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How Schemers Built a State

Mark Massaro reviews Jason Vuic’s “The Swamp Peddlers: How Lot Sellers, Land Scammers, and Retirees Built Modern Florida and Transformed the American Dream.”

DURING HIGH SCHOOL, I had an English teacher who often said, “If you believe that, I have swampland in Florida for sale.” Most of his students ignored the phrase — we were in the snow-addled hills of Massachusetts. But after living in Florida for 20 years and reading Jason Vuic’s newest book, The Swamp Peddlers: How Lot Sellers, Land Scammers, and Retirees Built Modern Florida and Transformed the American Dream, the saying sinks in with different weight.

Vuic’s exhaustive examination reveals how the development of Southwest Florida became a marketing scam that robbed citizens of their savings and destroyed lives, the ecosystem, and the souls of the developers themselves. He weaves historical fact, shocking quotes, and cultural insights into the story with expert clarity. The linear narrative follows Florida’s development as if it were the historical biography of an American cultural icon and exposes the scandalous reward of greed in American culture. Simply put, the bad guys won.

His focus is the Gulf Coast, where I have resided for the past two decades. During my time here, I’ve seen gated communities replace lush forests almost overnight. I’ve swum in artificial canals, raising my piña colada over the water. I’ve waited for hours in traffic to get to school on time. I frequently pass lines of cars circling tiki-hut restaurant chains on my way to the supermarket. The nonexistent version of Florida became the reality. The city of Cape Coral doesn’t have coral. Port Charlotte doesn’t have a port. The communities are a copy of a copy, and the culture is carefully engineered to bring more people and more money.

Vuic follows the trail of greed from the 1920s to Elizabeth Whitney’s investigative 1970 series “Swamp Peddlers” in The St. Petersburg Times, where she exposed real-estate chicanery. He describes the deceptive techniques using original pamphlets, promotions, maps, and flyers contrasted with stories found in court records and business documents. High-pressure sales tactics became missiles. Anyone who could sign their name bore targets on their backs. One developer told his salesmen that people are “to be taken” and that, if they didn’t do it, someone else would. And “if you feel you don’t want to take them, leave now,” he added.

Developers’ cold-call centers, dubbed “the cattle chutes,” had thousands of employees. They spent millions on radio and television ads publicizing the tropical dream to Northerners. Contest “winners” (everyone won) were shuttled to Florida for a free vacation and mandated meetings with salesmen. After paying a “processing fee,” which actually paid for their flights and accommodations, the winners only real prize was a free dinner with a salesman.

Many got hooked and then rooked. The buyers never actually saw their investments. Some toured neighborhoods with waterfront views, but the land on the deed was swamp miles back from the shore. Back up north, buyers showed their friends and families the same promotional photo, proudly claiming that ...