I’m moving back: dreaming of a smaller, more urban house

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.

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  1. You’ve expressed a lot of my own feelings about city living vs. suburbia. If you haven’t read the book “Suburban Nation” then you should check it out – it makes a powerful argument for the improved quality of life in the city as opposed to the suburbs.

  2. Outer boroughs says:

    I’d avoid equating Manhattan with city living. Even within NYC, Queens and Brooklyn and the Bronx (never been to Staten Island) provide urban alternatives to the fancy island in the middle, which is more crowded and more expensive and less residential.

  3. Natalie B. says:

    Yeah, had I stayed in NYC, I would have moved to Brooklyn – you get a lot of the urban advantages without as much expense.

  4. Manhattan rocks. That’s all I have to say about that.

    And also, Manhattan is a great place to raise children. Not only do you get hundreds of little playgrounds all within walking distance of wherever you may live, you also get numerous programs, classes, extracurricular activities, sports, and of course theater, arts, music, that you just cannot find anywhere else within such a close proximity.

  5. Natalie,
    I’d have to agree with Daniel. The Upper West Side, at least, is an amazingly good place to raise children–there are probably 20 playgrounds within a mile of our apartment where my kids can run around to their hearts’ content, and my kids interact with all sorts of other kids.

    Moreover, although it’s tough to understand the school system here, I’ve taught Primary and youth Sunday School classes and have seen amazing youth that have been raised and schooled here, both in the public schools and private schools. So sure it’s hard, but even in the fancy suburban public high school I went to, you had to be in Honors or AP classes to get a decent education. I imagine the same (roughly) holds true here.

    APM’s Marketplace had an interesting discussion a week ago or so talking about how, in general, cities work best for young singles, old people, and the poor–families aren’t really welcome. I’d argue that Manhattan is becoming welcoming to families, as is (I hope) the section of Chicago that we’re going to be living in soon. But I definitely plan on raising my girls in urban environments.

  6. My best friend lived in NYC with her three children. Then she moved to London and now has 4 children. She considers London to be rather suburban compared to Manhattan. She loved living in NYC with kids-took advantage of so many great things.

    I’ve never lived in NYC myself and right now live in the northern suburbs of NY. But my time in Sweden combined a somewhat urban experience with a suburban one. In Sweden, I didn’t have a car, relying upon public transportation or bicycling for transport. My kids even biked around or sat in the bike trailer. Now completely reliant upon a car, I desperately miss my bike and the freedom it gave me. In Sweden, I lived in a tiny apartment about 700 square feet–with our family of 5 people. We didn’t miss the space, but rather learned to appreciate just having a few things rather than masses of stuff that we didn’t use. Cleaning my apartment was far easier and faster. I enjoyed the commonality of having close neighbors, where impromptu barbeques with friends were par for the course. (This of course was with the international population, not with Swedish neighbors. )

  7. Upper West Side has the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, a great place to take your kids (and where I saw Jon Stewart with his kids a couple of months ago). Tribeca is a great neighborhood for families, though it is very expensive and very very crowded. But if you walk around Tribeca during the day, you might be surprised by just how many strollers you see getting pushed around. Those playgrounds down there are packed. My wife and I love the Inwood area. We get a playground right in front of our house. The church is in walking distance, and the A train gets you to midtown in 30 minutes (at least when they are not working on the tracks). Even driving wise, rarely do we have a hard time finding parking on the street close to our home. The Henry Hudson Parkway is minutes away, and on good days is barely 15 minutes to midtown. The FDR is slower, but if you need the East Side, it is very serviceable from Washington Heights.

  8. Natalie,
    Totally, Manhattan shmanhattan. Brooklyn is where it’s at. Like Marty Markowitz says, “believe the hype.”

  9. One of the best decisions Mary and I ever made was moving into a small house downtown. Our house is 798 sq ft, which forces our children to share rooms and forces us to regularly purge our stuff. We are within walking distance from many of our destinations, and only a block from two bus routes that provide me 15 minute service to work. We have great neighbours; the children spent all day outside today playing at the park with our neighbours, and they all took turns playing in each other’s yards.

  10. Mark B. says:

    Amen to what Rusty says. Brooklyn is where it’s at. And has been for the 29 years we’ve been here.

    The public schools are not a mess–that’s a myth propagated by the private school crowd to convince you to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on each of your children’s elementary and secondary schooling.

    And you can’t beat the transportation. When our oldest daughter was in 8th grade, she rode the subway to school (at 94th and Park Avenue)–that was 1992-93. Once she broke the ice, as it were, we felt more and more comfortable about sending children out on the subway without adult accompaniment. (Although it’s unlikely that the youngest started at six, as I may have told someone recently.)

    All you suburban parents who (1) spend hours and hours carting your children around until they get a drivers license and then (2) worry every time they’re out about whether they’ll make it home alive: tell me again what’s so great about living out in the suburbs?

  11. I just spent a year living in Vienna. I loved the urban life–the public transportation, the access to theater and museums, the dynamic bustle of the city. I’m now back in my suburban home in Utah. There is a constant need to drive everywhere as you describe. We have to drive to even get to the closest store or restaurant (of which there is a woeful lack of variety in Utah Valley). In Vienna I loved the diversity of all kinds. It had abundant parks and in the morning on weekends I would sit on a bench in the shade of large tree and enjoy the people walking by or read a good book. On weekdays I was also able to take the Uban to work and could read rather than drive (there is no bus service within two miles of my house here). I even find I miss the sounds of the city (and at least dogs weren’t barking at me everywhere I walked and at night). I never thought before I went how enamored I’d be of city life, but now that I’ve tasted it, I’ve had a hard time coming back. (It also helped that Vienna was the safest city in the world and has the been rated as having the highest quality of living of any city anywhere).

  12. I’ve never lived in Vienna, but every time I visited, I loved it. It’s probably my favorite city in Europe.

  13. I’d give anything to live in Vienna.

    Natalie, what an interesting idea- as someone living in suburbia, I can see what you’re talking about in my daily life.

  14. Researcher says:

    But… but… what about all those Jeffersonian ideals?

    “When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.” (Jefferson to Madison, Paris, 1787.)

    “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. True, they nourish some of the elegant arts, but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere…” (Jefferson to Benj. Rush, Monticello, 1800.)

    (I should probably disclose that I live on the very edge of the suburbs, out among the cows and the chickens, and think wistfully of life in the city. Oh to live somewhere with a good public library and a variety of cultural offerings. Regardless of anything Jefferson said, All-You-Can-Eat-Wings-Wednesday at the local hotel just doesn’t feed the soul.)

  15. Natalie B. says:

    I think Manhattan would be a wonderful place to be a kid, and I envy all of you who get to raise your children there. I couldn’t think of anything better for a child than to get exposure to so many ideas so young. Though, I would need to get a better paying job before I would considered living in Manhattan with a family.

    That said, I’m not sure it’s true that the Manhattan school system doesn’t have problems. There have been several articles in the NYTimes recently about overcrowding and how children can’t get into their neighborhood kindergartens. Obviously, some places like Bronx Science are among the best schools in the country, but, from what I have read, there is no reason to believe that the schools are uniformly good. NYC schools have one of the highest teacher attrition rates in the country. Plus, having to apply to preschools and high-schools seems like a lot of stress to me.

  16. Natalie,
    Either a higher-paying job or you or your husband could work for Columbia. (Seriously–have you seen the subsidized professor housing?)

    As for the schools, clearly there are problems, some of them significant. But those problems aren’t unique to New York, and aren’t unique even to cities (as some friends who are moving out of New York are discovering).

  17. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    As someone who grew up pretty much a free-range child, let me put my vote in for suburbia. All those cultural trappings are nice, but they’re just as good when they’re just an hour away and you can spend the rest of your time enjoying the natural world around you. Also having the space and land to grow anything, even the single zucchini plant and tomato plant I usually manage, is (a) an important part of provident living and (b) like magic. I live in Toronto and like it but I dream enviously of my husband’s aunt and uncle’s family farm.

  18. Norbert says:

    I’m totally with you, Natalie. The idea of having my own yard holds no appeal, and the need to go everywhere in a car now seems to me oppressive. Your last paragraph is right on.

    Of course, Helsinki is a great city, especially for kids.

  19. I love being able to walk (or take public transportation) to go places instead of having to get behind the wheel in order to go anywhere. This discovery is the reason why I never want to move to the suburbs. And it’s a bonus not to have to spend the time and energy taking care of a house and yard that’s bigger than what my family needs.

    We’re currently living in downtown Zürich, and it’s a fantastic place for kids! I’ve explained what I love about it (with lots of pics) in Zürich: Transportation Paradise!!

  20. This was a fascinating post for me. Currently, I find myself longing alternately for the farm back at home (a 30-minute drive from anywhere — it’s not the end of civilization, but you can see it from there) and the bustle of Boston and Cambridge, vibrant and buzzing with life, but not lacking in a certain old-world charm.

    I feel that this may have something to do with the wisdom of Joseph’s plan for Zion: live in the city, work in the country. Some days, I really hope I’ll live to see it.

  21. Thomas Parkin says:

    We lived downtown Seattle for over a decade. We loved it for a long time. But Seattle changed a lot and we changed. Both having grown up largely in small towns, we are imprinted with a need for personal space. By the end, we yearned to be gone. I would walk around Green Lake late at night, hear the wind blowing through the trees, recall my grandfather’s ranch, and yearn for quiet so much it hurt. I can’t imagine us ever wanting to live in a city again.

    We moved to Sumner / Puyallup, initially. Suburbs of Seattle (more accurately Tacoma). But it wasn’t real suburban living, being literally right at the edge of the metro area. There was nothing between the street and lived on and Mt Rainier but a railroad track, fields, forests and Orting. It seemed very quiet, at first, almost still. But, as we acclimatized, we both began picturing a place more remote.

    Not entirely by choice, we are currently living in Logan. It is lovely enough. The winter is too long and too cold. It is actually more “suburban” than our last place, if you count dependence on box stores as the prime indicator of suburban, but lacks a nearby city which can be a deprivation. One we should probably get used to, as I believe our next move may take us to someplace truly remote. I wouldn’t mind at all having my nearest neighbor a mile down the road. ~

  22. It is now 20 years since I moved away to college from my home town of Pocatello, Idaho. I still miss it in many ways and enjoy regularly visiting my relatives there. It was big enough and far enough away from any metropolis to be almost completely self-contained and have almost everything you could want in a city. It was small enough that most parts of the city are within 15 minutes driving. It was a great place to grow up. I have had to live all over the U.S. to pursue my career, but there are few places I like as much. I love small, independent cities.

  23. Natalie B, to each his or her own. I am really glad other people like living in the city so I don’t have to. I prefer open spaces where my kids can run around outside without me being constantly worried about them. I have lived in small apartments in big cities for years, and it simply isn’t for me. Now we live in a rural area where the nearest house is 400 yards away, and I love it. But, I will admit there are two things I miss from living in the city: the ability to walk down the street and buy whatever I need and the feeling of all those people around — it’s a great feeling to walk through Central Park on a weekend and see so many interesting people.

  24. I can see living out in the country, and I can see living in the city, but I grew up in the suburbs, and to me, it’s the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, you don’t have the conveniences (shops, museums) within a quick walk, and you also can’t just step out and explore the wild in solitude. It’s other people’s yards and “keep off the grass” as far as the eye can see.

    It’s especially bad for kids between the ages of 12 and 16. Maybe there are interesting things within biking distance, but maybe not, so typically you end up with mom chained to the vehicle. Then they turn 16, and handing them the keys means freedom for the parents, but also means new dangers that could have been put off while the kids gain some maturity using other types of transportation…

  25. Formerly M* Ben says:

    I’m with Rusty and Mark B. Park Slope shoutout!

  26. Peter LLC says:

    I too would like to join the chorus in singing the praises of Vienna. Sometimes I think I would prefer to disassociate myself from the rabble and live in a mountain hut, but as the film Brother of Sleep highlights, there is a downside to an isolated life in the countryside.

  27. John Mansfield says:

    There are many attractive things about urban living, as many comments above have attested. One thing that many raised confuses me a bit though, that about the proximity of museums, concert halls, and such venues. The frequency with which I have been able to enjoy such places has never been controlled by whether they were seven blocks away or seventeen miles; other limitations (expense, hours of free time) were bigger obstacles when I lived in cities than getting there has been while living in suburbs. Or is it the pleasure of being able to pedal by on the way to whatever we’re doing and think “That’s where the symphony plays”? I have enjoyed such moments when they were part of my life.

  28. Steve Evans says:

    Bklyn is for those who can’t afford Manhattan. So there, Russ.

  29. We have passed on chances to go urban without regrets. We live in Logan. Five minutes from my office. The valley is beautiful, and it has small-town charm. It is Stars-Hollow-esque, but with landmarks built by Mormon pioneers. We are house/yard people. We garden. My wife practices the piano all hours of the day and night without worrying about bothering the neighbors.

    We are tight with many of our neighbors, and we are a short walk from a city park. When it isn’t under three feet of snow, it is packed with kids. Many of which are not from our own nerdy-white-Utah-Mormon tribe. (We live among lots of transplanted faculty and grad students.)

    Sure, Logan is far from Utah’s cultural advantages such as they are. The Salt Lake arts and sports. LaVell Edwards Stadium (the happiest place in the world on a Saturday afternoon in the fall). And the airport (a magical portal to many destinations). We still go. We drive, and the kids visit their grandparents/cousins.

    But Cache Valley is very strong on the outdoors stuff: cycling, hiking, skiing, and on and on. I pity city people who aren’t five or ten minutes from quiet, wild places. And Logan is not a complete cultural wasteland. USU brings art to town. There is an opera festival in the summer. Etc.

    Anyway, we don’t care whether or how this place fits into awkward urban/suburban dichotomies. It works for us.

  30. If I had to live in Utah, I would prefer someplace like Logan or Heber City. Those are the types of place my wife and I love.

  31. Preach it sister.

  32. Natalie B. says:

    Columbia professors have *great* housing.

    I love the Logan area, too. The access to the outdoors would be a truly wonderful part of living there, which is indeed hard to find in either a suburb or a city.

  33. Steve,
    Seattle is for those who can’t afford Brooklyn. One. Two. Three. Ding, ding, ding.

  34. The grass is always greener…

    I would love to try living in some different types of places. As it is, I really enjoy living in a small-ish town across the street from the city park where I can walk to things and catch a bus that takes me to work.

    For a rather acerbic take on the cost of living in Manhattan, Half Sigma has an post up.

  35. Interesting thoughts, Natalie. Modern life can be so isolating – even in the city, I think. But especially in the ‘burbs where your life depends on your car.

    I am lucky to live in a city/suburb hybrid. It’s technically a suburb of Chicago, but is still quite densely populated, has lots of apartments, and decent public transit. We don’t have our own parking space or yard, but we do have 5 playgrounds withing very short walking distance. Sometimes I think it would be nice to open the back door and let my son out to play on his own, but going to the playground means I spend time playing with him and talking with other parents (& nannies), which is good for me.

    We’re cramped in our one-bedroom apartment, but I’m not looking forward to leaving for a bigger space because I’ll miss our neighborhood so much.

  36. Steve Evans says:

    Rusty, I concede defeat. I also concede that I no longer need to wear skinny jeans and lots of black.

  37. Hope your move and transition back to a city was smooth and nice!! I agree with you, that suburb living is for the birds. I live in largest city in my country and well… my daughters have a ton of friends, park is really a 2 minute walk… and I have a mommy group of city minded friends. Good luck with your townhouse!