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VOL. 3, NO. 4 -- JUNE/JULY 2001

Reality of Place

By Jason Miller

In March I traveled to Florida and toured eight different TNDs in 10 days. I strolled through WaterColor, Seaside, Rosemary Beach, Amelia Park, Haile Village Center, Town of Tioga, Celebration and Abacoa, all the while collecting photographs, literature, memories and a few t-shirts.

What struck me most deeply at these towns was their "realness" -- the feeling that I was experiencing genuine community, genuine place. Granted, the representatives of each TND had a vested interest in portraying their developments in the best possible light to me, but they weren't with me all the time and they couldn't control what I did or saw or experienced outside of our meetings.

In Seaside, at dusk, I walked beneath the obelisk pavilion toward the beach to catch the sunset. My path followed a series of switchback ramps with a bench placed at each turn. Lovers had gathered at each bench to watch the sunset; each couple offered me their camera and asked me to take their picture. Six times I complied, even declining a five-dollar bill from one man! I watched the sun go down, then turned back and sat for a few minutes in the market area, while cats did figure eights around my ankles.

I spent two days at Haile Village Center, with an efficiency apartment as my headquarters. Mornings found me at the market, with a sausage-and-egg muffin in my hand. Evenings, I ate at The Third Place restaurant with a lovely couple by the name of Kramer. Maybe you know them.

The Celebration Hotel was my home away from home while visiting that famous town. I met up with two architects for for a tour. At night, I wandered through the commercial district, chatting up shopkeepers and trying to keep my credit card in check. Then I walked to the cinema.

Notice how I haven't mentioned my car yet? That's because most of the time I parked my Ford Escort when I arrived and didn't climb back in it until I had to leave town. I wasn't trying to force an issue by doing this; the reality is, I actually had a choice. This was, in a word, exquisite. The people who study this fact use phrases like "internal capture" to convey how many people in each community are walking instead of driving, but this doesn't address what happened to me when I put my feet on the ground.

I slowed down. I breathed easier. I saw things I never would have seen had I been behind the wheel of a car. I saw a small girl get her first bike-riding lesson. I helped a British couple catch a fish. I lent a hand to a man who was trying to get heavy packages into a post office. One woman stopped and showed me her freshly painted toenails!

Think this is contrived? Fake? No, this is real; this is the interaction that we could have on a regular basis if we built more neotraditional neighborhoods and towns. This is the stuff of life.

But, amazingly, we resist it. I've talked to people who have been fed the unreal environment of suburbia for so many decades, that when they see real places, that beauty and reality appear as caricatures. Seaside's decision to appear as the setting for The Truman Show only fed the public's perception that real places are false or contrived. It comes out in maddening statements:
"TND? Oh, yeah, the cute architecture."

"Neotraditional developments -- like 'Leave it to Beaver,' right?"

"Oh, those places all look the same."


My last stop was Jupiter, Fla., where I would tour Abacoa. I arrived the day before and ended up at a Hampton Inn that was located nowhere in particular, in a maze of roads that were built for cars and cars alone. My reaction was visceral. When I wanted to eat dinner, I tried to walk to the only restaurant nearby and found that the sidewalk dead-ended into a stand of trees, forcing me to run across a five-lane road to reach the restaurant.

The restaurant was boarded up. I angrily turned back toward the hotel (and my car) with Jim Kunstler's words on suburbia pounding in my ears: "It is all the same and it is all uniformly miserable."

I was forced back into the brutal built environment that still covers the vast majority of the United States, and I didn't like it one bit. I wanted to be back at Seaside, standing beneath one of the beach pavilions as I had several days earlier, eavesdropping on a couple as they walked back toward town.

"Want to take one last look at the water?" the man asked his wife. She hesitated, checked her watch, realized she wasn't wearing it, then turned back to the sea.