's publication of his critically acclaimed book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Not only did the book make the NY Times best-seller list and get coverage on NPR and cable news programs, but Packer also made appearances on The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher, talking about his latest work, which depicts an America in crisis — if not total decline — since the late 1970's.

He certainly aroused attention in the Tampa Bay area after the New York Times' Dwight Garner wrote in a glowing review that Packer made Tampa, who Garner described as one of the five main characters of the book, "seem like hell on earth now."

"I was interested in Tampa as an example of a Sunbelt growth capital," Packer told CL in a phone interview conducted last Friday morning, explaining why he focused on the Bay area as part of his examination of the country (there are four chapters about Tampa).

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