Topic: Government & Politics

Urban Legends in Pensacola
(6/9/2005)

Personal business once took me to the god-forsaken Russian city of Samara, where most of the buildings were boarded up and miserable residents huddled around small bonfires built on the sidewalks. It was truly a hell-hole, but when we eagerly boarded our Aeroflot flight out of the place, we heard a heavily accented baritone bidding us good-bye and reminding us to return to "lovely Samara, Russia's vacation paradise!" The taped message was brought to us by the Samara Department of Tourism, and for pure surreal misrepresentation it is probably unbeatable. Still, my mind was jerked back to Samara when an interminable layover in the Pensacola, Florida airport forced me to listen repeatedly to a cheery recorded female voice welcoming me to "Pensacola, one of America's most historic cities."

Could this possibly be true, I wondered? Surely if the average American was asked to name America's most historic cities, Pensacola would not be one of the first selections to escape his lips.

What is a "historic city," anyway? I would say that to be meaningful (every city has a history, after all) the term must declare that either a major historical event occurred in the city, or that the city was associated with many historic events or figures. San Antonio is an example of the first (Remember the Alamo!) and Baltimore, with its ties to Babe Ruth, Edgar Allen Poe, H.L. Mencken and the Star-Spangled Banner, is an example of the second. Which is Pensacola, would you say?

Maybe the key is the word "most". If all the cities and towns in America were divided into two groups, those of historical significance to the general population and those with little historic interest to anyone but local residents, would the top half be considered the "most historic?" Somehow I don't think Pensacola's boast is merely supposed to make us think that it is among the top 800 U.S. municipalities when it comes to historical impact. By that standard, Samara's claim wouldn't be so outlandish after all: try finding ANY "vacation paradise" in Russia. Samara could easily be in the top 100 Russian vacation spots. But surely "best" shouldn't be used to mean "better than nothing."

Let's see…how many cities (we won't even consider towns that are stuffed with history, like Salem, Massachusetts, Gettysberg, Pa. or Tombstone, Arizona) would be on any list of "most historic cities?" Washington, D.C., naturally; also Boston and Philly, the twin cradles of the American Revolution. New York, Chicago, Detroit…San Francisco, for sure. Pensacola clearly can't compete with them. Where does it fit?

Well, as it happens, almost nothing of general interest ever happened in Pensacola. It was discovered in 1528 by that household name, Panfilo De Narvaez, and was used as a base of operations by the rather better known Hernando de Soto. Other than that, according to the city's own website, the historic highlights seem to be a big dock fire in 1948 (What, you don't recall the Great Pensacola Dock Fire?) and the banner year of 1965, when 98% of the nation's creosote-soaked poles came through the Pensacola harbor. That, my friends, is it. Impressed?

Pensacola is surely a fine city and a good place to live, but somehow it should be able to find another claim to fame that has more connection with reality than "one of the most historic cities" in America. Municipal pride is a wonderful thing, but at its outer limits public relations puffery becomes falsehood; in the case of Pensacola, ludicrously obvious falsehood. The city has a history, but its history is no more remarkable than thousands of other cities.

It seems a shame to welcome visitors to a perfectly good American city with a lie. The message of such a welcome is either that this is a city subject to serious delusions of grandeur, or that it is a den of deceit. Presumably neither is a fair description. Pensacola is a good place to live, work, and catch some sun. That's all anyone needs to know, and it has the added benefit of being true.

 

   
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