Other City Sidewalks: West Palm Beach

They say that walking in Florida is like jazz dancing about bad architecture. It’s an inherently ugly clash between irreconcilable enterprises, and you have to improvise continually to get where you’re going.* To my bitter eyes, Florida is an incarnation of baby boom fantasy, the great 20th century escape valve, which is why the automobile is almost the only ingredient found in the stew. A pedestrian in Florida is a vegetarian at a steakhouse, an ice cream truck in January, a bicycle at the Auto Show.

In last year's big study on pedestrian safety released by the DC advocacy group, Transportation for America, Florida swept the top four spots on the "Most Dangerous Metro Areas" list. It was the kind of dominance not seen since the '92 Dream Team.  It’s almost as if Florida's cities were intentionally designed to kill people on foot. (That suspicion, by the way, lingers in one’s mind when contemplating the number of old people who have self-marooned along the coasts, and how the locals must feel about this demographic.)

[Typical sidewalk.]
[Typical sidewalk cyclist.]
[Typical bus stop.]
[Typical sidewalk denzien, typically with a cardboard sign.]

A lot of people might assume that nobody walks in Florida because it’s too hot and humid outside, and yes, there is truth to be found here. Just walking around in early May (!), I found my shirt drenched from the humid air that surrounds you like fog. But much like Minnesotans' insipid whining about winter, there are ways of dressing, times of walking, and designs for cities that minimize the heat. Just like in Minnesota, weather becomes an excuse for depressing sloth. (It's too hot, so we might as well stay on the couch instead of opening the front door.) The truth is that the weather is a convenient excuse, an atmospheric coincidence that exacerbates the basic problem: walking in Florida is demoralizing because most every part of every city is an alienating unbeautiful shadeless inconvenient noisy dirty deathtrap.

I stayed in West Palm Beach for a few nights at a hotel located at least five miles out of downtown in the middle of a corporate office park near a busy road leading to a freeway in a semi-dicey part of town. Apart from the usual mélange of bad urbanism – the narrow treeless curb-edge sidewalks, the wide four-lane 45mph roads with beg buttons, the monotonous land use – West Palm Beach added something new to the mix that I hadn’t even seen in pedestrian purgatories like Dallas. In Florida, the curving road hierarchy combined such that, to get almost anywhere on foot with any kind of ‘crow flies’ efficiency, you had to cut through a whole bunch of strange spaces. Because the actual sidewalks are primarily ornamental (except for people with minimal mobility), they follow the automobile orientation and wind back and forth around parking lots and development moats. Those kind of streets might look nice in an architectural design, but become a persistent problem if you want to actually get anywhere on foot as fast as possible (say, to get to the store before it closes, or to catch the bus stop).

For example, take a look at this route from my crappy hotel in the office park to the commuter rail station a bit over a mile away, given to me via Google maps:

[The sidewalk route I was supposed to have walked.]
Despite the fact that the train station is relatively close, the 'on foot' route is 2.5 miles long due to all the freeways and curving inaccessible roads. (Given that the commonly cited distance for how far people are willing to walk is a scant .5 miles, the station is prohibitively out of reach.)

Except that, if you actually walk this route there are a bunch of 'desire path' possibilities for cutting time off your journey. You can cut through the parking lot, cut through the hedge behind the gas station, and (most importantly) cut through the huge parking lot at the abandoned Jai-Alai “fronton,” which cuts at least a half mile off your trip. (Fronton, by the way, is the Basque word that means "abandoned 500,000 sq ft building.")

[The 'desire' route I actually walked.]
This kind of landscape means that anyone with a head on their shoulders and feet on their legs improvises and short-cuts through the acres of wasted space that pepper the South Florida landscape. There are desire paths everywhere, stretching through the wide lawns, padding down the thick tropical grass, finding crannies in every fenced-off building cluster, winding through the empty lots of undeveloped half-built sheds, wandering through the acres of parking. I did all of those things on my wanderings as a matter of course. It became almost a secret game. Could I figure out a secret path to that would cut my walk in half? Which hedgerow had a secret door that would deliver me to the next impassible road? If I hypotenuse through this parking lot, could I get through the fence on the other side? I cut through this abandoned-looking building, will I get shot for trespassing?

[Your typical South Florida pedestrian, cutting through back yards.]
[Desire path to a parking lot.]
[Desire path through a gas station backyard & office park hedge.]
[The best shortcuts are through empty parking lots.]

[Half-built developments also make for good shortcuts.]
[Desire path by gas station.]

[Security guards watching feral cats at the transit station.]
Variations on this last question kept popping up in my head as I played the improvisational game of ‘walking in Florida.’ I bought some Skittles to keep me going, and kept thinking about the Trayvon Martin tragedy, and how different my experience likely might have been if I was a young black male. (Instead, I was in my Florida tourist outfit: khaki shorts, Velcro sneakers, and the most pastel cruise ship shirt I could find in my closet.) Others have already pointed out how bad urban design was partly responsible for the incident, that a pedestrian in Florida is an aberration who does not belong. Designing your streets only for autos turns pedestrians, bus riders, and the elderly into criminals, obstacles, or pinatas. Urban design is always political.

[The abandoned Palm Beach Jai-Alai fronton.]

[Slow old man crosses the street while someone in a Ferarri revs their V-12.]
[The lovely covered sidewalks of Clematis Street.]
[Nightlife along Clematis Street.]
Of course, not all of South Florida makes you feel like cursed hybrid of the frog in Frogger, the duck in Duck Hunt, and wandering aimlessly in Zelda. That’s only 94% of the landscape; the other 6% is quite nice. For example, Palm Beach and West Palm Beach (they’re different) each have a few blocks  of old downtown with lovely sidewalks, awnings and balconies, and some small businesses in mixed-use environments. West Palm Beach even has three blocks of night life, where seemingly all the bars in the entire city are clustered in a tiny little dollop of town along Clematis Street. Each of these towns (and they are different) has an arcade-style shopping area where you can stroll along a cool canopied sidewalk and window shop, or sit on a bench in the shade and watch impossible clouds go by. West Palm Beach even has small districts of more walkable older homes, with porches and sidewalks. (Palm Beach, on the other hand, is for the wealthy. All the homes are magnificent, huge, and covered by porches and decks. Also, they're all protected by walls. Yeah, they're different in the same way that Old Navy and J. Crew are different.) Even in Florida, there are tiny islands of urban space, remnants of the early 20th century that predate our air conditioned escape from reality.

[CityPlace, the covered mixed-use shopping development in West Palm Beach.]
[CityPlace plaza at midday.]

["The Vias," a gorgeous expensive Italian-esque shopping district in Palm Beach.]
[Fancy Palm Beach house.]
[Fancy pink Palm Beach house.]
[A picture of old West Palm, with bicycles and porticoes.]

But its precisely these urban tidbits that throw a spotlight on the inequality of the urban fabric. These pleasant patches only prove the problems of the rest of the landscape, how impossibly restricted and  undignified the alternatives. The landscape seems to me a fractured confusion of compounds missing continuity. Measure or connection between places has been replaced by independent disjointed bubbles, each sufficient to itself, forming some complex system the logic of which escapes me. There is the Florida of the coasts and the red Italian sports cars, fortifications of power and money connected by airplanes, freeways, and yachts. There is the spectacle Florida, manufactured and reflected around the hemisphere, a polished portrait hawked as a poultice, place-experience sold like a smooth cruise. There’s the faded Florida of the aging, with cheap fancy houses and golf carts and chrome Cadillacs. And in between all these complex networks stretched across the landscape, you’ll find a regular place, a city of people trying to get to work or go to school, having to make their way across an extreme landscape.

[An armadillo on an onramp.]
And you can tell that Florida is beautiful underneath the concrete. You can feel the old compelling land of swamps and sargasso just underneath the surface. You find an armadillo on an on-ramp or a snail crawling cross an ashtray and you realize that you're not actually trapped in a postcard, that there's a volatile world squirming in the grasp of Modernist fantasia. If you walk far enough you’ll find the ocean, a sublime sight that not even our collective American hallucination can mangle.** Florida's ocean is the great equalizer. Everyone is insignificant beside the infinite Atlantic. The beach greets everyone with the same unintelligible hypnotism and a seashell between your toes, its power so much more than anything mastered or mustered. It threatens and beckons and murmurs. The ocean makes the walk seem almost worth it.

[Surs les pavés, la plage.]

* Nobody says this.
** Not actually true. Trawlers are actually quite efficient at destroying entire oceanic ecosystems. But still, the ocean looks amazing.


Andrew said...

In Florida, an ice cream truck may be a welcome sight in January.

Bill Lindeke said...


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Anonymous said...

Can’t wait to go to your city and wildly misrepresent it.