A brief definition of the cul-de-sac is "a dead end street which widens sufficiently at the end to permit an automobile to make a "U" turn." But this rather simple geographical feature has important social ramifications. Residential cities fashioned out of cul-de-sacs are divided into exclusive zones whose residents hardly interact with each other. A town full of dead-end streets gives its residents the opportunity to shut each other out. I'll use an example of how middle-class and wealthy homeowners use the cul-de-sacs to avoid interaction with the poorer residents of their town.

Often, two different income developments are situated side by side geographically. Let's imagine a low-income over-developed residential zone where houses are densely stacked near each other with little backyard space and no green space. Furthermore these houses are located near heavily used roadways, industrial sites, and etc. This area suffers from poverty, crime, bad education, pollution, and the resulting health problems. Also, the constant noise generated by the traffic gridlock probably grates on the urban' residents nerves. There's also a close nearby residential zone that has houses amid lots of green space, lakes, and bike paths. This area has a rural feel that comes from having no major roadways. Not suprisingly, the absence of traffic makes for a quiet environment that isn't ruined by the persistent sound of many cars coming by. It's rather obvious that the rural zone is not plagued with any of the urban area's problems. It has less crime, less pollution, and better schools.

The cul-de-sacs used in both areas tend to make sure that you can't get from one to the other. The dead-end streets at the intersection of these two zones create a virtual barrier that prevents immediate passage from the rural spot to the urban spot and the other way around. The way to travel between the two geographically close zones is circular; you have to drive all the way around to end up almost in the same place where you were before.

This is the way suburban parents would want it. If there were no dead-end cul de sacs, they would fear that their impressionable young children would accidentally wander into the urban zone and meet threatening criminal elements. A classic horror story scenario feared by many involves a pedophile who lives in the urban zone cruising around the city trying to abduct kids by luring them into his car. The parents, however, feel protected from facing that tragic possibility because their virtual barrier from the urban zone would make it difficult for the pedophile to come to their neighborhood. And if the circuitous path he'd have to take didn't discourage him the difficulty of navigating the cul-de-sacs certainly would do the trick. The directions to their dead end street suburban home would require so many deliberate turns in the road that a pedophile wouldn't put up with the trouble of finding them. Needless to say, other criminals such as burglars driving around looking for houses to rob would also have a difficult time getting to the house on cul-de-sac street.

The cul-de-sac barrier helps parents deal with fears other than just crime. If the parents have a teenage son, they might be afraid about him getting mixed up with a wrong crowd of thugs and ganster rappers. That's why they feel reassured by the dead-end streets that would make sure their child won't meet these urban hoodlums. With the thugs kept at arm's length, the parents assume that their child will make friends who won't cause trouble because they've been brought up to be moral by their decent, high-income parents.

Other than just for the sake of their children, the adults themselves may appreciate the barrier that separates them from the poorer neighborhood because it would make sure that their house resale value remains high. If it would possible travel easily from their beautiful lakeside homes to the poorer neighborhood, home purchasers might hold a negative view of the wealthier neighborhood by virtue of association. After all, if prospective home buyers visiting the little rural nook drive a bit past into the urban pit, then the higher-income neighborhood wouldn't look so good anymore.

There could even be a worse detriment to real-estate values if the neighborhoods were interconnected. If the folks from the urban zone start wandering into the rural zone and like what they see, they just might petition the government to build some affordable housing there. If that happens, the rural neighborhood wouldn't be perceived as safe anymore, the wealthier homeowners would move out, and real-estate values would drop significantly.

But the cul-de-sac structure that creates an artificial barrier ensures that the urban folks would never desire moving to the wealthier neighborhood even if the government built a few token units of affordable housing there. Even if they were able to afford living there, the low-incomers would feel discouraged from moving into the rural zone. Other than having to bear the resentment of their better-off neighbors and feeling out of place among higher-income lifestyles, the former urban dwellers might lose their friends by moving. That's because it would feel like they are moving to a different town and abandoning their community even though their new home would actually be geographically proximate. If they had some neighbors whose company they valued in their urban neighborhood, they couldn't drop by to see them on a regular basis anymore. It would take a longer drive to get back to the overdeveloped zone.

The problems uban folks would encounter living in the rural neighborhood would be compounded if they didn't drive, as many of them tend not to. The non-drivers depend on bus routes to get around for their shopping, banking, and etc.. The cul-de-sacs of the rural neighborhood separate it from the buses needed by the non-drivers. The bus might be close enough that they see it pass from one of the dead-end streets, but they'll have to make a long time-consuming detour to actually be able to catch it.

Of course they could take a shortcut by jumping over fences and walking through strangers' backyards, but they'd risk being arrested for trespassing. Even worse, they'd be suspected of an attempted robbery or rape. Perhaps, the scared homeowner who would see the intruder passing through their backyard would reach for his gun and shoot him. I could imagine this rather absurd possibility being exploited for comic effect in a film.

While I've done a lot of edits to weed out mistakes, I'm afraid because it's a long post I wasn't able to catch all of them. If you're reading this, I would appreciate if you could bring the errors that you encounter to my attention.

P.S. For those who are curious about the etymological history of cul-de-sac, please read on. In French, cul-de-sac literally means "bottom of the bag." While this doesn't seem like it has to do anything with dead-end streets, it acutally does but only on a metaphorical level. Hunters who caught small animals like rabbits trapped them face down to the bottom of bag, restricting their motion and reducing their sight to darkness. Similarly, cul-de-sacs also trap people in a secluded location and restrict their motion. Unless a cul-de-sac resident is out on a major roadway, he can't really go far within his own neighborhood if all the streets around him are dead-ended. Also, while they aren't exactly seeing darkness at the bottom of a bag like rabbits, their restrictive surroundings do limit their perspective on their city or town. People who live in a cul-de-sac are out of touch with the rest of their community and most likely do not know much about the folks who live behind the fences of their blocked-off streets.

Cul`-de-sac" (ku`de-s?k" ∨ kul`de-s?k"), n.; pl. Culs-de-sac (ku`- or kulz`-). [ F., lit., bottom of a bag.]

1.

A passage with only one outlet, as a street closed at one end; a blind alley; hence, a trap.

2. Mil.

a position in which an army finds itself with no way of exit but to the front.

3. Anat.

Any bag-shaped or tubular cavity, vessel, or organ, open only at one end.

 

© Webster 1913.

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