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Cul de Sac's dead end joy ride
Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story by filmmaker Garrett Scott examines how a city's descent into obsolescence can affect the minds of those who live there, and drive them to lash out at a system that has abandoned them

September 16, 2002

Garrett Scott

CTV.ca: 'Cul de Sac' director Garrett Scott describes what drew him into San Diego's dramatic boom-bust historyvideo link

When Californian Shawn Nelson stole an army tank in 1995 and drove through the streets of his San Diego suburb, smashing cars and fire hydrants before being shot dead by police, many dismissed the incident as the act of a deranged man.

Filmmaker Garrett Scott saw something more.

Nelson came from Clairemont, a suburb Scott knew well. The area had been in decline since the end of the Cold War, when the contracts to the local ships and arms building industries dried up. Nelson had lost his job and his wife, and like many people in his town was using drugs.

For Scott, Nelson's tank rampage was the perfect culmination of the effects of the social and economic changes he had been observing in the area in recent years. It also came at a time when Scott had been thinking about how one's community and one's place in it affect the mind.

"So when this guy steals this tank that is the ultimate emblem of the military industrial complex and a sign of American supremacy, it all folded in on itself in this suburb. And it all just seemed to make a lot of sense in one concise way."

The incident spurred Scott to write his documentary, Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story. After interviewing Nelson's friends and family and talking with city planners, Scott has come to the conclusion that Nelson was, effectively, a casualty of the decline of his hometown.

Clairemont was built in the '40s and '50s to house the thousands who migrated there to work in San Diego's booming defence industries. But the town started running down in the early 90s when those companies began leaving town after Communism fell. Instead of reinventing itself, the town just sort of died, and that didn't make sense to Scott.

"There are towns all over the place (such as Flint, Michigan) that are defunct. It's very common there. It's not common on the West Coast."

Scott decided that the problem stems from the way that capital is invested in certain regions. In Clairemont's case, that capital came from the federal government.

"All these missiles and bombs [that Clairemont helped build] came from U.S. tax dollars," he says. "ůSo you have 30,000 people working essentially for the government. They think it's a free market economy, that they're working for private companies, but it's entirely subsidized and had been for 40 years."

When the contracts dried up, Clairemont was left out to dry. Many of those who have remained feel cheated by Washington.

"These people feel angry, they're alienated," Scott says. "Because at one point, they felt supported by the government and they were paying their dues to the cause - I mean these are very nationalistic people. And they feel deeply angry towards the government."

The end of Clairemont's boom times was the end of Nelson's sense of place and the beginning of his decline.

"Capital affects people's lives," Scott says. "It affects the emotional structures that they're used to living with. And these things break down very quickly once the money stops coming in."

When things broke down, many in town turned to a drug that has a long history in Clairemont: methamphetamine. As Scott found out, the "speed" derivative was handed to pilots during the war to keep them awake during long missions. A lot of those pilots came home hooked and found they could make the drug in their homes easily and cheaply with everyday items.

Scott says methamphetamine is unique in that it causes sort of schizophrenic symptoms so that users can't sleep for days at a time and sometimes become delusional. That might explain why Shawn Nelson believed he had discovered gold in his backyard. He dug a 20-foot deep shaft there and staked an official claim on the "find."

By the time Nelson stole the tank, the bank had foreclosed on his home and all his utilities had been cut off. His friends say he had been talking about stealing a tank for years. They too, were feeling the anger, the frustration, and the sense of disenfranchisement that had taken over Nelson. Many even said they wished they could have done it.

In the end, it was Shawn Nelson who stole the tank from the local armoury and "raged against the machine" for half an hour, flattening cars and knocking over fire hydrants. Thankfully, no one was hurt -- except for Nelson, who was shot dead by police when his tank eventually got stuck on a highway median.

Seven years later, Scott says Clairemont is changing. Younger people are moving in, tearing down the old prefab war-time houses and putting up new ones. Because it's near the ocean, the real estate will always be valuable.

But the old Clairemont is essentially done and the memories of glories of the boom times are fading. Little has changed for the original people and many are struggling to survive. Scott wonders whether they have been forgotten as time marches forward.

"When the urban planners in the film say the development has reached 'the end of its useful life', they're really talking about the people. They're talking about the skills those people have and the way those people live," Scott says. "This often happens in the United States: when people say a place is falling apart or become obsolete, they really mean the people."

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