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Geography of nowhere

Interstate 4 defines and divides Central Florida

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Flipping conventional wisdom on its head, cosmopolitan Orange County is mainly to the north of I-4, while Osceola County to the south is pretty much … well, country, in a Silver Spurs Rodeo sort of way. Osceola County houses a great deal of the service industry that maintains the machines of tourism. It also contains a large immigrant population, and the mix has raised tensions in this region. Presidential politics must intimately understand the problems of this county, or risk alienation of its voters over gaffes.

As I-4 finally turns due north you pass through an area once considered Orange County's back door: the county jail, large sewage treatment facilities and Lockheed Martin all sit, surrounded now by development pressures and the occasional stray theme park. Universal Studios is surrounded by residents so close they can hear the screams from the roller coasters in their backyards. Holy Land is isolated, crammed against I-4's huge wall. The spectacle of International Drive, one of the most interesting and unstudied urban conditions ever, is visible from much of I-4 as one wends northward toward downtown.

After twisting and turning through more blah suburbia, I-4 finally ascends to an elevated, straight bridge and threads its way past downtown Orlando. This is actually, when traffic is flowing, a terrific urban experience, especially at night. To the right, Orlando's small collection of meek towers is marked by the Captain Crunch hat of a failed condominium; to the left is the Magic's basketball arena. This drive continues northward through Orlando's mosaic of adjacent towns. Younger than Florida's average population, and largely from somewhere else, this region seems to be perpetually seeking itself, but never quite finding it. The allure of New York, Chicago and the West Coast seem to pick off the best and the brightest, but these folks are always backfilled with newcomers. With the leftist firebrand Alan Grayson counterbalanced by the Tea Party's right-wing voice, Daniel Webster, the area will be critical in this election season.

Past Orlando's heat and light, I-4 traverses one last stretch of Florida's untamed wilds, the Tomoka wetlands. This is the stretch that is rumored to be haunted, for traffic fatalities seem more common here. Perhaps the proximity of Cassadaga, home to many spiritualists, has something to do with it, or perhaps the vengeful souls from a graveyard supposedly under the roadbed are to blame. Either way, one is relieved to see signs of civilization when one finally reaches the end of I-4 as it tees into I-95 near Daytona.
One of many cities trying to reinvent itself, Daytona's allegiance to Nascar and motorcycles is legendary, but it has suffered heavy joblessness and unsettlement in this millennial depression. With its share of overbuilt beachfront condos, an unusually blighted amusement park in the center of town and a restless, angry inner-city population, Daytona's dire straits resembles, in some ways, Detroit or other hard-hit areas.

And so, I-4 begins and ends. Like Ypres, it may come to represent the battleground of an ugly war. The front at one end of I-4, St. Petersburg represents genteel poverty; at the other, the angry poor are looking for answers. In the middle, Orlando has the two extremes of political viewpoints personified by real candidates with passionate followers. Interstate 4, in the Orlando area, was a recipient of a new congressional district, thanks to population growth. What this population growth brings, and how it changes the character of this interesting, complex corridor, will be revealed after the election in November.

Richard Reep is an Orlando architect and artist, and a regular contributor to Orlando Weekly. This essay first appeared in The New Geography, newgeography.com.

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