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« Groundswell is a bestseller. Thank you. And a few reflections. | Main | Soliciting entries for the Forrester Groundswell Awards 2.0 »

July 18, 2008

Two days in Stepford -- Town Square, Southlake, Texas

by Josh Bernoff

Town_square Thanks to Groundswell clients, I got to spend a couple of days at a hotel in the middle of a unique development in Southlake, Texas (near Dallas), a place called Town Square. I found Town Square disturbing at a visceral level, and exploring why actually carries some lessons for the kind of people who read this blog.

Town Square is a mall. Sort of. It’s not like any mall I’ve visited before. Town Square has actual streets that meet at right angles, with names like Main Street and Summit Avenue. They’re wide, with sidewalks, and lined with stores just like a real town. That is, if a real town had a huge Barnes & Noble, next to a huge Cheesecake Factory, next to a huge multimegaplex movie theater, with ample parking.Main_street_2

This environment is preternaturally clean, like a movie set. During my early morning walks, it was nearly deserted and the effect was eerie. Every bit of landscaping was manicured, every bit of lawn crew cut at three-eights of an inch tall. In strategic spots were fountains in courtyards built of the hyper-regular simulated stone pavers you see so often these days.

Overturned_and_broken In two days of circumnavigating the place I only saw two things out of place. One was some paper trash in front of the theater, which proved upon closer inspection to be, ironically, maps of the mall. The other was a tall potted plant outside the Crate & Barrel that was knocked over. Touching it, I found it was not only broken, but fake.

There are residences here, too, “The Brownstones at Town Square.” In Boston, brownstones drip with individual personality. Here, they all line up neatly with little gaslamps and shrubs in the front. Brownstones_3 Peer in a front window and you see a plate of oranges on a metal plate in somebody’s dining room, a display that could have come directly from the Crate & Barrel down the street. This is the place Ned Flanders will buy when he retires. There are no McCain or Obama or Ron Paul signs, no unusual door knockers, no vegetable gardens or tricycles on the stoop. The whole development is neat as a pin. According to the developers’ web site, Phase I is sold out and Phase II is now selling at $599,000 and up.

Range a little farther afield and you find that Town Square features the impressive edifice of Southlake’s Town Hall, facing yet another neatly manicured courtyard and an artificial pond. And here, finally, I detected a particle of quirkiness. In front of Town Hall was one of those nearly-ubiquitous-now painted bull sculptures. Close inspection revealed the painting on the bull was a picture of Town Hall itself. Thus Town Square pays tribute to itself.

In the evenings, Town Square has a bustling clientele like any mall, and people interact with each other normally, but this still doesn’t seem like a place people would hang out. It’s not near anything else that seems normal. Across the street is just another mall, one without the Main Street USA thing going on.

Bull_2 As I contemplated my own discomfort at this place, I began to wonder what it says about social sites on the Web. (Hey, you knew that would come in here eventually.) Is your site like Town Square, or is it like a real place?

People are messy. They leave poorly spelled rants and non-sequiturs in your social communities and comment on your blog with screeds and off-topic spam. They post photos full of red-eyed guys and imperfect women wearing no makeup, and upload sloppily edited videos featuring fleshy people who dress badly and dance even worse. Sometimes these people laugh out loud. They emote, even if it is just with punctuation ;-). They litter and leave the equivalent of dog poo on your lawn. They’re highly variable in their levels of wit and intelligence. Give me that over Town Square any day. It feels good to be home.

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Comments

Lauren Vargas

Too funny. I live ten minutes away from Town Square. I plan my trips there because it would not be proper to show up at any of the stores, even Starbucks, in cut-offs and tee shirt! I used to take my laptop to a small cafe in the area to work/write, but found the "near-perfection" to be distracting.

Susan

LOL!! I live a town over. It's so true! You ought to see it at Christmas, it looks like a card! I meet 2 friends at the Star Bucks one night. One freind was not from Fort Worth. She kept commenting how weird it was that everything was so clean and that the people were too!

Mary

Welcome to Texas, Josh, where most women don't even check their mailboxes without their 'face' on. :-)

Michael Hickins

Interesting post. One question: is the uniformity and conformity achieved spontaneously, or is it mandated by ordinance? Is it like a real mall, where constitutional freedoms do not pertain (i.e., you can't hold a protest march or get up on a soapbox at the mall)? In other words, is Town Square moderated or not?

Nick Stamoulis

Even the photos properly show it's eeriness! Wow.. we've been to places similar - the "utopia" feel isn't always desirable!

Martin Edic

There was an article in yesterday's WSJ about these 'lifestyle malls' and how poorly many of them are doing. I had just begun to notice the trend where I live (Rochester, NY) where they build in cafe seating where parking places used to rule and surround them with tropical plants. Given our winters this seemed a little strange.

Jeremiah Owyang

Great observations, there's a direct correlation between the sanitized brand and sanitized communities.

I learned this as I conducted research on 16 brands that have 'deployed' marketing efforts on organic communities, aka social networks.

While some let the community make it their own (personalized brownstones) some brands limited the experience, didn't let content be shared, or even went as far as to inhibit community created content.

In the end, the engagement was deeper with those that let the community make it their own, as with this personalized experience, they shared it with their friends and told others.

More on this post
http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2008/07/18/forrester-report-best-and-worst-of-social-network-marketing-2008/

Or, access the report on the Forrester site
http://www.forrester.com/Research/Document/Excerpt/0,7211,44911,00.html

Wanna know what's worse? "California Adventures" in Disneyland. There's mock SF painted ladies and wineries. Sheesh, if you're going to go so far as to visit California, might as well see the real stuff.

Mike Brewer

Josh,

It is the story we tell ourselves. Living here would be not unlike buying a $5,000 purse. It helps us justify who we think we want to be.

Thank you for the great post. I love your work.

M

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Such places are becoming more common in the state. I was sent to work in one of the retail shops in a location like this one. It was surreal. I had to go out and check if the trees were growing perfectly straight, or the store would be fined for allowing the trees to grow naturally.

Jo Anne

Love the comments on this "community." Complete facade! Enjoyed your preso on Sabre. Will you post the slides?

Pat Marshall

I have lived in Southlake for 15 years and one of the best things the cityever did was build Town Square. It is unfortunate that you were not there for the annual 4th of July celebration (always held on the 3rd). You would have seen the area packed with Southlake residents and others sharing a wonderful evening out. And indeed people do hang out there...they just do it in the fabulous restaurants and bars scattered around the Square.

Sarah

I can understand why the town square would seem erie in the early morning when there is no one around. Any place that is meant to be bustling with people seems erie when no one is there.

Visit the town square on a friday or saturday evening to see it in its prime. The fountains are lit up with people sitting around and enjoying them with their friends and family.

The town square is a great place for people to meet and is a welcoming piece of small town America.

dshugrue

Very cool to see comments from actual residents! I guess beauty (and eerie) is in the eye of the beholder. One thing I didn't see explicitly state -- how racially integrated is the town square? (not that we should throw stones from up here in Boston ;-)

Chris

hahahaha racially integrated.

southlake is 96% white.

as of 2000.

Randy

So, your issue with Town Square is that it's neat and tidy? You got one thing right when you said "In Boston, brownstones drip with individual personality." Perhaps. They drip with that along with sewage, water from broken pipes and hot and cold running drunks asleep on the steps. How quaint. I think I'll stick with Town Square and Southlake.

John Whiteside

Hey, don't blame this on Texas. You kind find these places everywhere, and most of my neighbors here in Houston Heights, sitting in our 1930s bungalows, find it as creepy as described.

This stems from a weird conception that developers have: that uniformity is good. If you look at the places that these developments are based on - say, Boston's South End, or Georgetown in DC - you find that there is a uniformity of STYLE but enormous variance within that.

So things look like they go together, but don't all look the same. it's a big difference.

This is not rocket science, and all a developer would have to do is look at these urban neighborhoods that remain tremendously desirable, and see how it work.

Instead they build creepy mini-Stepfords.

Susan Getgood

I've had similar feelings of disquiet about Celebration Florida (the Disney town). The uniformity and "perfection" of these places isn't for me. But it *does* appeal to some people, as both a nice place to visit and to live. As do the more ordered and structured places on the Internet. Some people like messy and "real." Others like order and rules. The good news is that there is enough room for both. The key for companies is to figure out what their customers want and deliver *that* experience.

Martin Burns

I'm reminded of the Soviet mentality - overything must be uniform and without any trace of soul - the mandated status quo must not be challenged. True, the environment is a little nicer than rows of poured concrete apartment buildings, but the overall idea is similar.

Since I'm from Boston and love the South End, I have to take issue with an earlier comment: we don't drip with sewage, water, or drunks. It's a city, so you get some characters (and, to me, character makes life interesting), but it's not the dark Gotham that the commenter implies.

Places like Town Square (even the name lacks any attempt at imagination) seem to me to be cold and dead. If life is about more than the shopping experience, if it's about living, about debate and poetry, great food and music, than I'll take a real place any day. Why are we here, if not to live and learn? If you believe in a higher power, do you really think we were created for the sole purpose of shopping?

I'll leave the planned communities to the people with the planned lives, both of them with their implicit boredoms.

DJ

Stepford no more... I couldn't help but chuckle and remember your post about the Southlake Town Square as the TV news item revealed that parents are leaving their children there unattended to do whatever children do on hot summers days in Texas. So much for the near-perfect picture you paint. These kids are quickly changing that image by causing and getting into trouble. How ironic.

BTW... GREAT presentation at Sabre Holdings. I learned so much and thoroughly enjoyed it!

C.B. Whittemore

Josh, what a fascinating description of Town Square. I visited there last year [see http://flooringtheconsumer.blogspot.com/2007/04/southlake-town-square-lifestyle-center.html ] and found it more 'real' in execution than Atlanta's Atlantic Station. Compared to a Boston, a NYC or a Chicago urban vibe, lifestyle centers like Town Square aren't there yet. But, they do represent an improvement over traditional urban sprawl. It will be interesting to see how they evolve.

Great discussion.

Style Maker

Josh,
For an analyst, I find your two days of "analysis" in the off hours of your recent business trip Southlake lacking in any "real" facts. Did you honestly believe that a 2 night stay at the local Hilton would actually immerse you in a city's culture?

Your superficial glance, much akin to a web click did allow you some keen insight:

1) You won't find many people during early morning walks in a shopping district, during July in Texas.
2) Yes, the grass is manicured here and so are the trees. If they weren't they would die. You shovel snow...we water grass. It comes with the climate.
3) Suburbs by their very nature are homogenous. Congratulations on unearthing one more suburb. I'll give you one more...the schools are good here and families like to live near the best schools.
4) Again you hit the nail on the head with the "artificial pond". Texas is a desert and actually all but one of the lakes in the entire state is man-made. Dorothy, you are not in Boston anymore.
5) People take pride in this city because it is a small community. We even pick up the trash, or better yet we throw it where it belongs to begin with. Southlake is not a rental community, owners take pride.

I agree people are messy. To your "poorly spelled rants and non-sequiturs" I would like to add; poorly developed research over-spiced with glamorous vocabulary. Yours has littered one more page of the internet.

Southlake Resident

"These kids are quickly changing that image by causing and getting into trouble. "

Wow. Hanging out at a bookstore? What have the youth of Southlake come to? How dare they try to go up the down escalator at Barnes and Noble? Notice, all the kids hanging around are not Southlake kids. Stop by on Fri/Sat and you will see as many red jackets on Grapevine, Coppell and Colleyville kids as you do green jackets on Southlake kids. Throw in kids from Keller and Roanoake, and you might have an idea of how diversified the crowd actually is. BTW, anyone older than 9th grade isn't caught dead at TC on Fri/Sat. The real need is somewhere for these non-drivers/new teens to hang out and stay busy - and you find that same need duplicated in small and large communities across the nation.

"If life is about more than the shopping experience, if it's about living, about debate and poetry, great food and music, than I'll take a real place any day."

I guess you didn't visit in the evening when the 'local talent' usually Jr. and High school kids, set up their musical instruments and play for whoever wants to listen. I have seen everything from bagpipes, guitars to a Texas high school boy band 'Skyline' hanging out at the 'new fountain'.

Walk over to Starbucks on a certain night, and see chess players competing outside, while another 'local talent' player is inside with his guitar. Check out the bulletin board for pet sales, lost and found, fund raisers and other community activities.

Try to find a spot to sit on the grass during one of our outdoor festivals to watch little Suzie perform her dance routine. If you don't like dance, plenty of choirs entertaining too.

Come by in September and see the parade the HS students put on, with every conceivable small and large HS club honking, waving, driving by.

Go to a volleyball game during "Pink Out" when money and awareness is raised for breast cancer, but go early because it is standing room only.

Walk into the stores and see kids from the community working for minimum wage so they can afford their own gas, their own clothes, their own school and mission trips. (What, you thought Southlake kids don't work?)

Visit 'Teen Court' in the Southlake Town Hall and see Southlake, Grapevine, and Colleyville teens learning about the judicial system and giving back to the community.

There is plenty of living going on in Southlake.

Ms. M

This is too funny. I moved from Boston to Southlake a few years ago and have told my friends and family back East that I live in Stepford. Thanks Josh for the validation. By the way, I used to live in a Boston brownstone and loved the layers of history, charm, and character of each building. Even the alley rats had their appeal. Once a Bostonian...

real housewives of southlake

Yep. You nailed it with the headline.

It's Stepford + Botox + Silicone.

Check this tongue-in-cheek website out for confirmation:

therealhousewivesofsouthlake.com

MIssMee

I live in Boston, too; and we are, ironically, moving to Southlake in the near future. All of the things you mentioned about Town Square in particular (manicured, postcard, Stepford) are exactly what we LOVE about Southlake. Such a sharp contrast to the rusty dinginess of the Boston area with its broken, narrow roads and block after block of the ordinary. I only wish there were ordinances around here preventing people from sticking their terribly tacky "dog digging in the dirt" sculptures and making people clean their junk from the yard. There's nothing wrong with tidiness, meticulously maintained properties, or with looking like a movie set.

Sacwho

As an urban planner in the Northeast Texas area for many years, there is a certain fascination that comes with the Southlake Town Center project. The public/private land deals, the ability of the developer to attract and retain national retailers even in a recession market, the burgeoning lifestyle that the area is attempting to create from whole cloth in an area that was ranchland forty years ago. How do you think the great eastern cities of the United States have developed the unique patina? I would argue that it is through the aggrandizement of human experience over an extended period of time. I suspect that as it ages, Town Center will become more of the urban space it wishes to emulate. Town Center is an attempt to create a sense of place and identity (however managed it may be at this point) for a community which had no center both physically and as a community. While Southlake is an affluent area of the greater Dallas/Fort Worth region, it’s draw has brought many from the Northeast and other places with different life experiences, accents, religions, skin color and languages. Next time you come perhaps you ought to talk to some of the people. That is how I tend to find the better nature of all the great urban places I visit.

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