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Geography of nowhere

Interstate 4 defines and divides Central Florida

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Overheated presidential politics have done few favors to Florida, except to put 132 miles of hot asphalt on everyone's lips: Interstate 4. Completed in the late 1960s, this interstate is known by millions who have visited there at least once on vacation. But the social and political reality in the world around I-4 is little known outside Central Florida. Like Ypres, the Flemish town continually under assault during World War I, I-4 will receive the brunt of both side's forces. It deserves to be known a bit for its quirky uniqueness, even if, like Ypres, it will recede into obscurity once the election is over.

America's other single-digit interstate, I-5 along the West Coast, has such a singular personality that its users refer to it as "the Five." Not so I-4, although many users spit when they say it. With the third highest accident rate in the nation – 1.58 fatal accidents per mile in 2004-2008 – I-4 is notorious for its congestion, dangerous drivers and bad karma. A section of it is even rumored to be haunted.

I-4 begins rather inauspiciously in Tampa, at a highway interchange with I-275 that even the state Department of Transportation calls "malfunction junction." Tampa itself is a brew of German, Italian, Spanish and Cuban immigrants largely supplanted in the 1980s by in-migration from other states. With a port poised to take advantage of Tampa's proximity to the Panama Canal, Tampa, and its sister city, St. Petersburg, offer a fantastic coastal setting for urban development.

Unfortunately, the two cities now squabble eternally over what has recently been diminishing economic opportunity, often leaving their geography a large, low-grade commercial wasteland. With little to offer except beaches and waterfront real estate, Tampa and St. Pete struggle for their existence. Their airport, considered the world's best in the 1980s and 1990s, has been overtaken by newer, better facilities in Orlando, Denver and other international cities.

Over the bay, St. Petersburg features lovely waterfront sidewalk life with delightful galleries and museums, but it remains "God's waiting room," with shuffleboard courts and early-bird specials at local diners. Beautiful older neighborhoods surround both downtowns, but the outer-ring growth that reaches out beyond these prewar suburbs seems unremarkable and bland. The area, once a diverse mix of blue-collar industry and office workers, has lost a lot of both.

St. Petersburg is set in Pinellas County, a peninsula that reaches downward just as the San Francisco bay area's peninsula reaches upward. But as San Francisco took off, Pinellas did not. Even the gulf coast of Pinellas County, with beautiful beaches, fails to reach its potential, housing gritty, second-rate motels and paint-peeled condos catering to vacationers unable to afford Sarasota further down the shore.

Downtown Tampa these days possesses the sad, romantic air of places once important but now in a state of vanished grandeur. The sidewalks are harsh, bricky and hot; almost no one traverses the sun-grilled open space at noon. Vacant, boarded-up storefronts are prevalent, punctuated by sleazy, vacant eateries. Tampa's feisty nightlife has turned the Ybor City neighborhood from a quaint, vacant historic district into a wet-zoned bar district that still houses the best music scene in Central Florida. Channelside, a redeveloped area between downtown and the historic district, has suffered the blight of new, cheesy-looking condominiums built over storefronts, awaiting the throngs of young singles seeking an urban lifestyle but never quite arriving.

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