Confessions of an Urbanist 

What happens when a design critic is submerged in subdivisions, megamalls and purveyors of melted cheese product

What happens when a design critic is submerged in subdivisions, megamalls and purveyors of melted cheese product

In the Catholic Church in which I was born and raised, confession is a sacrament, right up there with baptism, marriage and the last rites. One admits bad actions or thoughts to the priest in the booth, he assigns a penance—e.g., "Say three Hail Marys and make a good act of contrition"—and you're back in a state of grace, in good standing with God.

For the religion of urbanism, however, there's no father confessor, no Hail Mary, no ritual to get you off the hook. Because of my childhood training, I nevertheless feel compelled to 'fess up that I've violated the creed of city living. I've been living in the suburbs.

By "suburbs" I don't mean the old-fashioned streetcar variety, like Belmont-Hillsboro and Lockeland Springs, with their grid of streets and sidewalks, front porches and corner stores. I mean the kind characterized by subdivisions and franchise food, strip malls and megamalls that began to sprout with astonishing virulence in the 1960s. For the past six months, I've spent many days and many nights in such a place. And, if it hasn't been exactly hellish, it's been purgatorial to say the least.

The site of my fall into a state of disgrace is my hometown of Cincinnati. Last November, illness in my family reared its ugly head, requiring me and my loyal spouse to travel there frequently. After weeks of listening to the rootless sounds of interstate traffic through the thin walls of motels or camping with relatives—familial feeling tends to evaporate when you show up for long weekends with two dogs in addition to the cooler and suitcases—the professor and I were ready for a place of our own.

We began the New Year by giving a Realtor kinswoman the stiff challenge of locating housing on a month-to-month lease that fit our budget and would take pets double the 35-pound limit enforced by most complexes. What she found was a condo in a suburb called Florence, on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River.

To set the scene, let me explain that the only thing Florence has in common with its Italian namesake is that both begin with the letter "F." Unlike Firenze, the Kentucky version's major landmark is not the dome of a cathedral or the spire of a palazzo, but rather a leviathan of a water tower located adjacent to the stretch of interstate where I-71 and I-75 merge into traffic hell. On this mammoth public work are big letters proclaiming "FLORENCE Y'ALL." It originally read "MALL" until some whistleblowers pointed out that a structure built with public funds was being used as a free billboard for private commerce. Parsimonious city fathers realized that with a change of one letter they'd have an icon.

Our Florentine home away from home was in a giant complex—12 units in each of 36 buildings—called The Village at South Fork Creek, presumably because the place was built when Dallas was in its prime. A case of life imitating "art." Our address was 33 Rio Grande Circle, No. 4, which my husband took to calling "Rio Bravo." There's nothing village-like about South Fork, unless your idea of village life is restricted to a pool and a few tennis courts, speed bumps and park-by-number.

Residing primarily as I do in East Nashville, I was unprepared for the sea of consumer—and parking—opportunities in my new neighborhood. Surrounding the megamall and lining most of the roads that aren't culs-de-sac are big boxes, smaller shopping centers and strips engaged in a Darwinian competition. Rival car dealer billboards scream at each other across the major arterials. The full panoply of chain drugstores and gas stations punctuate the corners. Tire Plus and Auto Zone testify to what you spend most of your time doing. Karate emporiums train you in the skills necessary for when you shed your automotive armor. Mattress Warehouse and Snuggley's Mattress Xpress are the place to shop for when you drop. Nail salons and pizza are everywhere. Branch banks and quick lenders dispense the money to pay for it all. Most of this retail occupies quarters of a cheesy blandness. But, in a gesture to gentility, the strip nearest South Fork features a brand new Kroger and a Skyline Chili with neocolonial cupolas.

I freely admit that it wasn't all bad. Our condo had nice bathrooms, new appliances and a patio looking out onto a creek—the south fork?—along which we could walk the dogs, under cover of darkness to conceal their jumbo proportions from potentially disapproving neighbors. And I grabbed some bargains at Shoe Carnival, good reads at Barnes & Noble and pretty fair sushi at Kroger. But Florence is so geography-of-nowhere, the traffic so horrendous that I found myself in an acute state of dread every time I had to leave Rio Bravo.

On June 30, a reduced state of family emergency finally allowed us to abandon South Fork and Florence Y'All. As we headed for the interstate, I noticed a steeple-topped brick shed occupied by the Fellowship of Believers, with a sign out front that said: "Acceptance, Forgiveness and Love." Well, my religious upbringing says I must forgive. But acceptance and love are out of the question.


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