10.22.2009

Growing Up in the City


Having kids is supposed to mean moving out to the suburbs. Even our TV shows tell us this: singles romp in Manhattan in “Friends” and “Sex and the City,” while families rule the burbs in “King of Queens” and “Simpsons.” (Sorry, I haven’t watched TV in about a decade, otherwise I’d offer more contemporary examples.) In the real world, parents usually offer the following reasons for trading in urban for suburban: better schools, public safety, and more room. Fair enough: it’s a free country, and I’m all for people making choices in their best interest and for the benefit of their children. However, before you put your suburban realtor on speed dial, let me offer the case for raising kids in the city. My perspective is admittedly narrowly focused on Philadelphia, but I’m guessing our situation is not too different from that of others.

To begin with, the alleged advantages of the suburbs may not be so stark. As for schools, there has been a proliferation of charter school options of late, and cities usually have the preponderance of good religious and private schools. We are unusually fortunate, in that we bought in at a low price into a catchment area for a very good public school, but if we had to pay for private schooling, we’d still be paying far less per year than if we moved to a nicer suburban neighborhood and had to pay a higher mortgage and property taxes. As for crime and space, I suppose that cities are more dangerous and it’s nice to have a front lawn; but higher-density areas also have their safety advantages, and substituting the park or playground down the street for your own yard has the nice perk of helping you know your neighbors (and cutting down on the cost and headache of maintenance).

Which speaks to one of the main advantages of living in a city: close proximity to lots of other people with whom you can have casual acquaintance. For example, I caught a Facebook status update earlier this month of the teenage son of one of my friends who, after the Phillies had won a crucial playoff game, reveled not only in the win but also in the ability to gather in the street with other Phillies fans; he even made a direct dig at his suburban friends, who would have no such opportunity to celebrate with others.

Whether it is spontaneous celebrations in the streets or other such gatherings, mingling with people different from you tends to be much easier in urban settings than in suburban settings, as well. Suburban communities, for example, tend to set zoning regulations in ways that homogenize neighborhoods, whereas urban communities can more easily consist of people of different means. Racial diversity seems easier to achieve, as well; for instance, my daughter’s pre-school class consists of six black kids, six white kids, and two Asian kids.

City life also means easy access to world-class institutions. Zoos, children’s museums, art galleries, farmer’s markets, science institutes, ballparks – you name it, and we can get to it with a short drive or easy subway ride. Some day in the near future, our kids will be able to get to these places on their own with their friends, rather than being beholden to somebody’s parent chauffeuring them around. One has to imagine that this kind of mobility and exposure is good for kids.

Again, city living isn’t for everyone. If I thought long enough, I could make just as many compelling cases for raising kids in the suburbs. What I do want to convey is that raising kids in the city shouldn’t be summarily dismissed as left to only those who have fewer choices; rather, there’s a lot to like about being a parent in an urban setting.
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