Suburbia calling

Huntsville street names have a disturbing fluidity that I've never seen in any other town. Roads randomly change names at intersections, as they cross highways, or when the urge struck the builders. How else to explain that University and Pratt are the same roads, just on different sides of Memorial Parkway? Or that Zierdt Road is Shelton Road, and that Madison Boulevard is the old Highway 20, and Rideout Road is now Research Park Boulevard?

Right. Makes my head explode, too, and I live here. No wonder it took me so long to learn how to navigate this town. When street signs change on unpredictable whims, it's hard to know if the road you're currently on turns into the road you want to be on, or if you really did miss the turn entirely.

Thus, one afternoon, as I was driving west on Highway 72 (which, in that part of town, is known as University Drive), I very nearly blew past an intersection I'd passed many times before, but could have sworn had a different name. I'd known that road as Indian Creek for several years, but I could've sworn that the sign said something like "Providence Main Street."

To quote Will: "Meh?"

University was down to one lane in each direction, owing to the beginnings of some truly horrendous (and desperately needed) road-widening, so I opted to swerve north on Indian Creek for a few miles to get off of University and avoid the worst of the traffic mess. Except that, unless I had mysteriously lost my ability to comprehend the written word, that sign didn't say "Indian Creek" anymore.

I muttered the phrase "stupid Huntsville" about eight times, got to where I was going, and didn't think about it again until later that evening, when someone told me why the street was renamed. Huntsville had gotten itself hooked on the crack that is New Urbanism. God help us. Ever heard of this? Let me quote:

New Urbanism promotes the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities composed of the same components as conventional development, but assembled in a more integrated fashion, in the form of complete communities. These contain housing, work places, shops, entertainment, schools, parks, and civic facilities essential to the daily lives of the residents, all within easy walking distance of each other. New Urbanism promotes the increased use of trains and light rail, instead of more highways and roads. Urban living is rapidly becoming the new hip and modern way to live for people of all ages. Currently, there are over 500 New Urbanist projects planned or under construction in the United States alone, half of which are in historic urban centers. (

Beautiful idea, isn't it? It's what we all dream of when moving to a city: being able to live, work, and play in the same place - a place that is filled with people from all walks of life. People who aren't necessarily like you, but whose differences will enrich your life.

This particular blight that is invading the Huntsville-Madison area has a name: Providence. (Those of you who are familiar with the TV show The Prisoner will find the bicycle logo both funny and excruciatingly appropriate.) It was charming to see the lofty, but interesting, ideals of New Urbanism taken out to the back yard and spanked so:

Imagine the convenience of shops that are within walking distance of every front door in the village. Providence is attracting a variety of shops, restaurants, bakeries, doctors, lawyers, architects, churches, and banks. We want to serve residents who are interested in walking to work or living above their store.


Like the historic towns around the country, Providence will offer homes in a variety of sizes, prices, types and styles. This will create a beautiful visual diversity within the village, and will also give all generations of a family a place to live in the same neighborhood. ("Providence, Our Vision")

I'd just like to raise my hand and ask something of the Eminently Intelligent† planners: With expected house prices ranging between $200,000 USD and $2,000,000 USD, exactly what kind of diversity were you planning on promoting in Providence, exactly?

Does it count as 'diversity' if the lawyers live next to the doctors, who live next to the management/CEO types? I wasn't aware that 'diversity' equated to large groups of upper-class professionals, with varying degrees and permutations of wealth, banding together to shop at their own little stores while avoiding the proletarians who have to shop at the Wal-Mart or Target down the street?

Those of you who live in larger cities/metropolitan areas (hi, Heather and Andy!) may not understand my consternation and disgust with these house prices. Two hundred thousand dollars may sound reasonable for a house in a metropolitan area, but it virtually guarantees a truly obnoxiously oversized house in the Huntsville area. Out here, a very spacious three or four-bedroom home (not a townhouse, mind you) on about a half-acre of land can be had for less than $130,000 USD, and depending on how far out of the city you are, as little as $100,000 USD.

In Alabama, salaries and cost of living are both some of the lowest in the nation. Huntsville contains dual realities: a college-trained professional (given the nature of this town, usually an engineer) can live in very definite comfort, but those who are poor are truly poor. The difference between the over-planned snobbery and flagrant whiteness of Hampton Cove, and the poverty of nameless neighborhoods in north Huntsville couldn't be any more evident...

...or so I thought until I heard about Providence.

Huntsville is rapidly acquiring the definite beginnings of the 'doughnut effect' that Little Rock had: poor, borderline-genteel, but rapidly-decaying neighborhoods in the center of town, surrounded by concentric rings of successively posher suburbs overwhelmingly populated by white professionals trying to avoid living in areas with declining property prices. The end result was known in Little Rock as 'white flight': overwhelmingly white and affluent suburbs surrounding a bleak, blank, and black center.

I agree that New Urbanism has the right idea: the only way to bring the people (and their dollars) back from the ever-expanding suburbs is to create areas where people can live, work, socialize, and shop without need of any other transportation besides mass transportation or their own two feet. Only after major investment has Little Rock begun to reverse the trend of 'white flight': the trendy, arty Hillcrest and Quapaw Quarter neighborhoods have now been supplanted by the shopping/living/entertainment area known as the River Market area. Given a reason to move back - good housing, proximity to businesses and restaurants, and tax breaks to encourage investment in the area - people of all walks of life are moving back into downtown Little Rock.

But to pervert that idea, to create yet another obviously-exclusive neighborhood that caters to the affluent under the guises of "creating a city center," does nothing but what Huntsville needs no more of: further separating the citizens of this metropolitan area into the [mostly] whites who "have" and the [mostly] blacks who "have not."

Now that's diversity.

† - according to the American Dream, they must be more intelligent, because they're making far more money than me. I can't find corporate sponsors for me to wander the country and write, and they're capable of finding corporate sponsors to build this monstrosity, so evidently they know something I don't.


It's University Drive. ;) And you missed the worst of them all: Airport Road--where the old airport was, but is no more--becomes Carl T. Jones Drive at the top of the ridge there east of Whitesburg Drive, and where it crosses Four Mile Post Road [and its extension out to Hampton Cove, whose name escapes me] it becomes Bailey Cove Road. And then Bailey Cove changes names as the road passes one of the roads at the far south end of town, where the road then curves back into the Parkway. Yeah ... one ribbon of pavement, and four names inside of ten miles or so. Now, as to the lack of diversity ... it's been happening for a while. What's really sickening about it is that the unincorporated burghs out here where I live, up to the state line, might beat the city in the annexation/incorporation boondoggle. And let's be honest--generally the folks that are moving to live out here are white professionals who want to live out in the country and away from black folks. And then the cycle turns, because my neighborhood's at least 40% minority. So, magically, house prices drop. Damn dirty real estate goons.

Ah, I miss the land of cheap housing. In Maryland, house prices skyrocket in Montgomery County, mainly because it contains the more affluent suburbs (Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Rockville), the biotech corridor (gene-splicing abounds!), and huge property taxes. This is why we live in Howard County, even though living in Montgomery County would do wonders to shorten our commute times. Of course, a big problem in the metro area is the housing shortage, which leads to bidding wars on houses. I've heard tales of people getting $20K-$80K more for their house than list price because of bidding wars. While Providence sounds like a good idea - trust me, I would give an ovary to live in DC - you're correct about bad implementation. What they should have done is applied this concept to downtown Huntsville. Revamp some buildings into nice condos and apartments, attract food and entertainment, and bingo! Instant swank living area. Rod talked once of buying one of the buildings downtown and turning it into the Geek Complex. Wireless/ethernet built in, cheap internet access, etc. Still a good idea. As for real estate goons, you should see the houses in our neighborhood and what they're selling for (for those who haven't experience this). One tiny cottage in our neighborhood sold for almost $200K, and it couldn't have had more than 1200 sqft of living space. Andy passes new developments to work advertising "from the 700s." I love DC, but can't a house just plop in front of me?

A granny suite of 375 square feet? What are they thinking. Who'd want a 2 car garage, a TINY bedroom, a TINY living room & a TINY kitchen? The whole thing is just wrong.....

Dallas streets are the same way. One street that pops to mind, (I say street because it IS a continuous piece of pavement), you hit an intersection and the named street you were on all of a sudden goes that-a-way while the actual lanes continue on under a different name as if nothing happened. Twice in two miles. And then there's the streets that cross but don't intersect (think freeway overpasses except not a freeway and no entrance ramps), the entire section of town where every steet runs diagonal to the entire rest of the city, and the propensity of oneway streets without an opposite direction counterpart. As for the New Urbanism, I don't think it's anything new to Dallas (except maybe the diversity part). All of the "historic" neighborhoods have become somewhat like that (except Oak Cliff of which there are several parts I wouldn't walk through in the daytime). Deep Ellum has it's lofts and townhomes surrounded by clubs and bars and interesting shops just East of downtown. Just north of downtown is where the five star hotels and really expensive highrise apartments are, surrounded by upscale shops and things. North of that is Oaklawn (Gaytown as it's called by some rednecks) which is in some ways it's own world and pretty self sufficient. Then there's University Park and Highland Park. University Park is the home of SMU and just like any other college neighborhood it's transportation optional. Highland Park keeps to itself just because it's too posh to admit that it's part of Dallas at all.

Geof - Grr. University Drive == major street in Huntsville University Avenue == major street in Little Rock My bad. :)

Oh, since my titles are always übercryptic, I couldn't possibly be referencing the Clash's album London Calling in the title, now could I? ;)

There are several streets that do major name changes in Atlanta. Case in point: Pleasant Hill Road starts at Hwy 29 in Lilburn & continues West. It becomes State Bridge Road & continues West. It joins 120 and becomes Old Milton Parkway & continues West. 120 splits & joins Highway 9 (or North Main Street or South Main Street or Alpharetta Highway depending on which name you like best) while Old Milton continues.

Question for those of you elsewhere in the U.S....does the road name-changing phenomenon happen across the country or just in the deep south? If it's just a deep south thing, it would lend considerable evidence to a pet theory one of my college professors had. My parents once looked at a subdivsion northeast of Columbia, SC called "The Summit." The Summit had a single entry point with a major boulevard running down the middle and smaller streets branching off of it. First two streets the houses ranged from 100K to 130K, next set of two streets were 120K to on and so forth until the last two streets held houses in the 400K+ range. My parents told the realtor that they didn't want to live where everyone knew your income range based off of your address. The realtor had the gall to look shocked at that particular comment. I pointed out cheerfully that in case of disastor the rich would be the first to die as they would be stuck in line behind the poorer people trying to get out of that single intersection. Then of course in the Atlanta area you have the confusion of streets with the same name in different places...and I'm not just referring to the infamous "Peachtrees." There are at least 3 "Pleasant Hill Roads" two of which are major throughfares. "Rockbridge Road" runs from Hwy. 29 to an exit ramp near Hwy. 78 then picks back up on the other side of the Target (about half a mile away) and eventually turns into Annistown Road. You should hear the radio calls of newbie inspectors trying to sort THAT particular mess out. "residents who are interested in walking to work or living above their store" Being intimately familiar with zoning and building code compliance regulations in a variety of Atlanta-area counties that quote produces some interesting visuals for me. Mostly they are of a poor code compliance officer in the Huntsville area curled up at his desk in a fetal position, twitching, drooling and muttering incoherantly...

I haven't really noticed much of the street-name-swaping here, except for US1, which is called various things depending on where you are on it. DC is rather nicely ordered by street names, even if you have to deal with the occasional traffic circle. Baltimore is a little more random, but it's not that bad.

Ames, It continues... University Drive == major street in Huntsville University Avenue == major street in Little Rock University Boulevard == major street in Tuscaloosa I imagine this is a common theme for most cities that include a universities.

Yeah Jeff.... We have University Avenue here in Oxford too. Leads right up to the Lyceum. :)

Same here is Houston...Only it's all the major highways. I was lost for the first 6 months...Katy Freeway is really I-10...and The Beltway is the Sam Houston Toll Way. And the Southwest Frwy is 59. The list goes on and on. I wish they would just pick a name and stay with it. The worst part is, if you are going one direction the road has one name...but if you go in the opposite direction it has another.

"While Providence sounds like a good idea - trust me, I would give an ovary to live in DC - you're correct about bad implementation. What they should have done is applied this concept to downtown Huntsville. Revamp some buildings into nice condos and apartments, attract food and entertainment, and bingo! Instant swank living area. Rod talked once of buying one of the buildings downtown and turning it into the Geek Complex. Wireless/ethernet built in, cheap internet access, etc. Still a good idea." Heather, someone tried that, and it fell on its face. Of course, they were charging >$1500/mo. on rent. I can try and dig up stories on this if you'd like for your edification. I read it on dead trees, but I bet it's around electronically ... somewhere.

"A granny suite of 375 square feet? What are they thinking. Who'd want a 2 car garage, a TINY bedroom, a TINY living room & a TINY kitchen? The whole thing is just wrong....." Hey! Stop talking about where I live. :)

As I do appreciate the commentary about Providence and I agree partially with your statements, you need to first look a little deeper into what Huntsville has been trying to do for the past 15 years. Huntsville has been trying to fix up the downtown area so that people want to live there again. More specifically, the richer side of the population wants to live there again. There has been a resurgence in the Twickenham area of people fixing up some of the more worn down homes. In fact, I can think of two off the top of my head that for as long as I can remember were ghost shells of houses and are now absolutely beautiful renovated homes back to how they once looked. Five Points has also had a face lift recently. For an area that was built in order to supply housing for the textile mills in the area, Five Points has had a great increase in interest to renovate homes and improve them, renovate the shopping area that is near these homes so that it is friendlier to pedestrians and people who live in the neighborhoods. Providence isn't Huntsville's attempt to ditch downtown and encourage 'white flight.' You're right. Maybe some of the money being poured into Providence could be used for better efforts towards improving the downtown area, but I don't think it's quite as extreme as you make it out to be.

Kat - that's really nice about Twickenham and Five Points, and I applaud them for doing it. But that's not the area they've got to be concerned about. I'm surprised you missed it, because you used to live in it and you left - the area just north of the eastern side of University. The city has made some stabs at improving the situation there, with adding the Home Depot at the corner of University and Memorial Parkway, but if you circle around and keep your eyes on the north, it's impossible to miss. There are closed shops, project housing, and rundown houses that won't ever see a renovator's touch. But I do have to agree with you on one thing: no, Huntsville is not so bad as Little Rock. There, 'desegregation' turned into a decade-long lawsuit, kids got bussed for insane distances, and for a while the dead center of town was so bad that in '93, Little Rock had a higher murder rate than Los Angeles or New York. (The documentary that was made on the subject is not a very popular film in Arkansas.) I really do not want to relive all THAT again. If these people wanted to really put their money where their mouth was, two New Urbanist neighborhoods should've been built: one, a set of condos and converted flats in downtown, and a second one, more oriented toward townhomes, in the middle of the Research Park. It should have contained housing for multiple housing levels - not just for lawyers/doctors/moneyed families. Contrary to popular belief, it takes more than just engineers to keep this town going, and they have to live somewhere too. Bleh.

Amy, I don't consider that to be the center of town, though. That's the north side of town and has always been like that. Yes, there have been efforts to improve that area of town, but every town is going to have it's "bad" (and I use that term very loosely) part of town where houses aren't worth that much and there just plain aren't many, if any, reasons to live there. I'm not saying that it's right, but you're going to be hard pressed to find any city of decent size that isn't like that.

Drive Holmes between Jordan and the Parkway sometime. Geof (took this route home every day for a year)

*nod* That used to be the quickest way from my parents' house to the mall, so I'm very familiar with that strip.

they do the road name thing in TN too.. lots of streets around here (Memphis-area) that have no less than 5 different names, or that start on one hunk of land and stop, and then start again a block down the road. however, even the poor communities have names here..

mrg, I was in Memphis this weekend and I can testify to that! What really got me was the way you would be driving down some road and there would be turns off of that Rd. onto a Court or Circle of the EXACT SAME NAME!!! But with my history of navigation in Memphis, you'd think that I would know just about every road, circle, and court in town since I've basically meandered my way to the interstate from each of the university's in town this year, neither time the same way, and neither time in a direct, known-ahead-of-time route. Let's just say that I've seen some of the scary parts of town. But then again, here in Huntsville we have Triana Blvd and Wall-Triana Blvd on opposite sides of town. That really screwed with my head when I was directed to go to Triana for soccer.

i am in marlton, nj. where are you?