We travelled over the mountains from Miami, and down to Florence. Perhaps it was the landscape we passed through to get there that made it seem in contrast so very very flat.
It is another Arizona town struggling to find a history.
Unlike Miami, its main street is now an historic downtown and, unlike Miami, it is, well, not so much pristine as shabby genteel. Scrubbed up nicely. Stripped of any sense of the passage of time. As if it was made this way and will stay this way.
Scattered over a handful of blocks are plaques. They are mostly about individual houses, recording maybe a century’s worth of possession, mostly English names but some Spanish, and how each owner in turn added bits, demolished bits, concealed bits. The five-room museum, in the former jail-turned-courthouse-turned-hospital-turned-goodness-knows-what over the years is far too spacious.
It’s as if nothing ever happened here.
Even in the afternoon sun, it feels a bit Twilight Zone.
Last year, Nerdwallet listed Florence as the number one ‘city on the rise’ in Arizona. But is difficult to imagine such an untethered-feeling place having a future. To picture it launching itself into the flow of history.
‘Nothing ever happens here’, would be a good motto. Especially if followed by ‘move along, there’s nothing to see’.
The as-yet-unincarcerated population of Florence is around 25,500, but the economy hinges on the ‘corrections industry’, on the nine separate prisons in town, so there’s a good chance the locals are outnumbered by inmates.
Arizona’s death row and death house are here, too, have been for more than a century, and in World War 2 there was even a POW camp. German and Italian prisoners, mainly from north Africa. If they signed a document renouncing the Axis war effort, they were housed in ‘Democracy Town’, and permitted to leave the camp and work in the local cotton fields; those who did not sign were kept in the ‘Nazi Town’ area of the camp.
There’s an exhibit about it at the far end of the final room in the museum.
The exhibit does not mention that the southern half of Arizona was in Military Zone No. 1, which Japanese Americans were encouraged to leave ‘voluntarily’ in 1942, and in which they were then ordered to stay, placed under a curfew, while the dispossession and internment policies took shape.
The exhibit does not mention that to the north and west, in Mayer and Parker Dam, there were ‘Civilian Assembly Centers’, temporary camps where Japanese Americans were held after being removed from their homes. Or, in the same directions, the Gila River and Poston ‘Relocation Centers’, that is, internment camps. Or, further north, in Leupp, the Citizen Isolation Centre, reserved for ‘problem’ inmates. Or, to the south, the Catalina Federal Honor Camp, which held Japanese-American draft resisters and conscientious objectors.
Perhaps these omissions are fair enough. None of that happened in Florence itself. And besides, drawing attention to systematic, institutionalised racial injustice is probably not the done thing when you’re dependent on the prison-industrial complex. No matter how desperate you are for some history – any history – with which to fluff up your downtown.
Odd though that the exhibit does not mention the Japanese American civilians held in the POW camp alongside the captured Italian and German soldiers.
I wonder whether they got to live in Democracy town, whether they got to pick cotton.
Note This is my second attempt to write up a light-hearted anecdote about Florence, but both times the opening line has led me in another direction. I will try again soon. Maybe tomorrow.
For another take on the town, try this – it is where I nicked my picture from cos I was too busy getting the ones I would need for that elusive light-hearted anecdote.