The New New Thing: Suburban Bunker Buildings


I have a theory about where the next culturally dynamic neighborhoods are likely to emerge and which building types will be the engine of that transformation. It may not be exactly what most people expect.

As American industry receded in the later half of the Twentieth Century it left behind an alluvial delta of redundant buildings that sat vacant for years, no longer useful or productive. All effort was focused on building the new suburbs. These abandoned inner city warehouse districts became so cheap and run down that they were eventually colonized by artists, immigrants, and bohemians seeking cheap rent and an environment where landlords and municipal authorities looked the other way. They weren’t necessarily safe, or clean, or attractive, but they provided a kind of freedom for the people who lived there.

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The photos above are of friends in their 8,000 square foot live/work space in Philadelphia. The general dismissive attitude of many suburbanites is that such people exist outside the mainstream and are irrelevant to the lives of “real” people. Contrary to this common misconception all the creative types I know are highly skilled and hold down jobs as welders, carpenters, accountants, and technicians of various kinds. I know a couple who spend half the year in video production making car commercials and then pursue their art during the long hiatus. I know another guy who worked like a dog for a few years after college at a prototype lab for the pharmaceutical industry in order to pay off all his student loans and other debts. Now he’s free to do what he really wants without the burden of debt. These folks simply choose not to spend their money on a mortgage on a suburban home with multiple car payments, but their lives and economic productivity are very real.

Technically, living in an old warehouse involves breaking a hundred different rules and regulations, but they’ve been there for years and no one cares. It’s that kind of space and that kind of neighborhood. Unfortunately, the area is rapidly gentrifying and they may be priced out of the space soon as nearby warehouses are being converted to luxury lofts. That begs the question – where are the cheap funky emerging neighborhoods these days? You can’t live and work this way in a suburban tract home. Neither the physical space nor the local culture will allow it.

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A couple of years ago I was in Salt Lake City having lunch with a prominent well-connected real estate agent. She’s the kind of charming knowledgable person I always seek out so it was a pleasure to see her again. I had explored various parts of Salt Lake from the downtown core all the way out to Daybreak in the distant suburbs. She spoke of the urban renaissance, the new streetcar system, and the many new developments in previously blighted areas. But I explained that the part of town that really interested me was the neglected and undervalued areas in the lackluster middle distance just beyond downtown that were neither sophisticated and urbane nor verdant and domestic. These semi-commercial, vaguely industrial, half-assed residential zones were neither fish, nor flesh, nor fowl. But they had the two qualities that fascinate me: they’re relatively inexpensive and generally ignored by the Upright Citizens Brigade. They’re close enough to downtown and the university that you could still ride a bicycle to access culture and employment, but just a short drive to suburban conveniences farther out. It’s the wrong combination for people with conventional tastes, but the perfect sweet spot for a certain kind of subculture that needs to be left alone in order to thrive. They need wiggle room that doesn’t exist in the highly supervised downtown or manicured suburbs. And many of these brick and concrete buildings are little bunkers where you could do just about anything within the raw space. They offer the one thing that’s in terribly short supply. Slack. 

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I sent these photos over to her and explained that these nondescript aging suburban bunker buildings were the next great building type. She was gracious and polite, but she obviously thought I was insane. Now granted, she isn’t the only person to come into contact with me to come to this conclusion – and not just because of my irregular taste in property.

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This conversation came back to me this afternoon as I walked past a building that used to house a discount bakery outlet. As a much younger and poorer person twenty years ago I used to frequent this establishment myself to buy day old bread and not-quite-expired donuts. This month the bunker building was transformed into an upscale furniture store with in-house designer services. I poked around and explored the shop. I had no particular interest in the furniture itself and don’t think this kind of business could succeed anyplace other than a prosperous part of town. But it was the bones of the building itself that fascinated me.

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It’s a big flexible durable space like the old inner city industrial buildings. The walls and floor are concrete and the ceilings are exposed wood and steel. The former loading docks make perfectly segmented rooms with high ceilings and the ability to adapt to many uses including indoor/outdoor applications. Paint and some inexpensive drywall partitions transform the space very quickly. The front room was mostly glass and open to the parking lot, but the vast majority of the building was entirely private. This is a perfect example of the new new thing. This is where the starving bohemians will end up if they want to continue doing their work in a big, affordable, mostly unregulated spot. In an expensive real estate market people will colonize any vacant building and make their luxury furniture showroom work. But in depressed suburban markets these buildings are ripe for economically displaced artists. Gather enough interesting and entrepreneurial types in one such neighborhood and it could be the social and cultural engine that pulls up an entire dying suburban strip.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.

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thanks post, I walked past

thanks post, I walked past a building that used to house a discount bakery outlet. very good

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Interesting that there's an Entenmann's bakery in one of your shots. I often find Wonder Bread, Orowheat and other mainstream bakery outlets in these areas. In fact, I would guess that if you Google these locations, along with wheelchair and cane stores, that would be a pretty good way of finding these places. Those outlets often appeal to bargain conscious inner city households, and their owners must be seeking low rents or they wouldn't go in these forlorn places. I'm guessing the customers know them well enough to travel a ways to find them.