After several years of living in a roach-infested, non-air-conditioned, 5th floor walk-up apartment in a bad area of a NYC, I rejoiced at the opportunity to move to to a more suburban setting. Sure, I had met my closest friends and had my biggest learning experiences while in the city, but the poor quality of life and thoughts of eventually having children there were making me depressed. My dreams became suburban: I wanted plenty of space, a home surrounded by nature, and a car so that I no longer had to use public transportation. But now that I have lived that suburban dream for a year, I understand that some of the things I enjoyed most about life in a NYC were tied to the same cramped living conditions that I had come to abhor.
We can attribute Manhattan’s enormous economic and cultural wealth, I once read somewhere, in part to the fact that Manhattan was built on a long, narrow island. This geographic form insured both that a public transportation network that ran North – South could get people to most places that they wanted to be and that the population, and the businesses it sustains, would be densely packed together, allowing for cross-fertilization of ideas. Financial firms would spring up next to theaters, ensuring that tightly packed residents would learn from many spheres as they efficiently made their ways through the city.
But I had also frequently heard that cities were not proper places to raise children. This same exposure to people and ideas could exacerbate social problems, and the cramped, expensive housing conditions could make it more difficult to accommodate children. For most of my time in Manhattan, I largely bought into the belief that city living was for the young and the old, not for families, because children required suburban settings in which they could play in nature, enjoy their own rooms, and be nourished by a community more geared towards their needs. And maybe because we can still equate maturation into adulthood with owning one’s own land and home — something that is out of reach for many urban residents.
But after a year in the suburbs, I am no longer sure that my ideals of domestic life entail a home that is large and more secluded than in a city. Granted, I love having more storage space and hearing nothing but birds. And, frankly, there are a lot of reasons not to raise children in Manhattan — the astronomical cost of living and the messed up public school system being just two. On our salary, I wouldn’t want to raise my family in that particular city. Yet I found that in a larger, secluded house, my time was more than ever taken up by driving and cleaning. My house used energy inefficiently, and it was much harder to meet neighbors and to have learning experiences. Unlike in Manhattan where hundreds of potential friends lived on my block and where I was used to seeing domestic life blend into the city’s dynamics as people carried their laundry around or strolled their children through parks, I felt alone and isolated without a sidewalk that would instantly allow me to join the world. Staying at home meant being stuck at home, unable to go anywhere without a car. Ironically, some of the very trappings that seemed necessary to my view of domesticity have taken away time that could be spent with family and friends and have created barriers to meeting new people to serve.
So next month I am moving to a townhouse — a small, energy-efficient house near my current (much smaller) city’s downtown. City living has issues, but, for me, living surrounded by people and by vibrant ideas is the better way to go. Currently, I don’t seem much evidence that my future kids will not be fine even if this smaller house forces them to share a bedroom; in fact, they might even be better off as they become exposed to a broader world and are able to travel using public transportation. More importantly, their parents will be less stressed and will have more time to spend on them.