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The city in the suburbs: a love story

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By Mitch Traphagen

There is a city in the suburbs. At this near-mythical place, people are sitting around tables chatting casually with friends, business people with papers containing plans, proposals and scenarios are meeting over powerfully caffeinated coffee, and young people are working on laptops at small tables. Outside, shops, cafes, and apartments with fire escapes and balconies overlooking the city square are just steps away.

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Friday morning in Riverview’s Winthrop Town Centre. Mitch Traphagen photos
This being Florida, the city square is, of course, a parking lot. But that doesn’t detract from the rest of the things that make this a cool place.

At one point in my life I shunned cities. The mere thought of being in the middle of millions of people, having to drive long and hard just to escape the huge simmering pot of human soup, seemed to be madness. As the times change, so goes my attitude. I can see the value in gathering together to form a real community. My attitude has taken a complete about-face and now, the thought of driving through needlessly winding roads in endless subdivisions of generically similar homes just to get a carton of milk seems insane.

During the housing boom, the old Florida began to disappear. Bulldozers cleared the way for roads and subdivisions with names, for no reason whatsoever, that end in “e”: such as Swan Pointe and Manatee Peake. On one hand, the thousands of new homes built during the bubble were meant to be homes for millions of people who had every right to enjoy the beauty of Florida in the same way all of us enjoyed it. But on the other hand, miles upon miles of land were cleared, trees were burned and hot asphalt was laid for roads ending in “e” to houses that were never occupied by happy families or, in some cases, never even built. Many of the homes that overtook the wild places never saw a Christmas celebration or children preparing for their first day at school. They were just a means for people to buy and flip — to make some fast and easy cash. Hundreds of homes and subdivisions are now empty and the consumption of land is more easily measured in miles rather than acres.

Here in this near-mythical city within the suburbs, the population was designed to be more dense and, given that, the developer envisioned huge swaths of green space to give the residents room to grow as individuals. The density, something I once adamantly opposed, saves space, and thus conserves what is left of the wild places in Florida while allowing thousands to move here to enjoy it. No one here has to drive a car through miles of winding roads to get a carton of milk, a large grocery store, restaurants, shops and even a place to get a good haircut are a short walk away.

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Above is the Starbucks Coffee Shop in Winthrop Town Centre where I wrote this article and enjoyed the cool autumn weather.
The only problem with this wondrous place is its name that ends pointlessly with an “e”. For all of the positives, however, that one arbitrary negative is easily ignored. I am writing these very words from a Starbucks Coffee Shop in Winthrop Town Centre. Count me in as a fan of the place.

It is 10 a.m. on a beautiful Florida autumn morning. At Starbucks, two office workers pretend to be working, but their folders and notebooks lay unopened, as each take sips of their iced coffee between words. The man seems secretly attracted to the woman, apparently worrying that taking a bite of his breakfast sandwich will make him appear less suave. It remains uneaten atop of his closed notebook while he sits rigidly, nervously, happily chatting away with his attractive female co-worker.

A cluster of young people share a pack of menthol cigarettes, crowding together around a small table. This is what they have seen in movies and read in books about how life should be when you are still immortal and everything in the world is before you. While at the next table, a somewhat-past-middle-age couple share smiles and kisses over their coffee. She appears older than him but is desperately trying to be younger and, for the most part, her efforts have paid off. With her chin resting on her hand, her smile and the gleaming light in her eyes does much to mask the wrinkles of age. She appears as a beautiful young girl in love.

If there was ever a day to be in love and share coffee-flavored kisses, this is it. If there is any place in the suburbs of America to do all of that, this is it.

The shops are opening and cars begin slowing filling the parking lot that is the town square. A normal street, complete with parallel parking, separates the shops from the acres of asphalt that make up the parking lot. The street effectively hides the parking lot and, with alleyways between the buildings, the fire escapes and storefronts it comes together to give the illusion that the parking lot is the true illusion. The alleyways and fire escapes fill in the gaps of the imagination. Across the way is the elaborate Times Building. It is the centerpiece of what could be a miniature downtown New York or Chicago. It is a miniature city without the inherent problems. I wish I had dreamed up this concept. I wish I lived here.

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Fire escapes on buildings with ground level shops and walk up apartments do much to create the illusion of being in a real city. These buildings fill in gaps in the imagination to give Winthrop a city in the suburbs feel.

Returning to outdoor tables at Starbucks, the male co-worker has managed to discretely finish his breakfast sandwich, apparently without detracting significantly from his outer shield of cool. The female is still talking, nodding her head and even smiling occasionally. She is not in love with him, but at least she likes him. And on this day, a day to be in love and to share coffee-flavored kisses, she likes him more than she normally does — but not enough to share coffee-flavored kisses.

An abandoned gas station sits in the far corner of Winthrop Town Centre. It is easy to envision a four or five story brownstone with walk-up apartments and shops on the street level. It is easy to envision Christmas trees glowing in the windows of those apartments and children wearing tiny, colorful backpacks rushing down the stairs to ride their bikes to a nearby school. City life is imaginable here — with the shops, ponds and green space planned by people who have tried to make something different in the suburbs. It is a place where people can grow as individuals and join together as a community. It’s a place where you can walk to buy a carton of milk. Perhaps I’m over-romanticizing this place; this artificial city packed into the suburbs and stopped short by the bursting of the housing bubble. But on this day, being overly romantic isn’t the worst thing. On this day, in this place, it feels as though anything is possible.

A few hours passed and the co-workers left to return to their real world of cubicles and voicemail messages. It was time for me to leave, too. I returned to the traffic, stoplights and freeways of the suburbs to make my way down the winding roads of subdivisions toward my home. Crashing from the over-caffeinated high of the morning, I reveled in the peace that can be found in places that needlessly end with the letter “e.” Taking advantage, I finished my work and then took a nap in the peace and solitude.

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