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Know the West

The best of both worlds


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "How dense can we be?"

George Abramajtis is a man of extremes. He grew up at sea level in the New York borough of Queens, and even after he got married, the view from his bedroom window was of a brick wall six feet away. Today, Abramajtis lives in a mountain subdivision, 9,000 feet above sea level on Conifer Mountain, with a great view of Colorado’s 14,110-foot Pikes Peak. He has peace, quiet and wildlife, a combination that couldn’t make him happier.

"I would literally live anywhere as long are there were cities next to mountains," he says. "For us, the three choices were Denver, Portland and Seattle."

Abramajtis’ neighborhood brings to mind a television commercial for a sports-utility vehicle. In it, a giant but agile SUV hugs a twisting road, swerves past a glacier, and dodges tumbling boulders — then unexpectedly pulls up to a mailbox and a brick-paved driveway.

Unlike most exurban lots, the homes in Abramajtis’ area are on a central water system. The lots are only a half-acre in size, close enough to hear barking dogs and even stray conversations. Generally, exurbanites tend to crave more isolation than that, says Paul Sutton, a geography professor who lives several miles away: "I don’t think we’re the sorts that borrow sugar from one another."

Janet Bell, a long-range planner in Jefferson County, suggests that exurbanites, by nature, simply can’t be forced to fit into more dense cities and suburbs. Perhaps, she says, cities need suburbs, and suburbs need exurbs as safety valves. "Being in crowds changes people, and for some people they just need room — and if they don’t (get it), there can be trouble," she says.

Abramajtis is no recluse, but he is typical of exurbanites in another sense: His job as a mechanic at Denver International Airport requires a round-trip commute of 120 miles, four days a week. His GEO gets 50 miles per gallon, he reports. Even on his days off, though, he and his wife and their four children head into Denver, to shop, check on their rental properties, or go to ball games. His higher-paying, big-city job makes the family’s lifestyle possible.

"In the cities back East, you would have to drive hours to get something like this," he says, from his three-story chalet-type house, gesturing out toward Pikes Peak, the Lost Creek Wilderness and the Tarryall Range. "We contemplated living in upstate New York, but with all the traffic — and to get far enough away to get something comparable to this — you would be commuting two-and-a-half to three hours a day, each way."

Abramajtis recognizes the irony of the fact that homes like his are chewing up the landscape he adores. "When I was a kid, this country had 150 million people, and now it’s nearing 300 million people and still growing. It’s kind of scary, because I’m not that old." Maybe, he muses, the Western U.S. should study Europe. There, he says, the towns have distinct boundaries, and they don’t spill over into the country as much.