Originally published in City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis, and reprinted in The Towner.
I think when the end finally comes to America, it will look like Lehigh Acres, Florida. It never suffered a cataclysmic implosion, like the one that broke Detroit. It has no grand urban ruins to serve as reminders of a great city that was. Instead, there is virgin space and frustration, weeds and snakes and slowly crumbling tract homes. At ninety-five square miles, Lehigh Acres is a vast and largely empty preserve for the roughly eighty-six thousand souls believed by the Census Bureau to live there. This is more space than is contained within the city limits of San Francisco or Boston or Miami. It is slightly smaller than Orlando or Tampa, two nearby cities with three and four times the population, respectively.
Then again, Lehigh Acres may well be even bigger. Or maybe smaller. We don’t know for sure, because there are no actual city limits for Lehigh Acres. It is categorized as a “census-designated place,” which seems to mean only that people agree it has a name.
But is Lehigh Acres a place? I’m not entirely sure. It is freestanding sprawl. It cannot be a suburb in the literal sense of the word, because it doesn’t have anurb to be subordinate to. Nevertheless, even if it is not one, Lehigh Acres has the physical form of a standard-issue Florida suburb: meandering streets converge at a single entry point to avoid giving access to those who don’t belong; there are no sidewalks, because there is nothing to walk to. There are few if any old-growth trees, because trees slow down the process of grafting row after row of identical stuccoed boxes onto the landscape. Deep front yards and generous setbacks keep company with expensive fences amid a lonely, indifferent quiet, broken only by a passing car or a far-off lawn mower, never by a human voice.
In Lehigh Acres, the effect is amplified by the unintended empty spaces between homes. Unused lots have long since reverted back to nature, and much of the built environment is uninhabited. It is the only ghost town of eighty-six thousand I’ve ever seen.
To a geographer, “place” is something distinct from “location.” Events and processes define a place. Place includes location but is not limited to it. It also signifies human influence and interaction. A single location can also be two different places on two different days or even simultaneously. But location itself is immutable, and it seems that location is all there is in Lehigh Acres.
With its enormous sky and broad stretches of wiregrass and scrub palmetto, southwest Florida has the look of a frontier. When the sun is high and the cicadas are whirring, it is a bright and lonely landscape. In the 1950s, ads for Lehigh Acres ran in northern newspapers promising a brand-new home for “only $10 down and $10 a month.” The developers took the typical approach to infrastructure in Florida—grow fast and let the rest take care of itself—but applied it on an impossible scale. As a result, it is easy to drive through Lehigh Acres and not realize it. The emptiness sneaks up on you, uncoiling behind the generic trappings of Florida exurbia: scattered fast-food outlets, a handful of newish shopping plazas with plastic banners rippling from the rooftops in place of permanent signs, the commercial plumage of transition or decline.
Take a random right turn off Lee Boulevard, the main drag, and pull in to almost any driveway. You will find an abandoned house surrounded by a chain-link fence and wheeled gate, which itself is padlocked shut and secured by a thick, rusty chain. Weeds and wild grasses infest the yard and wedge the driveway apart, reclaiming everything for the snakes. Some houses have plywood nailed over the windows, as if the owners were hunkered down inside, waiting to ride out the next storm with their plastic jugs of water and pyramids of canned beans and peaches. Often they are separated from each other by a stretch of empty lots, parcels that were plotted but never developed. These lots are now just over-growth, wide fields of knee-high grasses tended by no one, dry and brown from the lack of rain, gratefully bending to even the gentlest breeze. Sometimes houses interrupt the spread of the weeds; in other spots, these subtropical meadows spill across entire blocks.
If you drive around long enough, you may also stumble across one of the handful of gated communities—lonely outposts in an encroaching wilderness, their gates often mere yards away from blighted starter homes and lakes of wild grass. But those gates are porous; beyond the guard shack, you might spot a patchy lawn or two, or faded green streaks of pollen caked onto someone’s pastel-yellow stucco, or a garage door that doesn’t close properly.
Lehigh Acres is not a place like Paris or Portland or Las Vegas or even Royal Oak, Michigan. It is not a neighborhood, because this would require neighbors. There are no public spaces to speak of. “Place” implies the existence of something unique, something that a visitor can latch onto and say, “Aha, yes, you see? This is unmistakably Lehigh Acres.” Yet nobody could ever, will ever, say this.