Land Use

Beautiful 'Burbs

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burbs

Slate's "Today's Pictures" slideshows are of tremendously variable quality. But the most recent is a stunning collection on the surprising beauty of suburbs. The image above is a 1977 shot of Brit 'burbs.

See the whole thing here.

And read reason's torrid love/hate/love affair with suburban life here, here, and here. And "radical 'burbs" here.

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  1. The suburbs are civilization’s greatest accomplishment thus far.

  2. I’m a proud suburban. I plan to sprawl out on my sofa when I get home. Defiantly.

  3. Warren, I thought you would have chosen “the Bong.”

    Seriously, like almost everything, some ‘burbs good, some ‘burbs bad. I happen to live in the best one ever, and I grew up in one of the worst. (Just keeping up Warren’s hyperbole there.) Where I live now combines all sorts of good qualities from urban and suburban places. The best part is that it’s easy to drive, walk, ride a bike, or take mass transit.
    Where I grew up, you drove. You could bike if you were adventurous, but the buses were impractical. They intentionally designed the town without a downtown. For some reason, in the late 60s/early 70s this sounded wise. Let me repeat: they quite purposefully built the town to not have any sort of a central business district. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot were they thinking?

  4. KMW, that photo is a misinterpretation.

    Those two people died from the lack of urban planning. They’re waiting for the corpse-cart.

  5. Suburbs are a way for humans to assume (guilt-free?) that their job is finally done here on this planet, a way for them to relax, grow complacent, lose sight of the pulse of humanity, and of culture, and of their very own vitality.

    The suburbs will suck a soul dry, make a person think that fast food is acceptable, that extraordinary land waste is acceptable, that driving a car during an oil war is acceptable, that reproducing beyond self-replacement is acceptable, that watching television rather than reading is acceptable.

    I’ve been there and rejected it; it makes one accept willingly all that is keeping people self-deluded in the disguise of an absurd normality.

    It’s unfortunate anyone would prefer a hidden, quiet life of sprawl over one in the face of immediate social consequence for their own actions.

    Human nature, I guess.

  6. Hey now,
    Some of us like our hidden, quiet lives. It allows us to fill our souls.

  7. holy shit. talk about a huge trough of fucking smug.

    just go back to Illinois Wesleyan and kick float the plate with the other residents of Really Fuckin Smug house.

    wow.

  8. The suburbs will suck a soul dry, make a person think that fast food is acceptable, that extraordinary land waste is acceptable, that driving a car during an oil war is acceptable, that reproducing beyond self-replacement is acceptable, that watching television rather than reading is acceptable.

    You got us. You figured us out. Where should we turn ourselves in for such crimes against the inteligensia?

    It couldn’t possibly be the less expensive and larger housing (on modest .25 acre lots), better schools, lower crime and just better quality of life that some of us replacement rate-breeders choose the ‘burbs?

    Nah. That couldn’t be it. We must be doing it to degrade smug, masterbatory urban-asshat culture.

  9. JLE
    you think fast food is not acceptable
    Is government intervention to stop people eating fast food acceptable?
    you think reproducing beyond self replacement is not acceptable.
    Should the government stop people from reproducing, or decide who gets to reproduce and how many children they should have?
    You think watching television instead of reading is not acceptable.
    Do you think having the government decide what we should do with our free time is acceptable?
    etcetera

    not that you specifically advocated government control in these areas, but that’s usually the logical conclusion to your line of thinking.

  10. Human nature, I guess.

    Actually, I think it’s more typical of human nature to look down your nose at people who live life differently than you do, to assume that activities and lifestyles different from your own must be inferior. You know, like Bill O’Reilly does.

    For someone interested in “immediate social consequence(s),” you’re doing a good job of alienating people with your snobbish attitude.

  11. Slate’s collection of pictures on the aftermath of Chernobyl is amazing, and many other adjectives too numerous to list. Check it out.

  12. JLE, thank you for the best laugh I have had all week.
    …………….
    I’m still laughing.

  13. that extraordinary land waste is acceptable,

    Opps I think you got suburbanites confused with people who eat organic foods.

  14. The really funny thing is if you read the book “Sprawl” you will discover that low density housing is the start of every fucking city on the planet…from Athens to New York

  15. I’d move back to that crappy town I grew up in if it was the only way to avoid having JLE as my neighbor.

  16. Huh. So JLE, what does it actually mean to be “self-deluded in the disguise of an absurd normality?”

    I get that “an absurd normality” indicates that what is normal to suburbanites is seen by you as absurd. Is that correct?

    But in what way could this “absurd normality,” which is in fact a qualitative judgment made by you, function as a disguise? How can a person be disguised by thoughts in your brain? In any case, assuming a self-deluded person (i.e., a person with a point of view that differs from yours) believes in his or her delusion (as defined by you), why would such a person need a disguise? To convince you of something? What makes you think your hypothetical, suburban solipsist cares about your perceptions or even notices you at all?

    And hey, what does it mean to “prefer a hidden, quiet life of sprawl over one in the face of immediate social consequence for (one’s) own actions?” In what way does an urban environment provide immediate consequences for individual actions? Do you refer to all actions, or just some of them? What makes you think that NOT preferring life in an “urban jungle” is a sign of inferiority?

    On the one hand your drivel is not even worth commenting on. I mean, it’s obvious you’re saying that suburbanites are self-absorbed, dull, lazy, and use up more resources than you think they’re worth.

    It’s just – the way expressed your viewpoint is nonsensical. If I weren’t already familiar with your argument, it wouldn’t have made much sense. And given your smug satisfaction in your choices to eschew the suburbs, fast food, and television, your pompous and poor use of language made your comments exceedingly irksome.

  17. that reproducing beyond self-replacement is acceptable

    So the optimal human population on Earth is… two?

  18. I’ve been there and rejected it; it makes one accept willingly all that is keeping people self-deluded in the disguise of an absurd normality.

    Huh. You be you man. But you might consider that other people don’t share your view. I’ve lived urban, suburban, and subrural. Each has its place. Each has its charms.

    But the urban life that I suspect you would prefer we choose is an expensive life. I couldn’t afford it, without making other sacrifices that I’m not willing to make. And not from a lack of understanding of the possible benefits of a non-consumerist life, just from not enjoying the non-consumerist life. Not enough to go back to it, anyway.

  19. that watching television rather than reading is acceptable.

    Everything seems to be dichotomous choices with you. Books are ipso facto better than television. If it weren’t for television, I wouldn’t have met my wife. And damned good television at that. But if you don’t like it, you are free read. There’s a lot of good literature out there. And a whole lot of dreck written by hacks.

  20. JLE: Great job trolling. Too bad you didn’t stick around. I wish I had thought of something like that.

  21. I grew up in a quiet Long Island suburb and am proud of the safe, comfortable childhood my parents provided for me. To resent it would be to resent the best of my family, the hard work that my immigrant mother and father did to leave their 3rd world lifestyle in 1950’s Jamaica and become successful physicians in America. I have little patience for people who see poverty or “sophisticated” city life as morally superior to suburban folks. I hope I can give my children the same opportunities my folks gave me.

    I don’t like feeding trolls, but I’ll jump on the bandwagon for a tick and just say that the flaw in JLE’s little hipster rant is the assumption that people are defined by their environment. There is much more diversity of thought and lifestyle in suburbs than most people assume. Regardless, contempt for other people’s different choices and lifestyles, chastising people who utilize one of man’s greatest inventions, the car, condemning people for watching TV and owning land and having children – these are the hallmarks of a childish mind. Maturity entails acknowledging and being at peace with other people’s different choices.

    I spent my adolescence and college years in NYC, where I worked for a few years and met many folks with the same elitist sentiments about city life. At heart, I’m a city person; I live in Tokyo now, and plan to travel for the next decade or two, mostly staying in cities. But I know for sure that I don’t want to be the 80 year old guy mean-mugging teenagers on the subway. By the time my kids are dealing with their own little ones, I plan to sit back with a cold one in the backyard of my little half acre somewhere on Long Island back where the story began.

    Suburban life can be just as badass and interesting as life anywhere else. Cheers to all the white picket fence owners. For theirs is the glory.

  22. I’ve been thinking a lot about suburbs lately, having just moved to Riverside CA after living over a decade in urban San Francisco and the past 3 years in residential St. Paul.

    To me, a lot of the attraction and repulsiveness of suburbs has to do with the American Dream: the promise of home ownership. As those above have mentioned, owning a home in a suburb is relatively cheap, compared to owning a home in a city.

    But I have been wondering, for my own life, if the ownership of a home in some suburban areas isn’t just a massive scam: a way to convince people they’ve achieved the American Dream while selling them on truly worthless real estate that will only devalue more as the houses get old and people realize there is no inherent geographic value in the land?

    Of course, this doesn’t apply to many places we’re calling “suburbs” on this thread. Some of them do have inherent, or acquired geographic value. For instance, Palo Alto California is a suburb, but nobody would suggest it has lost value — or ever will.
    But take, for instance, the Woodlands, TX: a 2 hour drive to downtown Houston, originally sold to people as the ultimate in brand-new homes and luxury golf courses, but eventually devalued into tract housing for those who can’t afford the next bright new suburb.

    Just a thought: are suburbs a massive scam trading on the American Dream?

  23. hey lunchstealer,

    just wondering (if you don’t mind sharing) how is it that you would not have met your wife were it not for television? do you both work in the biz?

  24. But I have been wondering, for my own life, if the ownership of a home in some suburban areas isn’t just a massive scam: a way to convince people they’ve achieved the American Dream while selling them on truly worthless real estate that will only devalue more as the houses get old and people realize there is no inherent geographic value in the land?

    Only if there’s reason to believe that the alleged “bubble” will, at some point, burst. Why would suburb-dwellers be concerned with the “inherent geographic value in the land”? What does that even mean? Why is this real estate “truly worthless”? People value the land cause they can put a house there. Until people no longer want to put houses there, no reason to believe that will change. It may fluctuate as some areas become more and less desirable, or as the housing market and the value of homeownership in general fluctuates, but that’s not a scam, that’s commerce.

  25. they quite purposefully built the town to not have any sort of a central business district. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot were they thinking?

    Thus proving that planning does not work.

  26. I would recommend Jesse Walker’s piece about radical burbs.

    “I looked at what we were doing as logical and with ample precedent rather than as social change,” he told me in an interview last year. “I was really astonished at all the attention it got.” Some of the local real estate brokers warned potential buyers away from Reston on the grounds that it was “communist,” Simon reports. “It was the black thing, of course — the integration,” he says. “And the townhouses. There were no townhouses in the boonies until Reston.”

    The more things change…

  27. The trouble with the Woodlands is that the lack of zoning and large network of expressways in Houston assures plenty of cheap housing — much of it closer in. The Woodlands is on the edge of Houston but only 30 minutes from downtown (without traffic of course — increased congestion will just exacerbate the problem). Most of Houston, is incredibly cheap.

    When you stop building roads and zone out development around employment centers, the land appreciates in value because people don’t want to spend their entire lives commuting and want to live near their jobs and away from from undesirable people. Old houses get renovated because they are worth less than the lot.

  28. that watching television rather than reading is acceptable

    Mrs TWC’s granny (bless her soul) is from the backwoods of Arkansas and she holds reading in the same regard as the troll seems to hold TV. Not kidding, reading on the farm was considered an absurd waste of time when there were always a pile of chores that needed to be done. At 93, she still looks slightly down her nose when she talks about them readin’ books.

    She is a TV fan however.

  29. Is Houston still without zoning law?

  30. ….while selling them on truly worthless real estate that will only devalue more as the houses get old and people realize there is no inherent geographic value in the land?

    Well, demographically that just isn’t going to happen very soon.

    When the population of the US begins to decline in real terms, the demand for housing will slacken and then the more marginal areas will see a decline in property values over time. But that’s at least a few generations hence. If it ever happens.

  31. TWC,
    Not a fan of planning, but if you did believe in it, how could you think that a town center was something to be avoided? It boggles my mind! Who thinks that people prefer a town of nothing? (Seinfeld, maybe!) It was just subdivisions broken up by strip malls and busy streets. If that happens, it happens, but to plan that?! Again, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
    It took years for the town to catch up to the levels of development in neighboring towns.

  32. High, my comment was fairly snarky, but I am amazed at your story as well. But that was how decentralized planning was done back then.

    Planning doesn’t always work out. One of the very first and premier and privately done planned community was Temecula Ca. Done by Signal Oil originally. Well, today, Temecula is a great town but it is a hellish nightmare for traffic.

    The planners decided to put all the industry on one side of Hwy 395 that ultimately became I-15 and all the houses on the other side. That idea, which was cast in stone, has created the worst traffic congestion (outside of LA) that you can imagine.

    Because now, Temecula has a lot of hi-tech industry and the people that work there have to get back and forth across the freeway and there’s only three bridges.

    BTW, they got a nice bunch of wineries out there in Temecula (past the ‘burbs) as well. Like driving back in time a couple or three decades once the road narrows down to two lane.

    Way, way back, Earl Stanley Gardner used to write Perry Mason novels at his ranch in Temecula.

  33. Well, Lunch, we’re still waiting to hear about the ron de vous with Mrs Lunch that came about as a result of TV [taps foot impatiently like a Jewish mother].

    I, OTOH, can say that me & Mrs TWC got together because of a book. Well, that, and because she had big brown puppy dog eyes and long black hair down to there. Hope she ain’t reading this.

  34. Cities were once a necessary thing to get civilization going.

    Now they are festering cesspools. Fuck ’em.

    My retirement ideal is a high tech log house in the woods.

    Surrounded by an impenetrable force bubble.

    Unfortunately the technological progress of humanity may not deliver the bubble thing by the time I retire. 🙁

    So I guess I better start training some timber wolves or something.

  35. Cities were once a necessary thing to get civilization going.

    Now they are festering cesspools. Fuck ’em.

    Ahh, I see, so now we’re going to pull a JLE in reverse and look down our noses at the cities.

    Good things there’s a writer out there who can make you feel better about your hypocrisy.

    Although I am firmly an “urban hipster” (whatever that means), I have a creeping sense that folks in the suburbs are having way more interesting sexual and substance-riddled lives than the young that live in the cities.

  36. Land is cheap away from the city, so people buy more of it and stick a house on it. Enough people do that and you get suburban communities, eventually with decent food and shopping. I fail to see the problem.

    If you like urban life, more power to you. To act as though the desire for more space is something new or soul destroying is just bizarre. It is just a preference. Get over yourself.

  37. I should move back to the city, maybe I could be JLE’s immediate neighbor. I hope he likes people playing the drums at odd hours of the day. And running a compressor the rest of the time.

    Some people need more space to pursue our pursuits, ya know?

  38. JasonL,

    Did you look at the photo essay? Do you think that those European suburbs were the natural result of people putting housing on cheaper land?

    Then you do you think that the American version of the same is a natural development?

    Urban growth is natural, that’s true. The morphology of our suburbs and regions is not – it’s the consequence of massive intrusions into the market.

  39. Assuming JLE isn’t just trolling, I have to wonder if she (yes, guys, it’s a she — check the email address) is equally opposed to cinema as she is to television. I’ve never encountered an anti-TV person who said the same thing about movies, despite them being essentially the same medium.

  40. There were suburbs before sprawl. There was homeownership before sprawl. There was urban growth before sprawl.

    Read Paul’s comment, then look at that picture – the one with the high-density housing visible just over the ride of the greenspace. What could possibly make a person think that that English suburb was not planned?

    This topic brings out the eager culture warriors, who are as eager as ever to divide the world into black and white, assign every person and artifact a side in that war, and disparage those they put on the other side. So “suburbs” = “sprawl” = “no planning,” which is fine, if you don’t actually know anything about suburbs, sprawl, planning, or urban development.

  41. There were suburbs before sprawl. There was homeownership before sprawl. There was urban growth before sprawl.

    I blame FDR.

  42. FDR deserves a lot of blame. Terribly anti-urban, in many ways. He did things to help cities, but only as a transitional step. He and his administration were big believers in the “radical suburbs” ideology, while at the same time strongly endorsing the anti-commerce, patriarchal Victorian pastoralism that motivated many anti-urban “urban reformers” during the Progressive Era.

  43. Second to Joe – a suburb is not a suburb is not a suburb. Just like New York City is not Houston is not Denver.

    A great majority of those pictures have things such as high density apartment buildings, zero lot line rowhouses and non wasteful utilization of land that most “new” suburbs in america would NEVER allow.

    A suburb is just another option to live in, just as cities and the ‘countryside’ are. However, sitting on your two acre ranch house in the middle of your gated community a two hour drive from your job and pretending like this kind of development typology is anywhere near sustainable is sheer fantasy.

    Transportation costs rise, congestion rises, population rises, noise levels rise, property values rise, taxes rise, development happens around you and pretty soon you’re right back to what you tried to escape from, only in a bigger living space.

    Then you sell the house, move another hour away and start over again.

    lather, rinse, repeat.

    See the problem?

  44. FUcking up suburbia here around Houston are all the “Master Planned Communities” with their faux “towne centres”. You cannot create a town in a developer’s 10-20 years of a marketing plan ; the best places I have lives grew organically over decades. Planning and zoning suck and violate natural law.

    Anyway, absolute best place I ever lived was on five acres in the country. I could see my neighbors houses, but didn’t have to put up with them. I could take a piss off my front porch whenever I wanted. That is the definitiion of paradise.

  45. Tom,

    That’s the definition of rural.

    There is a tendency among ideologically anti-urban types to draw a big, bright line between urban and suburban (as if Alexandria or Cambridge never existed), while conflating suburban and rural (as if putting a rail fence around your 12,000 square foot lot on Long Island makes you a frontiersman).

  46. So THAT’S where Eddie left those two bodies! I told them Hillside CEMETERY! Not Hillside PARK!

  47. I knew JLE was female just from her written “voice.” Funny that mosta y’all thought she was male.

    Not that women are more likely to write senselessly — I’m not sure what it was that tipped me off.

  48. “Did you look at the photo essay? Do you think that those European suburbs were the natural result of people putting housing on cheaper land?

    Then you do you think that the American version of the same is a natural development?”

    “Natural” seems like an odd term to use for urban growth period. I wasn’t making a case for a desire for people to buy more land when it is cheap. This is pretty unremarkable stuff. I know that there are zoning prohibitions that interfere as well, but I just don’t see demand for single family residences with yards drying up. You can do more than ever before from suburban communities.

    I also think that as time goes on, urban concentration has less and less correlation with opportunity. I know that business decisions to move out are related to the cost of operating in dense urban areas. Businesses, too, seek more land cheaper in North Carolina or Texas. Sales jobs get regionalized and reps stay connected through other means than riding the subway together. I see a future of more medium sized cities with substantially suburban housing.

    If you want to talk about what is natural and what isn’t, a pay differential of nearly 25% extra for people in Boston to have a similar effective lifestyle as the one I have in KY seems to be an unstable equilibrium when people have the option of moving.

  49. JasonL,

    Once can have a single family home with a yard in a city, too. I have one. I loves me some 10 minute lawn mowing!

    By “natural,” I meant “through the unimpeded functioning of the market.”

    Demand for townhouses and lofts isn’t drying up, either. The difference is, there is a tangle of laws forbidding the latter in most places, and mandating the former.

    I also think that as time goes on, urban concentration has less and less correlation with opportunity. True, but the flip side is, as time goes on, low density sprawl has less land less correlation with superior quality of life. Cities and urban living are getting better, and more popular among people with choices.

    It’s the two of these together that are fueling the boom in the suburban style called New Urbanism. People want the amenities of, if not a city, then a more traditional community.

  50. As for your pay differential, yes, prices are higher in Massachusetts, owing to a combination of restricted housing supply and higher demand.

    People move from Massachusetts to Kentucky because Kentucky is cheap. The incredibly low vacacy rate in Massachusetts, the prices people are willing to pay to live here, and the lower prices they’re willing to pay to live in Kentucky, should tell you something about revealed preference.

  51. We are doing a ton of regionalization work right now, all out of Boston. It is just a single data point, but it is not something you’d want to overlook. The numbers are large ish.

    The research triangle in NC was wholly born out of a similar idea. There are decent schools and lower costs of living. Huge numbers of those guys come from Mass and NYC. there is another big ish data point.

    I know that there is a stickiness for people born in big cities in terms of where they prefer to live. Historical opportunity came in those places and the populations have lots of opportunities accumulated, so relative flows out are low. To me, that is looking backward. As quality jobs near good schools with lower costs of living increase, I’m guessing, and it is just a guess, that there will be some point when that stickiness of preference is overcome. Who knows for sure, though.

  52. To act as though the desire for more space is something new or soul destroying is just bizarre

    Very much so. I’ve noticed that many of those who condemn the idea of getting more personal space in the suburbs or the hinterlands enjoy getting away from it all on hiking trips in the national parks. So, it isn’t the desire for space per se. It’s how you choose to find that space that ticks them off.

  53. I could see my neighbors houses, but didn’t have to put up with them

    Yeah, I hear that. Except I can hear some of the neighbors. Got dam people think because there’s a quarter mile between houses that nobody can hear their boom box bass bouncing back and forth across the valley. Plus everybody’s got two dozen dogs that sleep all day and compete with the coyotes during howl time. You’d think it would be quiet here. And it is, while everybody’s at work and school and the dogs are asleep. And those jack asses down the hill. No, they’re real donkeys. The people are quiet but when those things get set off it’s like the screech of dying rabbit in the jaws of a coyote amplified through Nugent’s sound system. Nothing like the cartoons, man.

  54. JasonL,

    Yes, a lower cost of living in those areas than in Boston. No question.

    Which is what makes it so odd that you attribute the movement of people from Massachusetts to those areas to an objective preference. Fifty cent Pepsis are going to sell better than two dollar Cokes – this does not indicate a revealed preference from Pepsi over Coke, but for cheap over expensive.

  55. “Which is what makes it so odd that you attribute the movement of people from Massachusetts to those areas to an objective preference. Fifty cent Pepsis are going to sell better than two dollar Cokes – this does not indicate a revealed preference from Pepsi over Coke, but for cheap over expensive.”

    I don’t think I made the argument that there was an objective preference distinct from price. Lower priced land means more demand for land, especially when other objective measures like new job availability in cheaper environs are taken into account.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that I beleive everyone in the world hates urban living. I personally don’t like it, but it has been a few years since I honestly thought everyone in NYC was a lunatic for living there.

  56. Another way of looking at it is that increasingly in the future people won’t HAVE to live in cities to have good jobs, so I would expect some outflow from the crowd that formerly felt like they had no choice, whatever high or low percent that happens to be.

  57. I enjoyed looking at the photos but they seemed to be almost as much “urban” as “suburban.”

  58. ,i>Lower priced land means more demand for land

    Wait. What?

    Another way of looking at it is that increasingly in the future people won’t HAVE to live in cities to have good jobs, so I would expect some outflow from the crowd that formerly felt like they had no choice, whatever high or low percent that happens to be.

    I think that ship has sailed.

  59. joe,

    the prices people are willing to pay to live here, and the lower prices they’re willing to pay to live in Kentucky, should tell you something about revealed preference.

    the salaries people are willing to take in KY, and the much higher salaries people demand in order to move in MA, should tell you something about revealed preference.

    I think both of those are true, and opposite. Not sure what they show in combination. I do know that the Louisville paper ran a series a few years back on the growth in the counties just outside Jefferson, but still inside the Louisville MSA. Lots of growth due to people moving from upper midwest in order to be able to afford a house. One example was a welder from Cleveland who could only afford an apartment up there. He took a slight pay cut to work in Louisville and bought a nice house just outside Louisville (he probably has a 30 minute commute). He was thrilled because he had 2 young kids and he wanted them to have a yard.

  60. True enough, robc.

    The point, as far I have one, is that the net out-migration from Massachusetts is best read as a response to expensive prices, not as a revealed preference for other states over Massachusetts.

    I withdraw any suggestion to the opposite.

  61. Oh, and JasonC, naw nothing so dramatic as TV industry insidership. We met on one of the Firefly message boards. My geekness runs deep.

  62. TWC: Houston is still without zoning. I still can’t decided if that bothers me or not.

    My 5.5 year old just noticed this a few days ago. We’re in the car and she says “Mama! There’s a store in a neighborhood! Right next to a house! You can’t put a store in a neighborhood!” And I said Baby – this is Houston. You can put a store anywhere.

    We were in a low income neighborhood – not a hood or a ward or anything like that, just cheap houses, and there was a small strip center and a gas station in the middle of the block, next to houses. In more upmarket neighborhoods, the strip centers and gas stations are right outside the neighborhoods – I live in a nice mid-market neighborhood – not a suburb – houses in the high 100s to mid 300s – and all the commerce is on the big streets surrounding the neighborhood. And sometimes I forget that that’s a really weird scenario for a lot of towns.
    suburb.

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