Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: When people critique cul-de-sacs, a lot of the time, they’re actually critiquing the suburbs more generally. The cul-de-sac has become sort of like the mascot of the suburbs. Like if suburbia had a flag, it would have a picture of a cul-de-sac on it.
Katie Mingle (KM): I can still remember how strange that word sounded to me when my mom told me we were moving from the city of Atlanta to the suburbs of Denver. And that we’d be living on one of these things.
RM: Hey, that’s producer Katie Mingle doing my work this week.
KM: Hi Roman!
RM: The cul-de-sac is a French term, literally meaning “the bottom of the bag.” Or the ass of a bag.
KM: So it’s no wonder the French themselves prefer to use the word “impasse.”
RM: Another fun fact- the plural of Cul-De-Sac is actually culs-de-sac. But Katie and I have agreed that it is impossible to refer to them this way without sounding like a couple of ass bags.
KM: I’ve always felt a little embarrassed by my suburban roots. By the cul-de-sac especially, which, with its uterine shape and having the word “sac” in it, gave me the feeling that I spent my early years coddled and sheltered in an asphalt womb.
Matt Lassiter (ML): Living on a cul-de-sac has come to symbolize everything that young hipsters or just people who don’t see suburbia as the American dream have come to despise. And it’s taken on this symbolic role.
RM: That’s Matt Lassiter. And I think he just called you a hipster.
KM: Yep, I think he did.
ML: It’s come to epitomize suburbia, both in the myth of the kind of happy nuclear family American dream and in the way that critics condemn it as a facade.
RM: Matt teaches a History of the Suburbs course at the University of Michigan.
ML: And the great age of the cul-de-sac is the 1950s and 1960s.
KM: Matt says that by the 70s and 80s, our faith in the nuclear family and in the suburban American dream was starting to break down. And its evident all over pop culture. Like in the 1980s classic E.T.
ML: At the beginning of the film, we learn that Elliot’s parents are divorced and his father is down in Mexico with his girlfriend and his mom’s there alone and the family’s sitting around the table and they’re very sad.
“It’s nothing like that, penis breath!”
“Elliot! Sit down.”
“Dad would believe me.”
“Maybe you ought to call your father and tell him about it.”
“I can’t. He’s in Mexico with Sally.”
ML: And then E.T. comes from outer space, you know, almost like a savior figure, to bring happiness back to this sad, broken suburban family. And I think it’s really striking in the film, the way that Elliot can find freedom and excitement in the suburbs by riding his bike to the end of the cul-de-sac and then beyond, into the woods. And the kind of magical fringe, where the subdivision stops and the wilderness begins.
RM: E.T. is devastating to me. And I get Lassiter’s point, about E.T. providing the escape hatch to the horrible, oppressive cul-de-sac, but I also think you can’t deny the fact that the kids in E.T. ruled the neighborhood. I mean the boys out-maneuvered the feds on their dirtbikes!
ML: It’s a great place to be if you’re seven years old and you want to ride your big wheel out in the street. But it’s not a great place to live, I would argue if you’re fourteen years old and want to get out of the neighborhood and you don’t have a car. Then you start feeling trapped.
KM: Cul-de-sacs do tend to be isolating. They aren’t connected to other streets and they’re far away from town centers. But even though cul-de-sacs are experiencing backlash right now, they were themselves part of a design backlash against urban living and the traditional grid-patterned streets that make up most cities.
ML: We think about the cul-de-sac-based subdivision and its opposite, which is the urban grid pattern. But if you go back before World War II, there was a third alternative, which was the early garden suburbs that had curvilinear streets, but they were designed to fit in with teh landscape to create buffers between the houses, to integrate people into parks and lakes and other natural features. And so it was the opposite of the grid pattern, but it wasn’t the cul-de-sac-based, into the road, sort of dead-end pattern. The streets almost always came back around to other streets.
RM: It was when the suburbs became mass-produced, after World War II, that the worst aspects of suburban design began to dominate.
RM: Whether or not you buy the idea that cul-de-sacs are psychologically oppressive or stifling to the freedom of those that live there, they have some real, quantifiable design flaws.
KM: Right, like imagine being a garbage collector or a street cleaner, and instead of driving down one long street and collecting all the garbage from that street and then taking a right onto the next street and so on, you have to turn around in all of these cul-de-sacs, over and over again. It takes more time, you use more gas. They’re expensive to maintain. And now some governments, like the one in the state of Virginia, are starting to ban them in all new developments.
“For many homeowners, when it comes to moving into a new subdivision, they try to find a cul-de-sac because they say it is the best spot to be in. But now, leaders in the commonwealth are telling developers that if they build a subdivision, they can leave these cul-de-sacs out…”
RM: Wait, who are we calling?
KM: My mom.
KM: Hey mom.
Mom: Hey honey.
KM: I’ve been doing all this research about cul-de-sacs and I guess I’m wondering how you could move our family to such a depraved place?
Mom: [laughs] You loved the cul-de-sac! Because it was a place where you were allowed to go out there at all hours of the day and night and play and be pretty much unsupervised.
RM: Oh she sounds nice.
KM: She’s the nicest. And it’s true, I did love the cul-de-sac. I didn’t like school and I didn’t fit in there, but none of that seemed to matter on the cul-de-sac. On the cul-de-sac, it was all about the ghost in the graveyard and finding the guts to launch off the side of the skateboard ramp. And that was a world I shined in. My parents though, they always seemed like they lived there just for me. And after I moved away, eventually they did too. Now my mom and dad live in a new development that urban planners would refer to as “mixed use.” That’s shops and houses and restaurants all mixed in together. They love it! They live right above The Gap, there’s a library within walking distance, my dad helps lead a lecture series in their condo, and I like that as they get older, they won’t need to be dependent on a car to get what they need. It’s perfect for them. But for a kid…
KM: Where do the kids play?
Mom: Where do they play?
Mom: [laughs] the one family that I’m thinking of, who live up on the 5th floor, their children are pretty young and they have talked about- they go to different parks around the area. Quite often.
RM: Going to parks with Mom and Dad doesn’t sound nearly as cool as taking over an entire street every night.
ML: It’s really a type of suburban development that’s organized around the needs of 5-year-olds, or 8-year-olds, or 10-year-olds.
RM: Professor Lassiter argues that we shouldn’t be designing our neighborhoods exclusively around the needs of 5-year-olds.
KM: And new studies are showing that, as gas prices rise and people become more ecologically conscious, we’re already seeing a reverse flight back out of the suburbs and into cities. There are even fears that suburbs will turn into a ghost town, slums, and ghettos of the future.
RM: That would really give Ghosts in the Graveyard a whole new edge.
RM: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Katie Mingle, from the great Third Coast International Audio Festival. Go look it up. And me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW 91.7, local public radio in San Francisco, the Center for Architecture and Design, and The American Institute of Architects, San Francisco. To find out more, go to 99percentinvisible.org
Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.