The Great Debate: City v Suburbs. City wins.

“You’re still in the city?  Don’t worry, you’ll get a house soon.” A (former) friend of mine actually said that to me with a straight face.  As if staying in the city to raise my kids was some kind of booby prize.

“Gee, I’d love to move to the ‘burbs where I could eat in chain restaurants and think they were good. Help me, oh suburban wise-woman.”

Puh-lease. Yes the city is loud. Yes the cost of living is high, the square footage of my apartment is low, and grime seems to deliberately make it’s way through the cracks in my eighty-year old windows just to piss me off. (Click on the link for a solution, it really works) But I am a city person and I will never, ever move to the suburbs.  I do not like the suburbs.  I would be bored.  I would feel isolated.  I would have to drive a lot.   I would not be able to go to the theater on a weeknight,discover a new shop just by wandering a few blocks from home, or get truly great takeout any night I didn’t feel like cooking.

But that’s all about me.  What about my kids?  Do I just tell myself that they’re getting it all, when really they’re missing out on so much?

In a word, no.

Because a lot of what people argue is so great about life in the burbs: the space, the freedom.  It just isn’t there anymore.

Take walking to school.  I walked to school with my friends — no adults — from third grade on. Today, parents are afraid to let their kids walk to school alone.  It’s gotten so bad that towns even need “Walk to School Day” initiatives.    My own sister-in-law drives my niece the .25 miles from their suburban New Jersey house to her school.   Suburban parents say things like “but it’s so unsafe now, they can’t walk to school anymore.”  That used to make sense to me.  But it’s too unsafe for my kids to walk to school too, so I WALK WITH THEM.  Nearly 1.5 miles each way.  It’s a wonderful time for us to be together.  We talk and laugh, they nag me incessantly about buying a dog, and I say “hurry up” a lot.  But what I don’t say is “it’s too unsafe for them to walk alone — so they won’t walk at all.”  What’s with all this driving in the burbs?  It would drive me crazy.

And biking?  Sometimes we use our Xootrs ,(check them out- cooler and sturdier than Razors) zipping across the park to school.  When I was a kid I rode my bike.  Well, last week I was in my hometown where the streets are narrow and the SUVs are huge.  Unless you’re into your kid playing chicken with a SUV driven by a woman on her cell phone, your kid isn’t biking to school, either.

So what, exactly, are my urban kids missing?

They’re not getting lots of open space.  Central Park is, after all, still a city park.  But suburban sprawl isn’t creating lots of open space either.

They don’t have a playroom.  (Oh, wait, yes they do.  IT’S MY ENTIRE APARTMENT!! ) They don’t have a backyard to play in, or a swingset, or a pool. They have poverty outside their window.  They have bums, and a relatively high crime rate to contend with.

But they’re also not getting a totally homogenized view of the world.  My daughter has a teacher from Bangladesh, and classmates from Korea, Nigeria, and Pakistan.  Her class has Jews and Catholics and Hindus and Muslims.  And this in a class of only fifteen.

Just walking down the street is a lesson in diversity.  On an afternoon in Central Park we  might hear as many as five different languages.  We could hear up to forty.  That’s right — forty different languages are spoken in NYC.  How amazing is that?  Every time we get into a cab we ask the driver where he’s from, what language they speak there, what money they use.  Then we go home and look it up on our globe.  They’re like mini-UN Ambassadors, fostering international relations before they can even see over the back seat.  Take that Sarah Palin.

By the time my kids were three, they knew to order their pastrami lean.  By the time they were four, they had seen The Nutcracker twice.  By the time they were five, they popped sushi like chicken nuggets, could find their way to the Degas ballet sculptures at the Met, and saw jay-walking as their birthright.

Now they are eight and they have never stepped foot inside a mall, never been in a carpool, never been truly able to say they have nothing to do.

Many of my friends have left the city.  And they are happy with their life and their choice. That’s great for them.  I wish them well. I just wish they didn’t make me feel I had to be so defensive of my choice to stay in New York, to raise my family here, and to celebrate what’s seedy and what’s superb about life in the greatest city anywhere.


  1. says

    Well said! I really deplore the tendency to make these choices into moral ones, particularly when there are children involved.

    I grew up in the country, and enjoyed a childhood immersed in woods and fields, multiple pets and lots and lots of free space and free time. I have lived in cities all my adult life, and thus raised by children there, and enjoy the convenience and multi-culturalism of that world. Both are good places, with different and equally valid merits and flaws.

    I have never, however, had the slightest inclination to live in the suburbs, which, to my way of thinking, embody the worst of both worlds. Far from the conveniences and amenities of the city, far from the wildflowers and peace of the country. Lots of houses that look exactly the same, lived in by people who look largely the same, left largely empty for hours each day. I never have, and I never will, understand the appeal. Because that’s my opinion does not mean that parents who choose to raise their children in the suburbs are doing their children a disservice: it only means that my preferences dictate that my children will never be raised there.

  2. says

    I think it is a matter of preference. In my earliest years, I lived in the city which did have its share of the woods, a garden and a backyard. Then close to my teenage years, I moved to the suburbs. Nowadays, I live out in the country and it suits me these days. Ultimately, it isn’t a moral choice, but simply a choice in preference. Some people like blue, others like red and yet there are others who prefer just about anything else.

  3. Suburbhater says

    So I’m stuck in State College, and jesus, what the hell is there to do here? Without drinking or college students, this place is a complete bore. After living in NYC all my life, I moved here to study and I can safely say the suburbs stink! This place is full of hicks, uncultured suburban people, no diversity, chain restraunts, the downtown is two streets! This is why most college grads want to go to NYC or a real place for a change.

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