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Jun. 1 2009 - 9:37 am | 54 views | 2 recommendations | 7 comments

Greatest Threat to Mankind? The Cul de Sac

Suburban sprawl in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Image via Wikipedia

I grew up on a cul de sac out in the suburbs of Chicago. When I was young, that tear-drop-shaped dead end seemed like the safest, most inviting place on earth. Perfect for pick-up games of baseball, lighting off fireworks, and all the rest of that American dream stuff. As adolescence hit, however, the cul du sac became the symbol of all that is stagnant and boring about suburban life.

For the past few years, I’ve lived in Jacksonville, Florida, the nation’s biggest city in terms of square area. In other words, its most sprawling, and one of its most cul de sac ridden. Jacksonville is something of a polar opposite to New York and its famous organizational grid. Here, only three main East-to-West thoroughfares, two of which are lined with an interminable succession of strip-malls, connect the beach to downtown (a mere 35-40 minute drive). In between is a maze of gated communities, trailer parks, and ranch house developments that more often than not do not connect to one another. By separating one socio-economic pocket from the one next to it, the abiding design seems to be of privacy and isolation.

Then again, that probably gives one the false sense that an overall design ever really existed. Public transportation in Jacksonville is dreadful, limited to inefficient buses and a dinky two-car monorail that covers a couple of miles of an eerily empty downtown.

One can only say that the future doesn’t seem to hold much promise. The remaining gaps on the map are being cleared of what’s left of second and third generation pine forest. Even in the real estate bust, new gated communities and strip malls continue to rise. A handful of new overpasses are being built in anticipation of what is sure to be further congestion in this land where the car (invariably a large S.U.V.) is still king.

But I have my escape hatch. In two months my family and I, after 6 years of Florida intrigue, will be heading back to a more urban setting on the West coast. With luck we won’t end up anywhere near a cul de sac.

Maybe all of that background will help account for why I find the following video so compelling. Enjoy:


3 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 7 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    David, your description of Jacksonville and its lack of flowing, connected residential, commercial and green spaces was spot on, and very chilling for someone who lives here and does not have your “escape hatch.”

    I moved here six years ago from Cambridge MA, where I walked to work, the market, bank, bookstore, cheese cave (yes, we had one of those in my neighborhood), hole in the wall club, Harvard Square etc. The comparison between the reality I found here and what I had left, could not have been more stark.

    However, we were living in what I would deem substandard housing in Cambridge, and here we could afford a house that was positively palatial in comparison, and we were a a stones throw from the beach. We met some cool people and best of all, I could ride my beach cruiser to yoga, if I was lucky I would even have a pod of dolphins following me as trundled along the beach.

    There are some cool pockets in Jacksonville, the trouble is they are just that,disparate, disconnected pockets! In order to get to them you have to navigate those corridors of desolation that you described so well. Like so many other places, there is a socio-economic divide in Jacksonville, which only exacerbates the problem.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but it sure ain’t more sprawl.

    • collapse expand

      You know, I’ve lived here for 5 years, and I think I have been to the beach twice. Of course, to get to the beach for me takes about 45 minutes, so to be honest, it’s not really worth it. When my friends ask me if I go to the beach all the time, I just laugh.

      Like Megan said, there are some cool parts of Jacksonville, though our downtown leaves alot to be desired. But David, I’m glad you get to leave what I have come to describe as “the biggest small town in America”.

      Of course, the socio-economic divide here is fairly large and does cause problems, but really no more than any other big city, or even some small towns I have lived in.

      All in all, as one who likes the small town atmosphere (and low crime rate), I find Jacksonville to be an acceptable place to live-for now…

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand


    Yes, without the beach I think Jacksonville would be unlivable.

  3. collapse expand

    Hard to imagine kickball without a cul de sac, which sounds so much classier than “ass of bag.”

  4. collapse expand


    True, but think about all those mythic Brooklyn kids playing stick ball on through streets. Man, now that’s tough.

  5. collapse expand


    Good luck with your move here to the West Coast. Was that a little nod to “Lost” in your piece? I loved growing up in suburbia, but as an adult I have always lived in the city. My two favorites were Chicago and Portland, Oregon. I’ve been in San Francisco for almost 14 years now. I have lived in several other cities over the years as well. It would take a huge windfall for me to leave San Francisco and I would really be torn between Chicago and Portland…and maybe Seattle. When I lived there, the economy was a mess…many years ago.

    Suburbia and childhood were made for each other. As an adult, I don’t really like to have to drive and, after I got rid on my pick-up in 1996, I haven’t. The video was clever. I enjoyed the initial build-up. I may not live in the best part of San Francisco as the homeless kind of take over at night and I find that a little depressing because there is no easy answer. Seems to be unsolvable because of San Francisco’s mild weather.

    Urban sprawl as an adult is not something I am envious of as I am not raising a family. Everything I need is here in the city and I like to be able to walk to the gym or take a five minute ride on MUNI to get to a major grocery store. The mind set of suburbia and the city is so different. I enjoy solitude and that is what my apartment is for; I enjoy convenience and that is what the city itself is for, in my opinion. If I won lottery, I would wind up in a brand new condominium penthouse with my special needs kitten, Valerie. In other words, I would just live somewhere nicer within a city. I might get a car, but I doubt it as I really don’t need one. As I get older, it may become necessary for toting around groceries, but that’s about it. Interesting piece. I wish I knew what city you were headed to, but you deserve your privacy. Oh, I’m too self-centered and lazy to be a stalker. My friends used to joke that the only way I could be a stalker is if they lived next door in my building as my friends have had obsessive friendships and relationships. (On their parts.)


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    I've published two novels: The Secrets of the Camera Obscura (Chronicle Books), and The Third Eye (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). I'm currently working as a journalist for AOL's Sphere. For the past three years I also spouted political opinion for AOL's Political Machine, which I also helped edit. My non-fiction has appeared in places like Men's Vogue, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, USA Today, Newsday, Travel + Leisure, GQ (Spain), and Vanity Fair (Italy). I've dabbled with short stories, publishing in Nerve and a few small journals.

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