The smiling couple barreling ahead on the cover of Liberty magazine in 1926 knew exactly where to go. “Florida or Bust,” said the white paint on the car doors. “Four wheels, no brakes.”  So it has been for a century, as Florida welcomed thousands of newcomers every week, year after year, becoming the nation’s fourth-most-populous state with about 16 million people in 2000.


Imagine the shock, then, to discover that traffic is now heading the other way. That’s right, the Sunshine State is shrinking.

Choked by a record level of foreclosures and unemployment, along with a helping of disillusionment, the state’s population declined by 58,000 people from April 2008 to April 2009, according to the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Except for the years around World Wars I and II, it was the state’s first population loss since at least 1900.

“It’s dramatic,” said Stanley K. Smith, an economics professor at the University of Florida who compiled the report. “You have a state that was booming and has been a leader in population growth for the last 100 years that suddenly has seen a substantial shift.”

The loss is more than a data point. Growth gave Florida its notorious flip-flop and flower-print swagger. Life could be carefree under the sun because, as a famous state tourism advertisement put it in 1986, “The rules are different here.”

But what if they are not? Or if those Florida rules — an approach that made growth paramount in the state’s sales pitch, self-image and revenue structure — no longer apply?

“It’s got to be a real psychological blow,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who predicted that census data in December would confirm the findings. “I don’t know if you can take a whole state to a psychiatrist, but the whole Florida economy was based on migration flows.”

Recall what once passed for normal. Florida grew from 2.8 million people in 1950 to 6.9 million in 1970, and by about three million people each decade after that. Even during stagflation in the ’70s, Florida added about 200,000 people a year. More recently, from 2004 to 2006, Florida added about 1,100 people a day, as housing construction’s proportion of the state economy grew to twice the national average.

Now consider Broward County in 2009. The county, between Miami and Palm Beach, was one of the first areas to shrink — losing 21,117 people from April 2007 to April 2009, according to University of Florida data — and its experience offers a glimpse of what could be on the way elsewhere.

Hollywood, in particular, embodies what the Sunshine State was and might become. It was founded in the 1920s as “the dream city of Florida” by a transplant from Washington State named Joseph Young who built ranch-style homes. After growing predictably — from 22,978 people in 1955 to 139,357 by 2000 — Hollywood has lost 1,562 people over the past year, according to the University of Florida count.

That amounts to only 1 percent, roughly in line with the rest of the county, but residents say their rhythms have already changed. Here and in other places adapting to the end of double-digit growth, the days include less noise, work and spontaneity, and more goodbyes, doubts and fears of the future. It is, by all accounts, a life lived under capacity.

Sandra Woodward, 25, grew up here, happy and proud. A secretary with dreams of working in education, she said eight houses on her block are in foreclosure. She knows 20 families who have left Florida in the last two years.

On Monday, she waited for her son to finish his first day of kindergarten at her alma mater, Hollywood Park Elementary. About 10 years ago, Ms. Woodward said, gesturing toward the parking lot, temporary trailers were needed, as the school was over-enrolled. This year, the principal counted 469 students registered — 124 fewer than the school can handle.

“I used to go up north to visit my family, and they all wanted to come here, to be part of this,” Ms. Woodward said. “Now I’m thinking about leaving, too. It’s scary.”

Some parents, like Kim Yager, 27, who has three children at the school, welcomed the drop-off. “It means smaller classes,” she said.

But as cities like Detroit well know, declines in population also compound downturns and hurt quality of life. Florida, in particular, was not built for emptying. Its government, since a 1924 constitutional amendment banned a state income tax, relies heavily on sales and property taxes, which are more closely linked with population growth.

Without it, and as housing prices and property tax revenues have fallen, municipalities have been forced to scramble. Broward County’s schools, which have been losing students for several years, opened Monday with 100 fewer teachers and a budget of $3.6 billion, down from about $5 billion in 2008.

Facing a deficit of $109 million, the county’s commissioners have reduced hours at libraries and parks, while the sheriff agreed to cut at least 177 positions.

The mood is dismal. Jim Findlay, 66, head of the rare books section in Broward County’s main library, said he had noticed more competitiveness among his colleagues as they wait for expected layoffs. He said he missed the time when moving trucks meant arrivals, not departures.

“It weighs on me because there has always been this hope, this expansiveness, this welcome of the new, this welcome of the unusual and eccentric in Florida,” he said. “That seems to have come to a halt.”

Or stagnating. In downtown Hollywood, chefs now stand outside with their arms crossed at dinnertime waiting for customers that never come. There are 10 shuttered businesses in the two blocks of Hollywood Boulevard north of Young Circle, the city’s main shopping district.

Jack Smile, 54, a co-owner of the Jeweled Castle, “a new-age department store,” said that many of the closed stores had been opened by people who thought that anything would work because it is Florida, where new buyers are a constant.

He started out the same way 14 years ago after leaving New York. “I came down here to work less and make more money,” Mr. Smile said. “But the tables turned.”

He has survived by bargaining with customers, and by selling stress kits of incense and oils. Gary Mormino, a historian at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, said baby boomers may be the state’s best shot at another upswing. “The big question is will they choose the same type of retirement as their parents,” he said.

Already, the state’s hold on retirees is weakening, with thousands of disenchanted “halfbacks” moving to Georgia and the Carolinas in recent years. Mr. Smith at the University of Florida nonetheless predicts modest population increases when the economy picks up — growth of 150,000 to 200,000 people annually.

Even that would be a downward adjustment from recent history. Yet, for Mr. Smile, any increase would be an omen of hope.

“We’re holding onto the magic,” he said, standing behind a counter with $3 Fairy Dust and a Buddha promising prosperity. “The magic is here.”

Via New York Times