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Older suburbs are new again
Young families are reinvigorating older suburbs.
June 9, 2005: 3:29 PM EDT
By Les Christie, CNN/Money staff writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - A generation ago, many of America's older suburbs struggled to maintain their vitality.

The cities that these "inner ring" communities surrounded had become crime-ridden and difficult to govern. The demographics of the nearby suburbs had skewed older and their commercial centers had gotten dowdy and underutilized.

The real action was in far-flung developments springing up miles away, where land was cheap enough for young families to buy.

Then came the 1990s, when urban crime rates plummeted and the allure of cities became apparent again. That rejuvenation also reinvigorated the older suburbs, with their proximity to business centers, as well as the flash and culture that cities provide.

In Oak Park, Ill., according to real estate broker Steve Scheuring, "85 percent of our residents are young families."

They come for the combination urban-neighborhood feel, convenient commute, and easy access to the city's cultural riches. "It's the closest you can get to downtown Chicago and be in the suburbs, where there are big homes, broad streets, and good schools," says Scheuring.

Many "ring suburbs" were developed 100 years ago or more. The houses tend to be substantial and well constructed -- think plaster, not sheet rock -- with many features and touches that builders either no longer offer or that cost so much to do that they would break most budgets. Many also feature old-growth wood floors and trim, built-in cabinets, stone fireplaces, and stained and leaded glass windows.

Often floor plans and rooms are old-fashioned, but comforting and even elegant in their own way, like a well-worn but well-made fur coat. Room sizes tend to be big and many of the homes offer ample space for the dollar.

These suburbs are anything but cookie cutter. Most of the homes here were built individually or in small number, not as parts of vast housing developments.

Grosse Pointe, Mich., for example, boasts homes of many different descriptions: Tudors, colonials, ranches, capes, and more, with prices starting in the low six figures.

"There's a wide variety of affordable housing," says realtor Alex Lucido. "Many young people are rediscovering it as a place with great schools, parks, and shopping."

Since the inner suburbs were among the first areas to be developed as bedroom communities, they're that much closer to city centers, and they often sprang up and straddled rail lines, making commuting a breeze. Many offer travel times to work of 15 minutes or less.

The trees and shrubbery has grown and matured, so neighborhoods are shady and look well established, not like they've been plunked down on a cleared field.

Many suburban towns have developed their own character and cultural facilities. Pasadena, near Los Angeles, has several museums in town, a playhouse, a symphony and a pop orchestra. Bryn Mawr, outside Philadelphia has the Barnes Collection in its backyard. Cleveland Heights is minutes away from the home base of one of America's great symphony orchestras. Botanical gardens and arboretums abound in and around these towns.

Yes, the old suburbs have developed their own distinctive characteristic, one quite different from the new suburbs and inner cities, but that claim many of the advantages of both.

For a look at some of the grand homes on the market in these suburbs, click here.

To see the hottest zip codes in the real estate market, click here.  Top of page

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