In Orlando, unprecedented unity after nighclub shooting

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ORLANDO, FLA. >> Two months after the massacre at a gay Orlando nightclub, residents say this city of newcomers is bonding in unprecedented solidarity, upending an old adage attributed to a former governor: "Florida isn't so much a community as a crowd."

Elements that often unite communities — sports teams, food culture, generations of residents living in the same neighborhood — are young or nonexistent in Orlando, where nearly two-thirds of all residents were born out of state. Many say Orlando's modern existence dates back only 45 years, to Walt Disney World's opening.

Now, the rainbow flag associated with gay pride seems to have become the Orlando area's unofficial symbol. It sits beside an American flag and a Florida flag at City Hall. It's emblazoned on stickers at hipster bars downtown and at boutiques and bistros on tony Park Avenue in the suburb Winter Park.

Rainbow colors have lit up downtown buildings, bridge spans and the iconic Lake Eola fountain in the heart of the city. Stores are selling out of "#OrlandoUnited" T-shirts with rainbow colors in a heart shape.

As many as 50,000 people showed up for a vigil after the June 12 Pulse nightclub shooting. More than $23 million has been raised for the victims, some of it from fundraisers at local yoga studios, restaurants, and roller skating rinks. Hundreds, if not thousands, of donors waited in long lines to give blood after the shooting. And a steady stream of residents place flowers, cards and stuffed animals at a makeshift memorial outside the club.

"Pulse is a shared experience that I've had so many people, after it, say something along the lines of 'I now truly consider Orlando my home. I always thought of myself as being from Pittsburgh,'" Mayor Buddy Dyer said.

The collective mourning has tightened Orlando bonds and created a true sense of community, according to residents, elected leaders and business owners.

"The way our community has come together is monumental," said Pulse owner Barbara Poma, who is still deciding the future of the now-closed nightclub. "We're more than a crowd."

Lawyer Lawrence Kolin grew up in Orlando, went away for school but returned as an adult. He said he hasn't seen Orlando come together like this since Hurricane Charley a dozen years ago left parts of the metro area without power for a week, damaged scores of homes and made many roads impassable due to downed trees. He called the Pulse shooting a defining moment.

"It's unfortunate that something like this is the reason," Kolin said. "Hopefully we can build on this sense of unity so something positive comes out of it."

But experts say these incidences of post-trauma unity are often short-lived. Sociologist James Hawdon of Virginia Tech suggests that solidarity plateaus two or three months after a tragedy, with things returning to normal after six to nine months.

"The increase in the solidarity is part of the grieving process, and so over time your life just gets back to normal," said Hawdon, who was at Virginia Tech in 2007 when a gunman killed 32 people — the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history until the Pulse massacre. "We need to continue with our lives, so people start getting back into our routines."

Even now, not all residents feel the community is uniting behind the right symbol. Colleen Tomassetti-Cartier, a property manager downtown, said people seem kinder since the Pulse shooting, and she's noticed more people giving to the homeless. But she believes people should be flying the American flag instead of the rainbow one to express solidarity.

Others see the rainbow as a key symbol. "For us it was a nice gesture to say, 'Hey, not only do we stand with the city of Orlando, but we also stand with the gay community as well,'" said Mike Klinski, manager of David's World Cycle bicycle shop, where the front window displays rainbow-colored bicycle helmets with the words "#OrlandoStrong."

Diana Font, an official with the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, saw the solidarity in the hotel owners who put up out-of-state families of shooting victims for free and others who provided transportation for them. About half of those killed at Pulse had ties to Puerto Rico.

"I feel that it has created community," Font said.

Dyer said the Pulse massacre gives Orlando the chance to become "a beacon of light" for equality and tolerance, regardless of whether the solidarity fades, and that the city can build on its recent history of welcoming strangers of diverse backgrounds. Orlando has visible gay, Hispanic and Vietnamese communities and a low threshold for getting involved in civic affairs, a benefit of being a place with shallow roots.

"I actually had a pastor preach a service where he said, 'God has anointed Orlando with the opportunity to be the symbol to fight against hatred and to uplift diversity and equality,'" Dyer said. "We have that ability now because of the Pulse event."


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