by Tim Gilmore, 4/14/2015
We know not even the ghost of a place when we visit. How much less do we know the places we visit no longer there?
“Eyes,” my friend Heather Peters writes in her journals about Provence, “never really open.” Maybe we’re incapable of seeing the “big picture.”
We see just enough to let us navigate a landscape.
Mary Dumbleton navigated this landscape when she was 10 years old. I’m stumbling about the perimeter road, which now encircles an emptiness. I walk a circle around the place where Mary ran away. And the place isn’t here.
Mary’s a librarian at the North Campus of Florida State College of Jacksonville, and her father Duane Dumbleton, the much beloved former president of the college’s Downtown Campus, then of Kent Campus, began teaching humanities at the college in 1973.
The Dumbletons lived on Wildwood Road, a mile from the Expressway Mall, and Mary had just started riding her bike to Parkwood Heights Elementary.
She’s still not sure just why, as the family headed home in their station wagon one night, her mother admonished the five Dumbleton children against running away. It was the 1970s, however, the Decade of the Teenage Runaway. But Mary’s mother didn’t just tell her children not to run away, she offered them the proper precautions to take if they did.
“She gave us this whole speech,” Mary says, “saying that if you run away, these are the conditions you should check off.”
Don’t walk. Take a coat. Take food with you. And money. Tell your mother where you’re going and when you’ll be back.
Perhaps she was offering her children their inevitable rebellion with her own plan for its containment.
Arlington Expressway, built as a “limited access highway,” seems to have been sacrificed, in hindsight, as a lost cause. Vast suburban fields of modest handsome brick homes propagated off the service road in the 1950s and ’60s.
But the highway that spawned them was paved amidst post-World War II “white flight” and formed a sharp arrow pointing away from town and toward the beach. It now seems inevitable that Arlington neighborhoods like Arlingwood and Eggleston Heights would depreciate desperately in the 1980s and ’90s.
The Expressway Mall, north of the service road, between Townsend Boulevard and Arlingwood Avenue, was anchored over the years by stores like Burlington Coat Factory, one of the first Publix Supermarkets, and Cinema I and II Theaters.
The natural Florida landscape destroys roads quickly. The asphalt of the perimeter road separates in clumps, dead winter broomsedge and late-straggling goldenrod bear inward diagonally. Barren oak and camphor saplings separate the pavement, root through it, and turn it under.
Just down the service road, a sinkhole gaped open in the early 1980s and swallowed cars at a Chevrolet dealership. Oh how the sprawling landscape layers itself with stories!
Telephone poles splinter up through palmetto thickets behind where police seized cocaine and Ecstasy when they raided a dance club named Evolution in 1999.
The tall pines in the warm winter fog don’t seem to care about human neighbors, but what rust and leaded paint and psychoactive drugs have risen up complex vascular systems to the fragrant needles that hover far out above our heads in the sinking tree-canopy clouds?
How like trees, so patiently and unquestioningly, to absorb and purify our sins!
Mary’s gently pensive. Her angular glasses are hip but not too hip, and her braids stream down almost to her waist. When she tries to remember the smells she associates with her childhood declaration of independence, she looks into the distance and runs her light brown fingers softly through her braids.
When the Dumbleton children came home to Wildwood Road that night after their mother’s speech, Mary proudly jotted their mother’s conditions down on paper. Instead of a safe fallback plan for an action the children should never take, Mary saw the list as a blueprint.
She shared her plans with her older sister, now director of the Women’s Center and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “Yeah,” Mary told Layli, “I’m gonna try it!”
The next morning, she “ran away” by the rules, having slipped a note beneath her parents’ bedroom door to let them know where she was going.
“Oh,” she says, “I was so proud. I was so proud of myself for checking off all the rules.”
Arlington Expressway entrenches itself through the earth across Arlington. It’s a violence. It slices with tall concrete buffers on either side through the neighborhoods it was built initially to serve but, within 15 or 20 years, began to avoid.
Arlington Expressway swaths a deep and wide scar in the earth, on either side of which its suburbs began almost immediately in its aftermath to fall.
There are more ghosts of once-thriving shopping malls and centers of commerce along its sides than any other inner highway in Jacksonville.
“So I wrote this note to my parents,” Mary says. “It said, dear Mom and Dad, I’m running away, and I’m going to the Expressway Mall.”
Mary packed a lidded Tupperware cup and maybe as much as four dollars, set off on her sparkled banana-seat bike with its flower basket before the handlebars, and soared up the Arlington Expressway service road.
It was always dark in the back of the mall by the movie theater, which soon became a dollar theater, and she remembers that nobody was ever in the shops on either side. The space was strange, unlit, and void.
Used to sharing a bedroom with her two sisters, that bike ride to the mall is the first time Mary remembers experiencing a place on her own, acting independently among the spaces of the world.
When she opened the door to the mall, the smell of first childhood freedom blew over her. Even now she can smell that alchemical rush of popcorn and soda and cigarettes and candy.
“I took my time,” she remembers. She moved slowly through the Hallmark card store and touched every piece of merchandise she knew she probably shouldn’t and remembers how freely she breathed and how good she thought the store smelled that morning.
Then Mary wandered through Eckerd Drugs and did the same. She bought herself a whole candy bar. Her mother usually only bought squares or bought one big bar and cut it up between the kids.
Tall weeds recently frozen on either side of this perimeter look burnt.
A toy bear rots soaked on the pavement. A backbone and shattered ribcage lay scattered along the sides of the broken roadway.
Already the asphalt borders lie indecipherable from the earth against which the road once demarcated itself. Roads are silly and pretentious. No road on earth will ever be anything but earth.
The vertebrae and half the skull bow outward in an accidental arc slung through struggling residual winter vert.
Across the continent, suburban shopping mall complexes spread and blossomed after World War Two, when deed-restricted suburban neighborhoods denied admission to black people, when whites and better-off blacks left the cities of this vast continent behind them,
(Never before in the history of the world had the world so destroyed its own cities!)
when business licenses and business and homeowner’s insurance were denied to the nation’s cities but discounted in its as-yet-unbuilt suburbia, resulting in preferential lending and development now called “redlining” or “credit rationing.”
Arlington Expressway was always paradoxical. Yes, it emerged as a major commercial and shopping corridor through the center of burgeoning Arlington in the 1950s and helped explode population east of downtown in the 1960s.
Yet from the beginning, its construction encouraged exodus from the city center, not just out into, but out past the newest and most promising Arlington suburbs.
In the 1990s, Arlington Expressway fenced off its shopping centers from its neighborhoods and re-routed itself by a flyover ramp ironically northward on the Southside Connector.
The Town and Country Shopping Center opened at Arlington Expressway and University Boulevard in 1955. Now more than 90 percent empty, it still rents space to stores like Puff Cigar Bar and Dollar General. It housed the first local Pic N’ Save, once the second largest clearance retail chain in the nation and immediately omnipresent in the Southeastern suburban landscape of the 1950s, though in the 1980s Wal-Mart brutally surpassed it.
“I had never had time to myself,” Mary says. She shared the master bedroom and its bathroom with her two sisters and “running away” was the first time she recalls experiencing the world on her own.
She can’t remember if she had enough money to go see a movie at the mall, but she remembers when she “suddenly had her fill.”
When not quite 50 years old, this service road junction became a roundabout, and the Expressway Mall, to which this roundabout might lead, was demolished in the hope that some newer and better development might rise from this troubled ground.
So far, it hasn’t.
Having run away and tasted freedom, Mary rode her bike back across the mall parking lot and heard her mother’s voice. Turning her head, she saw her whole family stuffed into the station wagon. Her mother was screaming her name.
“This station wagon full of my family just followed me through the parking lot, in slow motion, following me on my bike, and I was so mad.”
She pauses and smiles and shakes her head slowly. “I wanted to make it back home on my own,” Mary says, “but they didn’t let me do it.”