Juan Pablo Garnham is the Urban Affairs reporter for The Texas Tribune. Previously, he was the editor of CityLab Latino, senior producer of the podcast In the Thick and he has also worked for El Diario and NY1 Noticias, in New York. In his home country of Chile, he worked as a reporter for Qué Pasa magazine and El Mercurio newspaper.
Before the shooting Wednesday, some families who moved to the Florida suburb looking for safe neighborhoods and top-notch schools considered it “paradise.”
PARKLAND, Florida—Gerardo Velasco knew what he was looking for in a city: baseball fields and safety. Baseball is for his 15-year-old son, who wants to be a professional baseball player. And about security, he says it's because he grew up in Nezahualcoyotl, a city on the outskirts of the Mexican capital. “At some point it was considered the poorest in the world and the most dangerous in Mexico,” he says. He did not want his family to live in a place like that.
Until Wednesday, when a young man entered his son's high school and killed 17 people, he had found all of this in Parkland, Florida. “I drive an hour and a half to get to work. Every time I go on the highway, I say, ‘I do not care,’ because I see that my son goes to this beautiful school,” says Velasco, whose son was in a room next to the shooting and escaped safely from the disaster. “A few days ago I spoke with my mom in Mexico and I just told her that living in Parkland is almost like paradise.”
Anonymous to most Americans, Parkland is a city in the suburbs northwest of Fort Lauderdale.* Its 31,000 inhabitants are mostly white and middle and upper class. Latinos are only 13 percent of the population and median household income stands at $107,000, compared to $52,000 in Broward County.
“Parkland is a dream community, highly affluent and mostly residential,” says Michael Udine, former mayor of the city and now Broward County commissioner. “Almost all its life revolves around its schools, open spaces, and fields. It is one of the premier places to live in Broward.”
In fact, some rankings have deemed it one of the safest cities in Florida, with an index of 0.6 violent crimes per 1,000 residents (the average in Florida is 4.3). During Wednesday’s shooting, at least 14 people were injured in addition to the fatalities. Police say Nikolas Cruz has now confessed to opening fire on his former high school.
Parkland began to develop after the devastation left by Hurricane Andrew, when many middle- and upper-class families decided to rebuild their lives in an area where they could construct larger houses. In this region on the edge of the Everglades, they developed large gated real estate projects, often featuring security booths, golf courses, lagoons, and other water features. In the midst of this quiet and sprawling suburb, one place became the focal point: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“There wasn’t a lot of excitement outside. A lot of stuff centered around the school,” says Evan Altshuler, a former high school alumnus, now 30 years old. “Because the high school was so big, there was a lot of life around it. There were clubs for everything. Football games and homecoming and all that kind of stuff were really important.”
“And there's almost no bullying! It’s very strange,” says Mayeli Holland, standing in the middle of the park where the school community met on Thursday to remember the deceased. She is there accompanying her daughter and her friends. Hugs and tears surround them. “Here they are very aware of the students. They call the parents if someone is absent and follow up if your child is performing badly.”
And despite Florida’s gun-loving reputation, the Democrat-leaning Parkland is not gun country. “I always thought that we were the pinnacle of ‘90s suburban liberal culture,” says Altshuler. “We would care about [the] Everglades and manatees. We were never a gun place. I’ve never seen one.”
Across the U.S., most suburbs are more detached from gun violence. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of people in cities say they know someone who has been injured by a gun, and 53 percent in rural areas. But in the suburbs the number drops to 44 percent.
Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie credited his students with leading new calls for gun control.
“Students have been reaching out to me, reaching out to staff, probably board members and others, saying that now, now is the time for this country to have a real conversation on sensible gun control laws in this country,” he said. “So our students are asking for that conversation. And I hope we can get it done in this generation, but if we don't, they will.”
Last year, Broward County Commissioners voted to push back against a state proposal to allow concealed weapons in more places, including schools, according to the Sun-Sentinel. One county commissioner, Steve Geller, said at the time: “Even some of the pro-gun senators believe that is a bridge too far.”
Commissioner Udine, who is a parent at Parkland’s high school, didn’t comment on that decision. But he said on Thursday: “We need to do whatever we need to do to protect our children, even if it means to have more restrictions.”
Meanwhile, Parkland has begun to grieve. At Pine Trails Park on Thursday, between candles, the attendees received psychological support, talked, and comforted each other, waiting for a vigil. At his workplace, Velasco reflected on whether that city, which he considered a paradise, would still be his home.
“I think we’re going to stay longer here,” he says. “This will not be easy. It will not be a joke, but we have to keep going.”
A version of this post originally appeared in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Parkland was located northeast of Fort Lauderdale.