Original publish date: November 8, 2016
My wife and I spent this last Presidential election day in Florida, a refuge for us for over 25 years now. As I write this article, the outcome of the race is still undecided. By the time this article runs, the race will be over and our country will have a newly elected President. Truth is, we quickly discovered that the TV ads down here are even more vicious than they were back home. And THAT is saying something! Having cast our votes early, we were in need of a distraction.
I found it while watching the morning news. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer announced that the city had reached a deal to buy Pulse nightclub for $2.25 million. In case you need a refresher, Pulse was a gay bar, dance hall, and nightclub in downtown Orlando. On June 12, 2016, the club gained international attention as the scene of the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history, the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history, and the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9-11. 49 people were killed and 53 were injured.
Dyer said the site will probably remain as-is for the next year or more, as it has become a popular gathering place for mourners. The purchase price was $600,000 more than its appraised value. He said the city will reach out to both LBGT groups and local community for advice on how the memorial should proceed. I didn’t tell Rhonda where we were going, I just said “Let’s go for a drive.” Good sport that she is, she agreed without reservation and off we went. While just about everyone knows the story of the massacre, not many know the history of the nightclub itself.
The Orlando Weekly newspaper once described Pulse as featuring “three glitzy, throbbing rooms of twinks, club boys and twinks at heart. Every night has something different in store, but Pulse is known to have some pretty impressive drag shows, and the bar’s dancers are usually gorgeous.” However, Pulse was more than just a party spot for the LBGT, it hosted themed performances each night and had a monthly program featuring educational events geared towards the LGBT community. The Washington Post described its first 12 years as “a community hub for HIV prevention, breast-cancer awareness and immigrant rights”, and reported it had partnered with educational and advocacy groups such as Come Out with Pride, Equality Florida, and the Zebra Coalition. President Obama once described Pulse as both a refuge for LGBT and for Puerto Rican people.
Top 10 Orlando called it a “firm favorite for the Orlando gay crowd”, The Rough Guide to Florida deemed it “justifiably popular”, citing its “great lighting and sound plus cabaret performers, drag acts, and erotic dancers.” The entire premises, including the washrooms, were handicap accessible. Using “periodic consumer surveys”, Zagat rated Pulse 25/30 for atmosphere, 25/30 decor, and 22/30 service.
Before Pulse was founded, the building site was home to the Sarasota Herald Company, a 1930s Era daily newspaper. In 1985 it became Lorenzo’s pizza restaurant. By 1999, it had become Dante’s, a bar with live music. Dante’s closed in January 2003. Pulse was founded on July 2, 2004 by Barbara Poma and Ron Legler. Poma’s brother, John, died in 1991 from AIDS, and the club was “named for John’s pulse to live on”, according to their website. Legler was President of the Florida Theatrical Association at the time of the club’s foundation.
I was hoping that our visit to this hallowed ground would somehow help us put things back into proper perspective and remind us about what is truly important in this world. It did not disappoint. Pulse, located at 1912 S. Orange Avenue in Orlando, Florida, is today encircled in a 7-foot tall chain link fence with another solid plywood wall inside to act as a double barrier. The chain link fence is adorned with banners memorializing the event and its victims in a tasteful, solemn way.
Visitors have written messages of hope on the canvas signs. Some designed to cheer the future, others to toast the past, while more still are there to nourish the soul and soothe an unquiet mind. A few scrawlings just want it to be known that Jake from Iowa was there and that Jake from Iowa understands and is sorry it happened. Some messages are from friends, many are from family and others from Orlando residents paying respect, like Orlando Boy Scout Troop 534 who proudly proclaim that they are Orlando Strong.
As of this writing, no-one knows for sure what will become of the site. I’m sure that many, myself included, hope that the city of Orlando will turn it into a fitting memorial. Perhaps a museum in the same vein as the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that is now home to the National Civil Rights Museum. Like the 9-11 site of recent memory, a place of terrible tragedy and heartbreak can sometimes become a place of healing. A place of education and, most importantly, a place of understanding.
I’m a firm believer that seeing, touching and walking the paths of important events leads to better understanding of what happened there. The Pulse site could be a perfect place to reflect and remember. Orange Avenue is a busy road but what strikes a first time visitor like me is that no farther than 100 yards behind the site are neighborhoods full of homes and average everyday people. One can only imagine how that tragedy affected these folks.
Sadly, our nation’s historical landscape is pock-marked with sites where tragedy has defined a region. All too often these sites involved the attempted eradication of human rights, whether individually or as a group. One need only recall the evils of slavery and horrors of reconstruction to understand the impact of a failed ideology. Every group has had to climb its own mountain to affect change; some sadder and more tragic than others.
Native American Indians at wounded knee, Mexicans at San Jacinto, Mormons at Mountain Meadow, black soldiers at Fort Pillow & Battery Wagner, abolitionists at Lawrence, Kansas, Chinese laborers on the transcontinental railroad, union laborers at Ludlow, Colorado and women workers at the Triangle factory fire in New York City. All of these sad episodes are viewed as landmarks of change for our country. The Pulse nightclub massacre can count themselves among them and the site could be their change landmark. Only time will tell.
On our brief half hour visit, we saw about a half dozen people visiting the memorial, reading the sympathy cards, looking at the cherished talismans and mourning remembrances placed on the fence and arranged on the ground before it. Most, like us, took photos to remember their visit. While others pulled up to the curb and never got out of their cars. But they took the time to be there, nonetheless.
The memory that I will take with me is of a pair of young women who appeared and walked slowly down the fence. It was a young teacher escorting a beautiful blind student. The teacher stopped at every banner, reading it aloud to her sightless charge. The young student then reached out and touched every banner gently with her fingertips, as if absorbing the moment for her own personal posterity. Our daughter Jasmine and two of her / our close friends, Elise and Jada, work at the Indiana School for the Blind. I’d like to think that if any one of those three young women were in the same position, they’d do the same for their students. Please Orlando, transform the Pulse nightclub site into a memorial that all Americans can be proud of.