Strange Symmetries at Seaside

Apalachicola’s unassuming, rough-edged historic charm comes from its relationship with the sea and the river that feeds it and its people, whose livelihoods are tightly bound to the waters surrounding them (for more on Apalachicola, see the earlier post, “Cradle of Life: Introducing the Estuary”). About 100 miles west, the resort “town” of Seaside offers something completely different. This intensively designed community has colorful cottages nested together in a maze of brick streets, geometric symmetries that are as addictive as candy, and a remote connection to the seashore—the thing that you’d think might draw a person to the sea-side.

Gulf waters seen through a Seaside pavilion (left), and the Apalachicola town dock.

If you’ve seen the movie The Truman Show (starring Jim Carrey as a character stuck in a dystopian reality-TV world that he tries to escape) you spent a couple of hours in Seaside, maybe without knowing it. I had seen the movie, though I’d forgotten that it was filmed there. Instead I convinced Jane Shepard to make the 40-minute drive from Panama City Beach to visit the place because I’d heard that Seaside was the first town designed on the principles of the New Urbanism—principles it seemed hard not to like: to quote the charter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, “the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.”

Laudable ideas, but they have been realized at Seaside in such a strange way. The uniform consistency of Seaside’s 1980s design makes it feel like anything but a “real community.” It is fun to explore—like wandering around a life-sized board game—though yesterday the streets were deserted, which was a little spooky. Granted, the place was created as a resort town, and so no one living there has a working relationship with the Gulf and its waters. But the town seems oriented to itself, with a central green offering no Gulf view that is surrounded by shops and the site of community events.

Click here for a Seaside photo gallery.

The snow-white beach and its pounding surf can only be seen from semi-private pavilions (each the property of the group of cottages nearest it) perched atop the dunes, and the occasional public-access walkway. This approach hasn’t completely trampled the delicate dunes, and it seems a better idea than the high-rise condos found along most Gulf beaches, each of which towers over its exclusive little stretch of sand.

But I wouldn’t like to live in a movie set, one where—no kidding—the speed limit is 17 miles an hour. Two hours seemed about right for a visit, then Jane and I were, like Jim Carrey, ready to escape outside, back into the real world.

Copyright © 2011 Cascade Communications, Inc.
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