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  Field Notes From
Super Suburbia

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From Author

Joel Bourne, Jr.

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From Photographer

Scott Lewis

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Mark Thiessen (top) and Scott Sharpe

image: Earth
In Super Suburbia

Field Notes From Author
Joel Bourne, Jr.
I was having lunch in the ultramodern cafeteria at SAS Institute, the Cary-based software giant renowned for its lavish employee benefits, when I noticed a young couple feeding two adorable twin girls who, as it turned out, were exactly nine months old that day. Michael and Clelia Fry were tempting Madeline and Isabella with Gerber bananas, about half of which was making it to the intended targets.
Michael is an AutoCAD technician with the company. When I asked him how he liked working there, his response surprised me. “This job is the reason we have our children,” he said. “We had to have invitro fertilization. It wasn’t covered under my last company’s health plan, but SAS covered 80 percent of the cost.”
Clelia was just as enthusiastic. “I really think [SAS president Jim] Goodnight knows that if you keep families happy, workers are happy.” After touring the subsidized on-site day care and watching numbers of young children skittering through the office corridors, I had to agree.
Reporting this story evoked a rather painful sense of paradise lost. I’m a native North Carolinian. My grandmother lived in Raleigh, and I went to college there. Cary was always a quiet little rural community tucked amidst the pines and pastures and tobacco fields. But even as I interviewed person after person who’d moved here from the North extolling the area’s virtues, I couldn’t help but notice the cookie-cutter subdivisions, the strip shopping plazas, the massive parking lots, and the five-lane roads. According to a recent Brookings Institute report, from 1992 to 1997 North Carolina developed a staggering 17.8 acres (7.2 hectares) of land an hour. Little Cary, little no longer, was one of the epicenters of that growth—a classic example of the suburbanized South. After driving around Cary for a week, I had a surreal sense that I had somehow stumbled onto the set of The Truman Show, that perfect little slice of fifties utopia where the weather is warm, the people are friendly, and the children all have good manners. Even people’s names seemed too good to be true. The town’s most generous benefactor, SAS Institute’s CEO, is Jim Goodnight. The president of the Cary Chamber of Commerce is none other than Howard Johnson. The director of development for the massive new 1,200-seat St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church and a former town councilman is a certain Richard Burton. And Cary’s most recalcitrant critic and enthusiastic cannoneer, Charles Dreher, Sr., pronounces his name “DREER,” which seems to fit his outlook on life. But things are rarely as they seem. I was fascinated to learn that Mr. Dreher, whose accent could have come from the North Georgia hills, is actually a son of Ohio. Even Cary’s most unreconstructed southerner is a Yankee.

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