Strange Geographies: My Town's "Aborted Suburb"

Ransom Riggs

Some people are seduced by strange and exotic lands abroad, and though I admit a weakness for the faraway, I also seek out surreal -- and often overlooked -- landscapes close to home. While back home in Southwest Florida for the holidays, I rediscovered a few. (After you read about this one, we'd love it if you'd share some of your own!)

Rotonda Sands, the "Aborted Suburb"
I grew up in Southern Florida, the land of sleepy golf communities, condo developments and down-in-the-mouth pseudo-resorts. One of the best known such communities in my area was called "Rotonda," the name-appropriateness of which becomes pretty obvious when the community is seen from the air (thanks, Google Maps). Founded in the 1960s, it's about a mile in diameter and packed with golf courses and modest vacation homes -- or at least, about 3/4 of its pie-shaped volume is. The other 1/4 pie-wedge never really came to fruition -- despite, rumor has it, investments from such high-profilers as Ed McMahon and O.J. Simpson -- and so for years the wedge, known as "Rotonda Sands," sat undeveloped and largely untrammeled, even though overeager planners had gridded it with streets, cul-de-sacs, fire hydrants and even street signs; all the trappings of suburbia, with none of the houses.

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Needless to say, by the time my friends and I had discovered this desolate locale some 30 years later, its streets now cracked, signage faded and lots wildly overgrown by aggressive Floridian undergrowth, it had become a surreal place indeed. Evidence of old campfires and piles of garbage made it clear that the only visitors to these empty cul-de-sacs (pictured) were drifters and teenagers looking for a good time away from prying eyes. (Also, drug planes had used its long streets as landing strips back in the 70s and 80s, though we never found any bricks of heroin among the weeds.)

My friends and I graduated and left town, and until last week, it had been years since I paid a visit to our local wasteland. Curious to see if the mid-2000s Florida housing boom had done anything to change Rotonda Sands' state of perpetual purgatory, I drove down the other day. To my great surprise, what had been an empty grid for nearly 30 years was suddenly pocked with houses! But as I drove around, wondering who in their right minds would want to live way out in this peculiar boondock, it slowly dawned on me that, for the most part, the answer was nobody. The houses were either empty or, in most cases, unfinished -- the hurricanes of 2004 and the decline in the housing market had dealt a one-two punch to the whole area, knocking Rotunda Sands back into the stone age just as it was getting to its feet.

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If anything, the new ruins which now populate the Sands make it an even stranger and sadder place; it now has the feeling of a kind of architectural mausoleum or a bombed-out city, with the few people who actually finished their houses and moved in before the crash acting as its lonely caretakers -- whereas before it had just been evidence of best-laid plans that never came to fruition. I'm told that the area has become a magnet for thieves; the air conditioning units and copper wiring left in the unfinished homes tend to disappear, eventually finding their way to the resale market.

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More photos: it doesn't take long for nature to start reclaiming its territory.

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Most of the houses are identical in design; their only differences are the degree to which they're unfinished.

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The lizard loves his new house.

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This blank billboard on the outskirts of Rotonda Sands kinda sums it up. (For sale: nothing!)

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December 2011 Update!
Rotonda Sands is beginning to look like a normal, if somewhat sparsely built-out, housing development. They've replaced all the fading signs with brand new ones, finished building nearly all the half-built houses, and there are cars in driveways and kids riding their bikes around, and some new hiking trails nearby. Not such a Strange Geography anymore, as it turns out. So think of the above as a snapshot from history, not something you can expect to find if you visit Rotonda today.

You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.