I finally made it to my parents’ second home in Naples, Florida.
I was reluctant to go since my last visit in 2004. Their house is located in Fiddler’s Creek, a suburban gated community embedded within a golf course. Its cookie cutter houses are gussied up with overly marketed street names such as ‘Mahogany Bend’, ‘Hawk’s Nest’ and ‘Isla Del Sol’.
My last visit left me with the impression of a development on the frontier of the ever-diminishing Everglades. I remembered a gated community sandwiched between highways leading from one super-suburban strip mall to another. I remembered epic social stratification and no public realm, with wealthy neighbourhoods isolated behind gates, wholly separate from the nearby shabbier neighbourhoods where service workers lived. My lasting impression was of gas-guzzling car dependency everywhere.
Of course, reality is much more complicated than my simplified judgement of Naples when I was 13. I understand that Fiddler’s Creek is a beautiful place, and enjoyed my time there with my parents under the perfect sun. While my impressions from my last visit remain largely true, I didn’t remember that a huge area is devoted to Everglades National Park and the Rookery Bay Reserve, protected from development thanks to social movements in the 1960s. I also observed that though gated communities are pervasive, and indeed embody extreme social and economic stratification, Walmart proved to be a very real space where the area’s diverse population could meet on common ground.
During my explorations (by car, but also by bike with my father), what emerged as the most enlightening feature to understand the geography and logic of Naples was the ever-common “No Outlet” sign.
Driving along the wider arterial, highway-style roads, you encounter many intersecting streets. Most of these intersections are accompanied by a “No Outlet” sign.
Essentially, you can only get to different neighbourhoods via the highway. Every time you enter an area from the highway the “No Outlet” sign signifies that there are a bunch of loopy roads that don’t lead anywhere. The only way out is the way you came in.
The consequence is that there are all these areas that are wonderfully different from each other in terms of income level, architecture and vibes, but are completely physically separated from one another. Each has their own distinct internal logic. Entering each neighbourhood from the highway, you experience incredibly different versions of the South West Florida universe.
Hand drawn conceptualization of “No Outlet”
Functionally, “No Outlet” means that you cannot cut through a neighbourhood as a shortcut. It means that residents have no reason to enter another neighbourhood unless they have an explicit reason to do so. As a result, there is no space for chance encounters and understandings between classes and cultures to occur (the very essence and benefit of urbanity, in my view). The social and economic stratification of the communities in Naples is fixed and ingrained due to the “No Outlet” state of affairs. My mind wanders to one hundred years in the future: will the communities integrate, ever? Will increasingly expensive energy prices break down the walls between these side-by-side but physically barricaded neighbourhoods? A closer investigation of the map reveals a life-line between two neighbourhoods here and there, but mostly between those of the same socio-economic group.
For now, “No Outlet” describes Naples, Florida pretty succinctly. It also makes me grateful for the cross pollination that is enabled by the tangled, twisted and integrated grids of my Toronto. Of course, Toronto is no paradise of unified urbanity itself. Poverty is increasingly concentrated in the city’s inner suburbs, which have similar “No Outlet” style isolated neighbourhoods. (Though not as extreme, the scale of the neighbourhoods and their location far from downtown don’t lend themselves to aimless exploration and chance encounters).
Back in Naples, biking through the above-mentioned nature reserves — up Sea Shell Road and toward the Gulf Coast — I began to wonder if the physical geography of the area could offer any enlightenment as to the “No Outlet” mentality of South West Florida.
Dense thickets of mangroves hovering above the water, sandy oak scrub and brackish estuaries mean that Naples’ coast lacks any easily understood linear logic. The coastline is rather a series of loops, curves, isolated bays and pockets connected only by larger waterways — nature’s version of “No Outlet”. Perhaps the logic of the mangrove swamp has seeped into development patterns of Naples and its isolated communities. Or perhaps, more simply, the area was developed too recently, too in the thick of car dependency, to have had the chance to manifest any differently.