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Stretching the City: The Decline of Main Street

THE CIRCUMSTANCES of city founding, in the days before the automobile, tended to shape each American city into a clear, coherent form. Cities of the colonial age were (in the phrase of the architect Kevin Lynch) delightfully “legible.” Their districts and pathways were easily identified, leaving little doubt of where to find the city center. Yet each offered its own unique visual image, reminding the visitor where he was, giving the resident a sense of being at home. The needs of defense, together with the need for access to waterways, had tended both to keep the city together and to keep it in focus.

Up and down the eastern seaboard, while Spanish, French, Dutch, and English influences had their separate ways, cities came into being with shapes that were distinctive and intelligible. St. Augustine, New Orleans, Mobile, Williamsburg, Charleston, Annapolis, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and others less renowned, grew in patterns that made it easy for residents and visitors to grasp in their mind’s eye the city as a whole and to know at a glance where to find the headquarters of commerce and government. In the Spanish-American West, similarly, the mission, the presidio-fort, and the traditional pueblo gave form to Santa Fe, San Diego, Monterey, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San Antonio, and scores of lesser settlements. And when the nation founded its capital city on the Potomac, it offered the world a model of visual clarity and urban focus.

THE AMERICAN OPPORTUNITY to build new towns across the continent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries offered the temptation, too, to simplify, schematize, and stereotype the visual form of a city. And just as the unmapped countryside of the West was checkerboarded into arbitrary neat rectangles for sale, so many new cities of the West were given a repetitive schematic geometry which ignored their varying landscape.

When the English astronomer Francis Baily visited Philadelphia and Baltimore in 1795–98, he was delighted by their orderly gridiron of streets—“by far the best way of laying out a city. All the modern-built towns in America are on this principle.” But by the time he had reached Cincinnati and met the gridiron street plan once more, he deplored the monotony. “Oftentimes it is a sacrifice of beauty to prejudice, particularly when they persevere in making all their streets cross each other at right angles, without any regard to the situation of the ground or the face of the surrounding country…. For it not unfrequently happens that a hill opposes itself in the middle of a street, or that a rivulet crosses it three or four times, thereby rendering its passage very inconvenient.” Still, the gridiron plan early displayed in Philadelphia and followed in the later plan for New York City had many a priori virtues. For example, real estate speculators found that the rectangular parcels were easy to survey and convenient to merchandise. And it fitted well with the rigid rectangular scheme for surveying public lands all across the continent.

In the long run a scheme so repetitive, which showed so little respect for varied terrain, even if it provided an orderly street plan, prevented many an American city from acquiring a distinctive visual image. Everywhere—on the prairies, in the desert, up and down the mountainside, and in the city—appeared the checkerboard.

The checkerboard pattern did not provide an obvious visual center, but in the growing cities of the West during the mid-nineteenth century and later, new forms of transportation tended to provide a focus of arrival and activity. In the age of the railroad, a few speedy lines had brought people to the city center. Partly for that reason, manufacturing and wholesaling were commonly focused there. The city’s busy, impressive railway depot, a kind of inland harbor, had been a measure of its commerce and its vitality. The meeting points of railroad lines were natural city centers, and “the other side of the railroad tracks” was the natural dividing line within the city.

But within the city at first there was no public transportation at all. In the early nineteenth century, Paris set an example with its voiture omnibus, or “vehicle for all,” which supplied the English word “omnibus,” soon shortened to “bus.” This was simply a large vehicle which anyone could board for a small fee, and which traveled a fixed route. Since the unpaved city streets were nearly impassable in wet weather, and paving was done with rough cobbles, a ride in a bus was slow and bumpy. An obvious improvement, then, was to lay rails, like those already used inside coal mines, and shape the wagon wheels to conform to the rails. These omnibuses on rails were still, of course, drawn by horses. “Streetcar,” an Americanism, came into use about the time of the Civil War. Now it became possible for someone who could not afford a private carriage to work in the city and live outside.

The rails of streetcars, like those of the steam railroads, tended to keep the city in focus. Streetcars which ran to the center of the city, as we have seen, brought customers for department stores, visitors to museums, and audiences to theaters, and so built “downtown.” And with the rise of suburbs, the rails kept the suburb, too, in focus, for the rails commonly led to a central station in each suburb; and the rail lines had determined the location of the new developments outside Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, or the areas first settled in Florida. But the steam railroad, driven by a locomotive that was cumbersome, noisy, and a fire hazard, was not well suited for shorter runs and frequent stops. Nor was it suited at all for running inside a city.

The suburb required a different kind of transportation, and some of the first suburbs were a kind of by-product of the streetcar. “Streetcar suburbs” (as historian Sam B. Warner, Jr., calls them) stretched the city. Before the coming of the streetcar, a city’s natural boundaries had extended only to the distance that a man could walk from the center in about an hour. For among city dwellers, horses and carriages were mostly for the rich. The steam railroad which went to a central station had enlarged the trading area of the city but did not provide transportation for short distances, and so did not change the patterns of daily life. The streetcar was another story. While it did not take the city out of focus, it was the beginning of the end of the walking city. Boston, for example, which as late as 1850 was still a focused pedestrian city with a mere three-mile radius, had by 1900 become a suburbanized metropolis with a ten-mile radius. The instrument of this transformation was the streetcar.

An American street railway, some call it the first anywhere, was built for the New York & Harlem Railway in 1832 by an Irish immigrant, John Stephenson. His design for a huge horse-drawn omnibus mounted on four flange wheels made him the leading manufacturer of streetcars in their heyday after the mid-century.

One of the most effective of the streetcar pioneers was Stephen Dudley Field, son of a lawyer in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Stephen’s uncle, Cyrus W. Field, who had successfully laid the first Atlantic cable in 1858, installed a telegraph office in the elder Field’s law chambers, and at the age of twelve Stephen became interested in the new science of telegraphy. Later, when Stephen had formed his own company to develop electrical inventions, he became especially interested in finding new uses for his improved dynamo in place of batteries, an essential step toward a feasible electric streetcar system. Importing the latest Siemens electric motors from Germany, he collaborated with Thomas A. Edison to provide an electric railway at the Chicago Railway Exposition in 1883.

Still there was the grave problem of how to transmit the electricity from a central power station to the moving streetcar without endangering the lives of people on the streets. Accidents with live rails and underground conduits led to the overhead trolley system, which, because of its safety, became the usual source of streetcar power. The overhead trolley and the carbon commutator brush which made possible an efficient streetcar motor, were the work of a Belgian immigrant, Charles J. Van Depoele, who had settled in Detroit in 1869, and whose electrical innovations eventually won him the title, “the Detroit Edison.” “Trolley,” displacing the English “tram,” referring not to the wire but to the vehicle, was an Americanism in common use by the 1890’s.

That first extensive trolley system, which appeared in Richmond, Virginia, in 1888, was a spectacular feat of organization. The man who did it was the remarkable Frank Julian Sprague. Entering the Navy after graduating from Annapolis, he invented electrical improvements for the ships in which he served. Then he resigned from the Navy to work with Thomas A. Edison. After developing a “constant-speed” motor, Sprague set up his own company, and in 1887, when he was barely thirty, “took a foolish contract to equip the Richmond, Virginia Union Passenger Railway in ninety days, with payment of $110,000, if satisfactory.” To fulfill his contract he had to build eighty motors and equip forty cars, as many as were then operating on all the streetcar lines in the country. He also had to lay twelve miles of track, to erect the overhead trolley wire along the whole route, and to build and equip an adequate central power plant. All this in ninety days! The task was complicated by the steep grades and sharp curves of Richmond streets.

When Sprague fulfilled his contract and his trolley system went into operation in February 1888, Richmond citizens were amazed to see the streetcars going up the city’s hills pulled by an “unseen power.” “Sprague set the mule free,” a citizen observed, “the long-haired mule shall no longer adorn our streets.” He soon had contracts for a hundred other streetcar systems. Sprague developed the “multiple-unit” control for trains, which improved the subway and the elevated; and he incidentally found new ways of applying the electric motor to the elevator and to machine tools, printing presses, dentist drills, and many home appliances.

The electric streetcar naturally widened the reach of the city. And the spread of other services helped. By 1920 a new device, the single-residence septic tank, had come into use for houses out of reach of city sewage systems. Improved techniques of well drilling had made it easier for an unattached residence to have its own water supply. Now new techniques extended the reach of electricity. At first, under Edison’s favored system of direct current, electric power could be conveniently sent out only for a mile or two. The shift to alternating current and George Westinghouse’s improvements in the transformer simplified and cheapened the sending of electricity for long distances. By the early twentieth century there were practical and economical systems for distributing electricity to widely dispersed households.

Even before the opening of the new century, promoters of streetcar-suburbs proclaimed the importance of suburban life for widening home ownership and so strengthening the roots of American democracy.

Henry M. Whitney, a steamship operator who made a fortune out of his Boston street-railway monopoly, propagandized for the uniform five-cent fare by contrasting the congested, tenant-ridden cities of Europe with the new promise of suburbia. In the United States, now, he said, the city workingman could own his own home on a plot of his own. As late as 1900 only one fourth of Boston suburban dwellers owned their own homes. But this American ideal of the independent home owner, a latter-day form of the Old World sturdy independent “yeoman,” helped inspire the nationwide growth of suburbs, and promised to democratize the “Old World” luxuries of country living. The very names of the new suburbs were faintly redolent of manorial establishments, while the promotional literature and the architecture of even the smallest houses conjured up for middle-class urban Americans seductive visions of “gracious living” in mini-manors and micro-palaces.

OUT FROM CITIES in all directions the new electrified street railways reached. Occasionally they went to where the people were, but more often they went where real estate developers wanted the people to come. Streetcars had become necessary for the promotion of new suburbs. Just as, a half-century earlier, railroad builders had made fortunes by attracting the people to the railroads, so now it was with the streetcar builders. Henry E. Huntington, nephew of the Collis P. Huntington who had built the Central Pacific Railroad, developed his own streetcar empire out of Los Angeles. With the fortune he had inherited on the death of his uncle and then enlarged by marrying his uncle’s widow, in 1900 Henry Huntington began sending out his electric streetcar lines. By 1913 his lines had been extended thirty-five miles and touched more than forty incorporated centers. For example, at Redondo Beach, seventeen miles southeast of Los Angeles, within two months he had recouped the cost of his streetcar line by the sale of real estate. And by 1920 Huntington had helped bring into being a dozen new incorporated suburban satellites of Los Angeles.

Outside Cleveland, Ohio, the Van Sweringen brothers, without the advantage of an inherited fortune, accomplished a similar feat. Oris P. and Mantis J. Van Sweringen began as office boys in a fertilizer firm in Cleveland. When Oris was still only nineteen and Mantis was twenty-one, they envisioned a vast real estate development outside the city. While accumulating a few dollars by buying and selling real estate options within the city, they had their eye on the 1,400-acre tract east of the city which belonged to the local society of the Shakers. When the Van Sweringen brothers heard that the church was about to sell, they secured options on parcels of the land while they made efforts to raise the money to buy the whole tract. By heavy borrowing, they managed to acquire holdings in the area amounting to 4,000 acres.

But the value of the land depended on transportation, and a profitable system of transportation required the presence of a population. Since the new suburb still had no inhabitants, the only way the Van Sweringens could persuade the Cleveland Street Railways to extend their line was by offering to pay five years’ interest on the cost of laying it. When they needed another line and still could not persuade the company to extend its line farther, the Van Sweringens went into the railroad business to insure the value of their real estate investment. Shaker Heights flourished. The land, which in 1900 was appraised at $240,000, by 1923 was figured at nearly $30 million, and by 1930 had reached $80 million.

The Van Sweringens managed to give Shaker Heights a special character. By deliberately avoiding the familiar grid pattern of streets, they emphasized the contrast to the central city, imitating the romantic styles of wealthy subdivisions like Frederick Law Olmsted’s Brookline outside Boston. In Shaker Heights the streets curved and undulated around artificial lakes, and land was reserved for parks. The architecture of new buildings was strictly controlled within zones, and each zone reserved for houses of a different price class. In this way they kept up the prices of the superior lots. Shaker Heights set a pattern for suburbs all over the country. And restrictive covenants became an American fixture in this new era of mass romanticism and metropolitan vagueness.

Two canons of the new suburbs were: Romanticize and Stratify. Landscape architects bent their efforts to creating a rural, deliberately random, countryfied character. But to reassure settlers that their cash and their prejudices were safe, residential zoning (which the suburbs helped create) separated families according to income, race, and religion. The suburbs promised homogeneous islands, where those who could afford it and did not suffer the stigma of the wrong race or religion, could hope to live an artificial, antiseptic idyl, untroubled by any not of their own “kind.”

The new suburbs would provide a ladder of consumption in housing like that which General Motors was offering in automobiles. Both provided visible, reachable goals. The newness of the suburbs and the visibility of their place in the consumption scale helped Americans who were uncomfortably but optimistically vague about their social class to locate themselves in the social scheme. One of the last legacies of the New World emptiness was this new geography of status. And while the new suburbs professed to sharpen and define, they also did much to blur the situation of Americans.

THE CHANGING PROFILE of the American city appeared in the shifting definitions used by the United States Bureau of the Census. In 1870 the census officially distinguished the nation’s “urban” from its “rural” population for the first time. “Urban population” was defined as persons living in towns of 8,000 inhabitants or more. But after 1900 an “urban” person meant one living in an incorporated place having 2,500 or more inhabitants.

Then, in 1950 the Census Bureau radically changed its definition of “urban” to take account of the new vagueness of city boundaries. In addition to persons living in incorporated units of 2,500 or more, the census now included those who lived in unincorporated units of that size, and also all persons living in “the densely settled urban fringe, including both incorporated and unincorporated areas, around cities of 50,000 inhabitants or more.” Each such new unit, conceived as “an integrated economic and social unit with a large population nucleus,” was christened a “Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area” (SMSA).

Each SMSA would contain at least “(a) one central city with 50,000 inhabitants or more, or (b) two cities having contiguous boundaries and constituting, for general economic and social purpose, a single community with a combined population of at least 50,000, the smaller of which must have a population of at least 15,000.” Such an area included “the county in which the central city is located, and adjacent counties that are found to be metropolitan in character and economically and socially integrated with the county of the central city.” By 1970, about two thirds of the population of the United States was living in these urbanized areas, and of that figure more than half were living outside the central cities.

While the Census Bureau and the federal government used the SMSA (by 1969 there were 233 of them), social scientists and citizens were also using new terms to describe the elusive, vaguely defined areas reaching out from what used to be simply “towns” and “cities.” A host of terms came into use: “metropolitan regions,” “polynucleated population groups,” “conurbations,” “metropolitan clusters,” “megalopolis,” etc., etc. A century earlier, American city boosters had used the language of hope and hyperbole, dignifying villages as towns, towns as cities, and cities as metropolises; mid-twentieth-century Americans stretched their language with another purpose—to communicate uncertainty and penumbra.

As Jean Gottman explained in 1961 in his account of the “Megalopolis” along the Atlantic seaboard:

Thus the old distinctions between rural and urban do not apply here any more. . . . Most of the people living in the so-called rural areas, and still classified as “rural population” by recent censuses, have very little, if anything, to do with agriculture. In terms of their interests and work they are what used to be classified as “city folks,” but their way of life and the landscapes around their residences do not fit the old meaning of urban. . . . we must abandon the idea of the city as a tightly settled and organized unit in which people, activities, and riches are crowded into a very small area clearly separated from its nonurban surroundings. Every city in this region spreads out far and wide around its original nucleus; it grows amidst an irregularly colloidal mixture of rural and suburban landscapes; it melts on broad fronts with other mixtures, of somewhat similar though different texture, belonging to the suburban neighborhoods of other cities.

Inhabitants of the fringe were uncertain whether they were urban or rural, and unsure, too, about which old city they were satellites of. Along the main rail lines between New York City and Philadelphia, for example, communities might be considered satellites of either city or both, while Newark, New Brunswick, and Trenton were ambiguous units in themselves.

OF THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY TRANSFORMATION of the American city there was no more dramatic example than Los Angeles. As originally laid out by the Spanish governor of Upper California in 1781, the pueblo of Los Angeles surrounded a plaza “200 feet wide by 300 long, and from said plaza four main streets shall extend.” Even in the mid-nineteenth century the settlement still looked like a provincial Spanish village, with a plaza and with houses for as many plots as could be irrigated nearby. Although Los Angeles grew steadily with the real estate boom that began in the 1870’s, until about 1920 the city still somehow was dominated by its downtown. Los Angeles had a Main Street, which was the daytime commercial center and the nightlife center.

But by 1970, when the Los Angeles metropolitan area had spread over more than 450 square miles, included 7 million people, and had become the core of the second most populous SMSA in the United States, there was no longer a dominant downtown. Pundits competed in efforts to describe the city’s vagueness. “Suburbs in search of a city,” “prototype of the supercity,” “autopia”—even the fertile American language was strained to suggest the nebulousness of this bizarre metropolitan entity. Whatever the other virtues of Los Angeles, it had surely become one of the least “legible” of the great settlements of the world. And it offered the visual future of American cities in caricature.

While many forces had been at work to befuzz and disperse the metropolis, the most effective was the automobile. Los Angeles’ first freeway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, was dedicated on December 30, 1940, and as freeways multiplied, the old central city declined. By 1953 the last remnants of downtown nightlife were disappearing. The closing of the Good Fellows Grotto at 341 South Main Street on December 31 of that year symbolized the diffusion of the city. A “grill and oyster house” founded in 1905, it had been a rendezvous of after-theater crowds and business lunches, which until the end advertised “The Restful Charm of the Gay Nineties in the ‘Atomic Fifties.’” Now the customers were scattered into a thousand places, each an hour’s drive or more from one of the others. Downtown was not only empty, but as citizens who were interviewed explained, it now seemed “alien or even menacing.”

The predominant visual image of the city was no longer of an urban center but of highways. And they might lead anyplace. As Kevin Lynch reported in 1960:

Automobile traffic and the highways system were dominant themes in the interviews. This was the daily experience, the daily battle—sometimes exciting, usually tense and exhausting. Trip details were full of references to signal lights and signs, intersections and turning problems. On the freeways, decisions had to be made far ahead of time; there were constant lane maneuvers. It was like shooting rapids in a boat, with the same excitement and tension, the same constant effort to “keep one’s head.” Many subjects noted their fears on driving a new route for the first time. There were frequent references to the overpasses, the fun of the big interchanges, the kinesthetic sensations of dropping, turning, climbing. For some persons, driving was a challenging, high-speed game.

The automobile had made the citizen an outcast. While the citizen complained that he could not receive friendly, respectful service in restaurants or hotels or shops, the filling station remained an island of “good service,” presumably because it was not considered degrading to serve the automobile. Parking temples preempted the best surface locations, and citizens were forced to walk underground or on platforms lifted into the air. Highways built to serve only the automobile were insulated from the landscape, from pedestrians and from people going about their business. The separated highway, on which more and more Americans would spend more and more of their waking hours, isolated citizens from one another and from their city. Even the efforts to “beautify” highways by removing billboards and commercial signs had the effects of homogenizing the landscape and deepening the driver’s sense of isolation; outdoor-display companies actually argued that their billboards served a public purpose by preventing motorists from falling asleep. Yet the increasing minimum speed (on Los Angeles freeways, 50 miles per hour) and the risks of freeway travel made it difficult, and even dangerous, to look at the cityscape as you drove.

Now, when almost anybody’s own high-speed-powered vehicle could go anywhere, the old city center ceased to be the natural destination of transportation from the fringes. For the automobile, unlike the railroad or the streetcar, was an anywhere-vehicle, ideally suited for the age of the everywhere community. The nation’s early metropolises—Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore in the East; Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Chicago in the West—had naturally appeared where there was access to waterways. The main roads, which commonly met in the city center, led to the principal nearby towns. In colonial Williamsburg, for example, Merchant’s Square was the meeting point of Richmond Road and Jamestown Road. The canals and railroads which helped cities grow also helped them come to a focus. The streetcars and other forms of public transport, even as they diffused the population, had been built outward from the inherited cores of the old cities and so nourished the old centers.

The paving of city streets and the building of intracity, intercity, and interstate highways diffused and interfused “urban” and “rural” activities as never before. An enormous program of federal aid for highways began in 1916 when President Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act (the first project was the 2.55-mile “Alameda County boundary to Richmond Road”). Theoretically these roads were built to speed the mail, for the act was based on the constitutional power of Congress to establish “post roads.” The real aim was a new nationwide road network. In 1925 the Secretary of Agriculture approved a uniform system of numbering and marking highways: east-west roads were assigned even numbers, north-south roads were assigned odd numbers, and transcontinental highways were designated in multiples of 10. Under this scheme, the old north-south post road along the Atlantic seaboard became U.S. 1, and the Pacific Coast road was U.S. 101. A uniform design was adopted for the marker, the familiar shield with the state’s name along the top and featuring the U.S. highway number. For their own highways the states then developed their own numbering systems.

This national network of numbered highways was a symbol of the diffused destinations of the dominant American vehicle. A highway, no longer the “highroad” to a place of importance, or to anyplace in particular, was now part of a network that took the driver anywhere and everywhere. This was the beginning of the end of the single city center to which people came in public transportation from all over.

The airplane, when it became, second to the automobile, the principal means of intercity passenger transport, diffused the city still farther. In older times the point of arrival—London Dock, Boston Harbor, the Port of New York—had been a center of city life. But now the airport was on the outskirts, only ambiguously related to the city it served. As air traffic increased, and as the construction of airports became more expensive, more and more airports appeared between cities—Norfolk-Hampton Roads, Fort Worth-Dallas and others—and they became newly ambiguous points of arrival. Improvements in the airplane, from the propeller plane to the jet to the jumbo jet to the supersonic transport, pushed big-city airports farther and farther out to the countryside so that when the visitor “arrived” on the ground he might not even see the city to which he had come.

THE NEW SPATIAL VAGUENESS of the city brought with it countless functional vaguenesses. Just as in the nineteenth century the life of a city might depend on the coming of the canal or the railroad (which had received federal and state subsidies), so, in the twentieth century, a city’s prosperity might depend on federal and state aid to highways and airports. Each federal unit—national, state, county, and municipal—from the beginning expected some contribution from all the others for its everyday services like water supply, sewage disposal, firefighting, and police protection. Around Chicago, for example, there were parks (the gift of early city boosters) which were not under the jurisdiction of the city police, but which depended on the county; hence the Cook County sheriff was one of the city’s principal law-enforcement officers. In a metropolitan region only an unusually well informed citizen knew which of the numerous agencies of government was responsible for each of the public services for which he was taxed or was paying fees.

The confusion was often worst in the everyday transit services which governed daily life. In the mid-twentieth century, for example, the automobile traffic in New York City was under control of the municipal government, but the state legislature governed the rest of the urban transit system, which it had divided between a New York City Transit Authority (in charge of subways) and a Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, while the Port of New York Authority was still another entity. As the metropolitan citizen’s taxes and tolls grew and multiplied, he was increasingly bewildered about whom his money went to, and for what.

In cities all over the nation, the need to go downtown for culture and for spectacular entertainment declined with the coming of motion pictures and the rise of the neighborhood movie houses. Then television made it possible for the citizen to see everything he wanted to see (as well as much he did not want to see) without going outside his living room.

Another institution, described in the Americanism “shopping center,” came into being in the 1920’s and further confused Americans about where and what their city was. The first large decentralized shopping center in the United States was the Country Club Plaza Shopping Center in Kansas City, built in 1922. It was the work of Jesse C. Nichols, who had been raised on a Kansas farm; after he graduated from the University of Kansas he went to Harvard, where he wrote a graduate thesis on the economics of land development. Having visited the English “Garden City” developments, he traveled in Spain to collect architectural ideas. He then applied what he had learned in Europe to building the Country Club District, which finally covered 6,000 acres, one tenth of the whole area of Kansas City.

The design of shopping centers became a new architectural specialty. By 1940, about one quarter of the nation’s retail-trade volume in metropolitan regions was dispersed into suburban shopping centers; by 1950 the amount was about one third, and it increased with the decades. By 1955, some eighteen hundred shopping centers had been built in the outskirt business districts of metropolitan regions, and as many more were being planned.

At the same time, an increasing proportion of the population of the metropolitan regions worked at jobs outside the old central city. With the passing decades, as retailing, banking, professional centers for lawyers, doctors, and others, and factories were dispersed, a smaller proportion of the inhabitants of a metropolitan region had a clear dependent relationship to the core of the great city.

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