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Fourth in an ongoing series on Massachusetts' changing middle class. Read Part OnePart Two, and Part Three.

The middle class used to be easy to define. An affordable home, good schools, a little money saved for a family vacation. But today, the middle class — almost half of all Americans — live with a certain anxiety because of an uncertain economy. One town, Hingham, is challenged as it reaches the height of the middle class.

Heading south out of Boston, I drive through Dorchester, Quincy and North Weymouth, cross a well traveled bridge, continue on Route 3A until I reach Hingham Harbor.

Ivory-colored clouds hang low over blue-green water, dotted with small yachts and sail boats.

"Is it beautiful or is it beautiful?" asks Irma Lauter.

I’ll say. It is beautiful. And it drew Lauter and her husband like a magnet from Florida to Hingham in the early '70s. Lauter’s a town selectwoman and volunteers for just about everything.

"Once you become a part of some of our committees, you begin to understand the sense of community in this town and the sense of giving back," she said.

Sitting on a park bench overlooking Hingham Harbor, Lauter gets excited talking about this town.

"It’s walkable," she said. "It’s beautiful from the land side. It’s beautiful on the seaside. We have a great diversity of income in Hingham and we want to keep that."

While Hingham's beauty is easy to see, why are some middle class families finding it difficult to reach or even stay? Lauter points to a corner of the harbor:

Lauter views Hingham — a town of about 22,000 — as a middle class community. But it's also a town with growing wealth, which presents a challenge: Can a town hold onto its middle class roots when more affluent people move in — people making huge salaries and bonuses and the kind of lifestyle decisions that often come with huge salaries and bonuses?

"Big houses," Lauter said. "And sometimes people think we shouldn’t have big houses like this."

But Lauter sees advantages to what many call “McMansions”:

"We like those, the taxes are nice, to help keep the tax rate down as low as possible," she said.

But there is also a practical concern in Hingham.

"It is a concern, because what happens when the people who are building these houses decide to move on or downsize, who moves in?" Lauter asked. "Is there going to be the next wave of people that want a 7,000 square-foot house? And I have to own up to it. We live in a fairly large house and love it."

A 4,000 square-foot house, to be exact.

"And I would love to have a 6,000 or 7,000 square-foot house, but there’s not that much land anymore to build these huge houses," she said.

That hasn’t stopped new and even long-time residents from building vertically. The National Association of Home Builders finds that 41 percent of new homes come with nearly 3,000 square feet, which is up by one-third from 2009. Six years after the great recession, owners in Hingham are tearing down smaller houses to build bigger ones at a record pace.

"Jesus said, 'In my father’s house there are many mansions,’" said Rev. Tim Schenck, who has been pastor of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Hingham for the past five years. "Ok, we get that, but that doesn’t mean that we all need as many rooms as we can possibly afford."

Schenck’s become alarmed as houses in this affluent community become ever larger.

"Well, how much house do you really need?" he asked. "It can get out of control. You look at the equality gap between rich and poor. 'How much is enough,' is one of the defining questions for those in wealthier communities, and from a faith perspective, it is unconscionable."

With that perspective, you can take one guess where Schenck is headed. We get in the car and drive toward the other side of town along Route 228.

"There are areas where people are living in poverty," Schenck said. "Sure, some here have fallen on hard times, but fewer than 2 percent live below the poverty line. Deprivation here takes on a different form, where people have had to give up their life style because of the economy."

That includes some of his own middle class parishioners who are having a hard time paying bills. Some are among more than 28 families that have lost their homes to foreclosures here —homes that are being gobbled up, torn down and expanded.

Of course, not everyone moves to Hingham with just the intention of tearing down a small home in order to build a big one.

"We moved from Huron village in Cambridge and we moved for the schools," said Sarah Goldman, who's relaxing in the park off Main Street as her daughter plays safely nearby. She’s a stay-at-home mom whose husband works in Boston’s financial industry. "The whole community is just set up for kids. I just wanted to be in a good school system. It’s great for families.”

Dating back to the 1930s, Hingham has been seen as a charming, postcard New England town. Eleanor Roosevelt, visiting here, described Hingham’s Main Street as the most beautiful in the entire United States.

The Hingham Shipyard, built in just four months at the start of World War II, gave rise to a new generation of middle class Americans, mainly of Irish descent. But Hingham town historian Alexander Macmillan says it was English religious dissidents — rebelling against King George — who settled here originally.

"They were well-to-do people and there were those of lower class and they brought their culture with them," Macmillan said.

In the 20th century, Hingham rose up against another king, and a queen — Burger King and Dairy Queen. and other fast food chains:

"People like their local restaurants, and we are very loyal to them, so there was not a feeling that we needed to have fast-food restaurants here and we granted several permits, including one to McDonalds, but banned the drive-up window and so they decided not to build," Macmillan said.

That was in the 1980s.

"It was amazing," Macmillan said. "We got calls from all over the country from people saying, ‘How did you do it?’, because there are many towns that weren’t to happy about having fast food restaurants come into downtown."

Fast-food restaurants at one time went hand-in-hand with suburban middle class expansion.

What does it say today about a town that keeps McDonalds out but allows McMansions in?

"There is thought to creating an affluent community, and it would be naïve to think that there isn’t," said Hingham resident Sarah Goldman. "And there is a reason that people want to live here and want to move here."

I asked Goldman, relaxing with her daughter on Main Street — where a red, white and blue line runs down the middle of the road — if it’s difficult being middle class in Hingham.

"Probably, yeah," she said. "I say probably because I recognize that I’m probably upper-middle class, but yeah there’s definitely a stigma with being associated with having money in this area and everyone who lives in Hingham has a lot of money, which is not true, but there is also the truth that it takes something to buy into it these days."

Hingham is among the highest priced real estate markets in the state and the country: A survey by WGBH of ten homes that were sold between March and July included four well in excess of $1 million and others averaging $690,000.

Back in the car, a few miles from Main Street, I pass an extraordinarily large house along Downer Avenue as I enter the coastal Crow Point area. This was where the middle class used to summer. Now it’s year-round, upper-class luxury, and the middle class in Crow Point are mainly folks only passing through, like this local resident who volunteered her first name, Sheila. She seemed genuinely shocked by the recent reception she experienced in this bastion of exclusivity on the west side of town.

"My girlfriend lives there with her family," she said. "And we drove up for a house party and my husband was just driving around the neighborhood, and there were apparently just neighbors having a drink and standing in the middle of the street and they looked at us as if, 'We're not moving, we're not getting out of your way, who are you?' I felt awful. They were looking at us as though 'How dare you drive down our street.'"

But Hingham is far more diverse economically than the McMansions at Crow Point might suggest.

"We have all different income levels," said real-estate agent Carol Tierney. The supply of housing costing less than $700,000 is low compared to the demand. But she said, "If you want to get into Hingham, most people are willing to do a little work to purchase a home in Hingham."

And few work as hard as Gina Brown, sitting behind the cash register at Victoria’s Sub Shop in the West Corner section of Hingham.

"It’s called West Corner because it’s close to every town," she said.

It’s where Hull, Cohasset and Hingham all come together and it's also an intersection of middle class anxiety and angst.

"When people say ‘oh, you work at a sub shop,' they have no clue," Brown said.

That's because this place is both popular and successful.

"And if you came in here about an hour and a half ago, you wouldn’t even get in the door," she said. "Because we make meatballs from scratch still. Roll them out, my brother rolls them out. Homemade. Awesome. The steak is not pre-made box steak. It’s sliced."

No one in Brown’s family belongs to a yacht club and there are no law-school or MBA certificates posted on the wall. Brown and her family represent a very different sort of middle class in Hingham.

"You know, it’s so many years that we’ve been in this business," she said. "Victoria’s my mom and I kind of stepped in at the right time to give her some off because she’s been working all her life."

Brown's family’s pathway to the middle class goes back generations, to when her grandfather opened shop here, a history that ran parallel to the now defunct shipbuilding industry, which made this town prosperous. But grinding over a hot stove these days does not mean that Brown can still afford to live in the very town where she grew up. She and her children now reside in Weymouth. So when the lights go out at Victoria’s Sub shop at the end of the day and the sign is turned around to read CLOSED, Brown leaves town. So too does a town Department of Public Works worker I spoke with, who says he could never afford to live in Hingham these days.

"Never is a long time," Lauter said. "We are looking to figure out how do you have true affordable housing, which we are in desperate need for the man you spoke with, and for our seniors— who would like to stay in Hingham, some of them are in these big houses, but they have no where to go. They want to live in what we call patio homes, the smaller one story. We have to find a way to build those."

And how’s that going so far?

"Actually, it’s going pretty well," Lauter said. "We have an active housing trust that deals with affordable housing as defined by the state. They have bought a unit at Beal’s Cove Condo that they’re going to have marked as affordable."

What would be affordable?

"As really affordable for anybody?" Lauter said. "Probably in the $300,000 to $500,000 range."

That would be considered affordable?

"Yes," Lauter said.

But will that be enough to keep Hingham’s middle class from being priced out of town and others from moving here?

Hull, next door, tore down an amusement park for condos but left a merry-go-round as a testament to its past. Hingham razed its shipyard, built popular restaurants and left many wondering if ever-expanding McMansions will be this town's monument to the future. And It begs the question: If Hingham could keep both the King of England and the King of Fast Food at bay, why not these symbols of class inequality? Yet others here are asking, in voices honoring the American ethos of prosperity, success and upward mobility: Why would you want to?