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351 towns in Mass.: Beautiful but superfluous

 Ross Bergen and Lila Gardner stop in Ashland.

Ross Bergen and Lila Gardner stop in Ashland.

For two people who aren’t running for statewide office, Ross Bergen and Lila Gardner have come to know Massachusetts exceedingly well. Over about three weeks, the couple, ages 25 and 24, visited all 351 cities and towns. Yet their project didn’t just produce cool, moody Instagram photos of statues, grand public buildings, and colorful landscapes. It also hinted at what’s good — and bad — about the Commonwealth’s system of local government.

There’s plenty to behold: Many towns have attractive, well defined centers, often with village greens, major civic buildings, and businesses clustered near them; these towns already have the kind of development pattern that land-use planners elsewhere are trying desperately to recreate.

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Yet at least some of the quainter scenes in Massachusetts — the tiny town halls, the disused back roads, the municipal-limit signs that have fallen into charming disrepair — hint that not every community that was incorporated in the 1700s and early 1800s is thriving. Many were formed when the state’s population was spread much more evenly than it is now, before highways knitted once-isolated areas together. The feuds and discontents that prompted dozens of towns to break off from dozens of others are long forgotten. Today, it’s fair to ask whether some towns — consider Monroe, population 121, or Mount Washington, population 167 — lack the scale that the modern era demands.

Either way, more Bay State residents can judge for themselves by visiting all 351.

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