Thursday, January 06, 2011

Exiles in Eden

If this book weren't due at the library, I'd dig through my pictures to find one of our first little house in St. Cloud, Florida.

We, by the grace of God, built the house - which sits on a retention pond (but because it indirectly feeds into Lake Toho at some point, is deeded a lake) on Pine Chase Circle. We moved in February of 1998, just a few months before our oldest was born.

It was a small house, but we have so many happy memories there. We brought all our four children home from the hospital to that house, we entertained family, we got to know our neighbors, we took walks to see the Christmas lights after dinner. I didn't realize until I moved away how much I loved that little house.

Which is why I picked up this book from my local library here in Illinois - Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida's Great Recession by Paul Reyes.

I had heard rumblings of the horrors of the Florida housing market from my friends who still live in St. Cloud. Exiles from Eden brought it even closer home.

Reyes spent several months helping his father clean out foreclosed homes in the Tampa Bay area. He sifted through personal things - pictures, letters, and other personal items abandoned along with the houses. He also followed up with former owners, asking them for their stories, their hopes, where they will go from here.

Reyes engagingly keeps the reader's attention not only with his personal stories, but also the stories of people who have lost their homes, the stories of his father's crew, with some Florida history thrown in for good measure.

I found the story of Lehigh Acres fascinating. It's all the more intriguing because of Reyes' parents' personal connection to the community.

Our family moved from St. Cloud in 2004, right when the housing market was starting to really take off. I remember our Realtor telling us that this was a crazy bubble, the banks were making crazy loans and everything was going to burst in about three to five years.

She was right on the money. What she didn't know - and we didn't either - was that the family who bought our house would be a causality too. There was a divorce, then the air conditioning broke, and with no money to fix it, the mother and her children abandoned the house, first stripping it bare.

My former neighbor told me that. I've not heard if it's still sitting empty and forlorn on that block, or if someone bought it for a song from the bank and fixed it up. I have a feeling it's the former.

It makes me want to run down to St. Cloud and rescue my little house so full of memories.

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