50 ways American city life has changed in the last 50 years

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October 12, 2019
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50 ways American city life has changed in the last 50 years

Some things about American cities never seem to change. The excitement of going out to a film, show, or meal; the density of urban living; and the convenience of having everything you need at close range are just some of the staples of American city life that have remained largely unchanged over the past 50 years.

But in other ways, American city life has also changed dramatically in the last 50 years, in areas as diverse as architecture and cuisine. Many of these changes have been shaped by broader societal forces that have dominated the pace of change in society over the past five decades.

The internet and e-commerce industries have profoundly felt those changes in this period of time. Whereas city dwellers would have once relied on trips to the grocery store to fulfill most of their basic needs, services like Amazon and meal delivery have shuttered many mom and pop shops, and given couriers new goods to carry in place of the papers they once did.

The internet has also changed the way many city dwellers work, with the digital gig economy—from Uber to Lyft to Airbnb—changing the way many city residents think about earning a living. Where people work is also changing, with American cities welcoming co-working spaces and many city-dwellers working from home: Indeed found that remote working was most popular in 10 major cities.

Smartphones have also transformed American cities. Payphone booths once dotted cityscapes, but are now quaint reliquaries, or in disrepair, as the vast majority of Americans own smartphones. Smartphones and social media have also given rise to a new kind of amateur photographer—the street photographer—who takes pictures of themselves or scenic cityscapes on their smartphones to post on social media.

Click through for a look at 50 ways city life has changed in the past 50 years. From farmer’s markets to graffiti, it just might be more than you think.

You may also like: 50 ways American rural life has changed in the last 50 years

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Pete Niesen // Shutterstock

More urban residents

America has added urban residents in the past 50 years, with a higher percentage of Americans than ever living in urban areas, including cities—urban areas are defined by the Census Bureau as "urbanized areas" of 50,000 people or more and "urban clusters" of 2,500 to 50,000 people, though it is important to note that the definitions of urban areas have changed over time.

In 1970, 73.6% of the U.S. population lived in urban areas. From 2000 to 2010 alone, the urban population had a striking growth rate of 12.1%. Today, a reported 80.7% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. 

[Pictured: Aerial view of the San Francisco skyline]

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New architecture

Architectural trends in urban centers have changed over the past 50 years. Today’s soaring steel industrial tower developers are building in many American cities that have little in common with the more radical and conceptual designs that were popping up across the urban landscape 50 years ago.

[Pictured: San Francisco buildings seen through an outdoor sculpture]

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rblfmr // Shutterstock

Special delivery

Fifty years ago, many urban metropolises were bustling hubs of department stores and smaller speciality shops. Today, even in cities that offer almost every conceivable type of consumer good, Amazon and other delivery services have made online shopping king.

[Pictured: An unattended handcart laden with packages from Amazon in Manhattan]

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Mario Tama // Getty Images

Fewer cars

Whether due to ride-sharing services or improvements in public transportation, more urban households are going car-free. But this trend is something that has only recently begun turning around, which experts link to millennials. The Seattle Times analyzed census data, finding that for the first time since at least 1970, the percentage of Seattle households with a car declined from 2010 to 2015. 

[Pictured: A Zipcar is seen in a Manhattan parking lot]

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TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP // Getty Images

Competition for taxis

Outside of the country’s largest cities, arranging for a taxi 50 years ago would likely have involved calling a taxi company well ahead of time to arrange a ride. Now, residents of most major cities can simply tap a button on their phones to arrange for transportation from a ride-sharing driver in a matter of minutes.

[Pictured: An iPhone with the Lyft ride-sharing app in New York City]

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Hotels replaced with homestays

Travelers to urban centers 50 years ago would have needed to rely on a hotel or a friend to host them during their journey. But today, home-sharing and short-term rental platforms like Airbnb allow travelers to live more like a local in the urban location of their choice.

[Pictured: A hotel lobby in New Orleans]

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Coworking spaces on the rise

Employees from multiple companies working in the same space is known as "coworking," a concept coined in 2005 by Brad Neuberg. While unhappy with his working situation, Neuberg wanted to create a space to support structure and community, especially among freelancers. 

There were 14 coworking spaces in the U.S. in 2007 and by 2017 there were 4,043, according to Global Coworking Unconference Conference and Emergent Research, which consulted coworking directories and research reports. 

Many major urban centers now have co-working spaces where the city’s residents employed in the gig economy can enjoy free coffee, comfortable desks, and the company of other freelancers working outside of the traditional corporate culture.

[Pictured: Bat Haus coworking and event space]

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Trendy outer limits

Fifty years ago, it was rare to find a Manhattanite interested in venturing out to Brooklyn. But in recent decades, the neighborhoods and areas just outside the traditional centers of cities have become trendy destinations in their own right.

Take the Hudson Valley region in New York: It became a rich agricultural area by the end of the American Revolution, but the number of farms began to dwindle throughout the 20th century. Fast-forward to today, and the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley ranked #15 on Airbnb's trending 2019 destinations, beating out locales like Mozambique and Normandy, France. 

[Pictured: View of the Manhattan Bridge from the Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO]

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Music festivals

The most famous music festival in America 50 years ago was Woodstock, which took place far outside the limits of any city. But now, many of America’s most popular festivals are held in major cities themselves, from Chicago’s Lallapalooza to New York City’s Governor’s Ball.

[Pictured: Fans attend a music festival in New York]

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Meal delivery makes it easy

One of the most popular new subsets of delivery in cities is meal and grocery delivery. Whereas 50 years ago urban residents would have needed to figure out how to get bags of groceries home from the store and then whipped them up into a meal, all urban residents need to do now to be fed is click through their smartphones to order up grocery delivery, or even a meal from a favorite restaurant.

[Pictured: An Uber Eats delivery en route]

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Casimiro PT // Shutterstock

Discounts on services

Whereas city residents 50 years ago had to either pay full price for most items or spend time looking through coupons, the internet has allowed urban customers many more ways to explore their cities at a discount. Websites like Groupon allow city-dwellers to experience restaurants and events at steep cuts, and review-focused sites like Yelp have also gotten in the game, offering discounts to lure customers in the door.

[Pictured: Groupon website homepage]

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Tupungato // Shutterstock

Going global

Americans aren't the only ones moving into cities; they are part of a broader mass urbanization trend that has taken place in recent decades. While less than one-third of the world’s population lived in cities in 1950, more than two-thirds are expected to live in cities by 2030

[Pictured: High-density residential architecture of Kachidoki area in Tokyo]

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IndustryAndTravel // Shutterstock

Urban farming

Fifty years ago, there was a much starker divide between city and country than there is today. Urban farming has grown increasingly popular in recent years, with city residents taking advantage of everything from abandoned plots of land to rooftops to grow their own vegetables and herbs right in the middle of the city.

[Pictured: High angle view of gardening on an apartment building roof in Manhattan]

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rawpixel.com // Shutterstock

To market, to market

Farmer’s markets have exploded in popularity in the U.S. in the past several decades, from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,687 in 2017 (data from the USDA). Almost every major city in America now has a farmer’s market, if not many, from the Union Square Farmer’s Market in New York City to the historic Soulard market in the smaller city of St. Louis.

[Pictured: Organic fresh agricultural product at a farmer's market]

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Downtown revitalizations

The past 50 years have seen a spate of revitalization initiatives in smaller and mid-size cities. One of the most notable has been in the city of Detroit, which was decimated by layoffs at auto plants in the second half of the 20th century, and eventually filed for bankruptcy. Today, Detroit is home to one of the most robust revitalization initiatives in the country.

[Pictured: Residential units in Portland, Ore.]

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Graffiti on purpose

Fifty years ago, graffiti was usually left on city bridges and walls in the middle of the night. Now, famous artists like Banksy—and stores and cities looking to turn particular walls into magnets for tourists with selfie sticks—are spray painting graffiti everywhere to capture the subversive spirit of the illicit graffiti artists of the past.

[Pictured: Street art as seen in Chicago, Ill.]

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jorik // Shutterstock

Remember to recycle

1970 saw the first Eath Day, which began increasing awareness of the need for recycling. The universal sign for recycling entered the public domain this year, after the Container Corporation of America ran a competition for a logo to put on their cardboard producs. In 2006, Seattle began mandating recycling. Today, many urban areas in America have a recycling program run by the city, encouraging residents to recycle everything from cardboard to plastic to batteries and old clothing. 

[Pictured: Metal recycle trash bin outside a park]

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tatiana sayig // Shutterstock

Fewer mailboxes

Fifty years ago, mailboxes were everywhere in major cities. With the digital age and email, far fewer people are sending letters in the mail than they did 50 years ago, which means that far fewer mailboxes are needed for collection. The removals have not gone unnoticed, with many Americans lamenting the slow erasure of the U.S. Post Office’s iconic blue mailboxes.

[Pictured: Defaced street mailboxes in New York City]

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Alex Cimbal // Shutterstock

Newspapers vanish from city doors

Fifty years ago, the only competition for newspapers was television and radio. But the internet, and social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, have changed the way Americans consume news. As a result, far fewer newspapers are likely to find their way to city doorsteps than did 50 years ago.

[Pictured: Old newspaper stand in Chicago, Ill.]

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The evolution of shopping malls

Fifty years ago, malls were one of the most central facets of American urban life, serving as the perfect meeting spot for friends looking to eat at the food court and do some shopping. The change of consumer habits and online shopping has made it difficult for some brick-and-mortar stores to stay open—at least 1,800 apparel stores are planning closures in 2019, according Sourcing Journal. Malls aren't necessarily dying, but they have had to experiment with new retail strategies and evolve to stay relevant, writes investment contributor for Forbes, Greg Petro. 

[Pictured: An empty retail window]

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Spencer Platt // Getty Images

Greater diversity

American cities are more diverse today than they were 50 years ago. A whopping 98% of growth in America’s 100 largest cities since 2000 was from growth in minority populations, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of the 2011–2015 American Community Survey. 

[Pictured: People waiting to cross the street in midtown Manhattan]

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Disappearing phone booths

If you wanted to make a phone call 50 years ago, you would have needed to find a phone booth if you weren’t at home. As a result, pay phone booths were everywhere. Now, thanks to smartphones, if you want to find a pay phone booth, you’ll have to look hard—there are very few left in America’s major cities.

[Pictured: Little-used pay phones on a wall of graffiti]

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New jobs for couriers

Couriers used to physically carry important documents from one person to another. While email has largely rendered this process obsolete, couriers now carry new kinds of packages to customers: Everything from food delivery to Amazon orders requires couriers to deliver them.

[Pictured: A courier speeds through the streets of Manhattan]

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ESB Professional // Shutterstock

Wi-Fi everywhere

Fifty years ago, there was no such thing as Wi-Fi generally, much less Wi-Fi available publicly. Today, many cities are offering Wi-Fi as a city service, and most urban areas have a Wi-Fi provider to set the city’s residents up online.

[Pictured: A sign indicates a free Wi-Fi zone]

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JOHANNES EISELE/AFP // Getty Images

Co-living

Fifty years ago, people typically rented apartments on their own, with friends, or with significant others. But today, many cities offer the alternative of “co-living,” in which common kitchen and living spaces are supplemented with private bedrooms, and offer housing at a fraction of the cost of more traditional living arrangements.

[Pictured: A worker uses her laptop at Quarters Co-Living in New York City]

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Artists fleeing cities

As rents have risen in many major American cities, artists have found cities unaffordable. Many are choosing to leave cities altogether, with some artists choosing to leave America’s urban bubbles behind altogether—sometimes even for another country.

[Pictured: An artist at work on a sculpture]

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A different kind of conversation on the street

Fifty years ago, the conversation you would have heard on an American street would have largely been from two or more humans talking to one another. Today, smartphones have made it so that many Americans choose connecting with someone using their phone rather than in person. Some cities have proposed or already taken measures such as banning texting while walking: In 2017 Honolulu became the first major U.S. city to ban "distracted walking," imposing a fine for offenders.  

[Pictured: A woman on the street focuses on her smartphone]

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Cashless stores

Many Americans would have chosen to pay for purchases in city stores in cash 50 years ago. But today, some stores in America’s urban centers have gone so far as to go cashless, preferring customers use credit and debit cards, or even mobile payment apps.

[Pictured: A customer makes a mobile payment]

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Fewer bank tellers

Fifty years ago, most urban dwellers received their wages in check or cash format, and needed to go to the bank to deposit these checks, not to mention make withdrawals. Now, direct deposit options, as well as cashless stores are making many banking positions obsolete, with fewer greeters, tellers, and lines for those who are still making trips to the bank.

[Pictured: Two unused ATMs in Denver, Colo.]

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A different skyline

Globally, more skyscrapers were constructed in 2017 than ever before with a total of 147—there were 143 built in 2018, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Advances in construction technology facilitate part of this trend, as do the growing popularity of residential skyscrapers. In 2018, the U.S. completed the second-highest number of skyskrapers with 13. 

[Pictured: Modern city constructions at sunset]

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Drew Angerer // Getty Images

Fewer strikes

Strikes were a much more common disruptance to city life 50 years ago than they are today. In 1960, 222 strikes happened, but this trend may be reversing: 2018 marked the most strikes (20) in America since 1986.

[Pictured: Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union protest in support of Uber and Lyft drivers in New York City]

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More income inequality

Income inequality is on the rise in the U.S., where a quarter of all workers make less than $10 an hour while the wealthiest 0.1% of Americans in 2017 had 188 times the income of the bottom 90%. Productivity is at its highest rate, yet hourly compensations are roughly where they were in 1972, adjusted for inflation. Rates of income inequality have grown even faster in urban areas than in the country as a whole.

[Pictured: A homeless man sits beneath luxury branding in Los Angeles, CA]

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Bookstores closing

Fifty years ago, most American cities had at least one bookstore, if not many. Now, Amazon and other cheap digital purveyors of books—along with the popularity of e-readers, has led to a declining number of bookstores. Bookstore sales hit their peak in 2007 with $17.18 billion; by 2018, annual sales were down to $10.28 billion.

[Pictured: The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, CA] 

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Boutique fitness studios abound

Fifty years ago, working out in a city primarily meant going to a gym or taking a jog around the park. Today, urban Americans are obsessed with boutique fitness studios, specialized workout spaces from spinning studios to Pilates studios. Membership at boutique fitness studios has skyrocketed—one studio called Barry’s Bootcamp tripled its brick-and-mortar locations from 20 to 60 since 2014 and expects to open another 100 around the world in the next five years.

[Pictured: Members follow instruction in a boutique fitness studio]

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Digital neighborhood meet-ups

Neighborhood communities half a century ago were fostered with community associations and local newspapers. Today, that has largely been replaced by services like Facebook Local and MeetUp groups, which facilitate everything from classified ads to community building events.

[Pictured: People socialize in an urban setting]

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New ways to date

In decades past, dating meant asking friends and family to set you up, or waiting to meet someone out in the wild. Today, location-based apps like Tinder and Bumble make it easier than ever to meet someone in a city—although you’ll need to wait to meet in person to find out if you have a real connection.

[Pictured: A couple watches the sunset at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco]

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Dressed down work weeks

Although some offices maintain a more formal dress code, the average city street is likely to look a lot more casual today than it did 50 years ago. This is because dress codes at many companies have relaxed significantly over the last 50 years. Half of all companies surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018 said they permit casual attire every day—an 18% jump from 2014.

[Pictured: Workers enjoy a relaxed dress code at work]

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Mom and pop shops closing

Malls aren’t the only retailers to have been displaced by digital retailers over the last half-century. Mom and pop shops in cities across the country have also been hit by closures as ever-greater numbers of Americans turn to e-commerce for their shopping. Consumers in 2018 were estimated by the U.S. Department of Commerce to have spent $513.61 billion online in 2018—a 14.2% jump just from 2017.

[Pictured: A sign of the times in Los Alamos, TX]

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Dan4th // Flickr

The decline of travel agencies

No matter what city you were in 50 years ago, walk around long enough and you were likely to see a travel agency advertising a package for you to travel somewhere else. Now, with the internet making it easier than ever to research and book travel deals online, many physical travel agencies are closing up shop and moving their operations online. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the number of travel agents to decline by 6% from 2018 to 2028. 

[Pictured: A neon sign in the window of a travel agency]

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Smartphone maps

Gone are the days when being new to a city or exploring an unfamiliar part of town meant relying on directions carefully prepared in advance or asking a stranger. Smartphone apps like Google Maps allow city dwellers to easily navigate around the city, and even to save places they’d like to go well in advance.

[Pictured: A local SEO Google map image on a smartphone]

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Music shop closures

With digital music files replacing almost every other kind of music, music shops are far less common in urban areas than they were 50 years ago. Closures include some of the most beloved music shops in the country, including the legendary Haight-Ashbury Music Store in San Francisco.

[Pictured: Vinyl Solution in San Mateo, Calif.]

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The disappearing milkman

Fifty years ago, it was far more common for people in cities to receive home delivery of milk than it is today. In the 1960s, 30% of milk was still delivered to homes, according to USDA agricultural surveys. Refridgeration in homes and routine pasteurization made it easier for shops and households to store milk, negating the need for regular fresh delivery.

[Pictured: Multiple shelves of milk available in stores]

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Smartphone photoshoots for social media

Fifty years ago, only real photographers were typically seen taking photographs of themselves and others in the city. But the ubiquity of smartphones and social media today has made it far more common to see people using various locations around the city as the backdrop for their photography. City guides have even sprung up offering advice on how to do so without being a nuisance.

[Pictured: Young women photographing one another in Brooklyn, N.Y.]

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The coffee shop office

As seen in the 1990s on hit television show “Friends,” the coffee shop once functioned primarily as a social space, or a relaxing spot to head with a book. Today, many digital nomads are bringing their laptops (another new device) to urban coffee shops, turning a formerly relaxing spot into an office.

[Pictured: A customer works from a local coffee shop]

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No smoking indoors

Fifty years ago, city restaurants, bars, and even offices would have been crowded with smoke. But almost nowhere allows smoking indoors anymore, allowing city residents to literally breathe a little easier.

[Pictured: An illuminated sign prohibits smoking]

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Jacob L. // Shutterstock

Restaurant dining far more popular

Going out to eat was a special occasion 50 years ago, or part of a business deal. Today, ever-more people in urban areas are eating out as a part of their regular routines. The amount of money the average household spends per year on dining out has increased by 94% since 2003, according to Nielsen. 

[Pictured: Female friends at a restaurant with waiter]

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Libraries not just for books

Fifty years ago, public libraries in cities were primarily used for books. Today, city libraries are likely to also be used as community spaces, offering programming, lessons, and other events. Some libraries are also functioning as technology hubs to serve as a source of digital literacy. 

[Pictured: Berkeley Public Library, West Branch, Berkeley, Calif.]

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metamorworks // Shutterstock

Self-driving cars

Self-driving cars were only a science-fiction fantasy 50 years ago. Such is far from the case today, with self-driving cars being tested in several urban American markets, and more on the way.

[Pictured: Cockpit of driverless car driving on highway viewed from rear seat]

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International products everywhere

Today's internet access in cities makes it easy for residents to learn about and purchase international products. The internet and globalization have made it easier and more imperative than ever for retailers to offer a truly global menu of offerings. Some of the fastest-growing U.S. imports range from furniture to yarn to flour to fruit. 

[Pictured: Fresh produce at an organic market]

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progressman // Shutterstock

There’s an app for that

Fifty years ago, urban dwellers needed to find recommendations for the right plumber, electrician, and any other manner of handymen in case something went wrong in their homes. Today, apps like TaskRabbit allow those living in the city to simply swipe through the app to select the service they need and a provider, who can often be at their door the same day.

[Pictured: A young woman using smartphone standing near a road] 

You may also like: 50 ways American rural life has changed in the last 50 years

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