This is my fourth post in my series on city living. For earlier posts see
A word of warning: I have a lot of weakly related ideas floating in my head these days, and today’s post is more my way of sorting through it than an attempt to convey any particular message.
Staying in the city after starting a family and raising kids may be increasingly popular, but there’s still a fair number of people who end up leaving for the suburbs. Since my wife and I have actually lived in multiple suburban communities, and visited or explored several more, we are often asked what each of them are like. However, looking back at the people we met in the suburbs and comparing them to the people we’ve recently met in the City, I now realize that this information about individual suburbs is far less useful than most people imagine.
Much like Leo Tolstoy’s opening line to Anna Karenina, the “happy” families one finds in the suburbs are all alike, whereas cities by their very nature force people to deal with often difficult conditions, and each person deals with it in his/her own way. I mean this more as commentary on the suburbs than cities; there are plenty of happy families in the city who have found satisfactory ways of coping with the issues, though the solutions do tend to vary.
While each suburb may have certain qualities in which they excel, and others in which they are lacking, I’ve found it very difficult to figure out how these qualities are reflected in the personalities of their inhabitants. Rather, most suburbanites we met had either a job in that community or close relatives living nearby.
Proximity to work played a role in our initial choice of suburb, but it was still at least a half hour drive away. With no family or job in the immediate vicinity, we often felt like outsiders in communities dominated by those with much stronger ties to that specific location.
My advice to the city dwellers who ask me about choosing a suburb is very simple: move somewhere you already have family, or, if you work outside the city and you really like what you do, move closer to your job. For all the rest, you’re probably better off staying in the city. If you really want the extra space and can stomach the longer commute, a place like Riverdale may be right for you.
So if the people out in the suburbs are disproportionately people who also grew up in those same suburbs, perhaps it is not surprising that the people we meet in the City are disproportionately not from the New York area.
It seems every time we meet someone new and we tell them we moved from the suburbs, they think we “moved back” to the City, as if everyone first moves to the City as a single twenty-something. In fact, even though I grew up in Brooklyn and my wife in Southwest Connecticut (the part near New York, close to Stamford), and I commuted to high school in Lower Manhattan for 4 years, neither of us have actually lived in the City before.
There is a sense in which I feel like we are the long-time New Yorkers and they are the transplants. My wife and I remember coming in to the City with our families as kids, walking the dirty streets and being accosted by beggars and squeegee men. Unlike so many of those who came to NYC post clean-up, we know personally it was not always like it is now.
On the other hand, my wife’s home town is distinctly suburban, and even my old neighborhood is fairly quiet (or at least it was at the time). We knew Manhattan as visitors, not residents. Our new friends and acquaintances, though they may never have stepped inside NYC before 5-10 years ago, have been living in the thick of it for quite a while now. They generally came as singles, when they had time to acquaint themselves with all the bustling night life for which the city is famous. My wife and I were clueless as to where we could even go on a recent date night without the kids.
Our seasoned veteran friends, having spent many years living in the City as singles and young married couples, are continually baffled as to why a family with two small children would choose to move to the City now. To them, I imagine, the City is nothing but a large playground for adults. Indeed some of them spent the better part of their twenties partying. Now in their post-party parenting years, many of them wonder out loud how to spend their free time without abandoning the kids.
This attitude, however, baffles us back. True, the typical city activities for families and singles are quite distinct. We may not know about the best bars and night clubs, but we know the ins and outs of our neighborhood playgrounds. Plus the city has so many great amenities for families. When it comes to finding and choosing from among the child-friendly amenities, we already feel like seasoned New Yorkers.
This past weekend was no exception. It was one of our typically busy city weekends with no set agenda and only a vague idea of what we wanted to do. We started the day off with a quick subway trip into Midtown, where we went ice skating in Bryant Park. With free admission and only $15 for skate rentals, yet with rather flexible opening hours of 8 AM to 10 PM daily (and to midnight Friday/Saturday), this seems like one of the best ice skating deals in NYC. The crowd was relatively light and my daughter took to the ice much better than expected, so I expect we will be back at some point.
Moving to the city has already resulted in a huge shift in our preferred activities, and this weekend’s activities made it that much clearer. We came with friends from Riverdale. Our friends, who arrived by car, tried to convince us to go to Yonkers instead. With no easy access to a car and no desire to spend half the day getting somewhere, though, we had to insist on the city location. The original plan was to eat lunch in the park together after skating. Yet the lure of a dry car on a rainy day was too strong for them. I honestly don’t blame them, and had we had our car with us we would probably have chosen to do the same, especially as our daughter was loudly complaining of tired and hurt feet from all the skating.
Once again, though, the adversity of city conditions forces you to strive harder, and the end result is often a far more interesting set of experiences. In our case, we opted for a trip to Times Square. After luring our daughter with the prospect of a Really Big Toy Store, we sat outside the Toys ‘R’ Us in the pedestrian plaza and ate our lunch, then went inside the store for a quick peek. She was still talking this morning about when we would go back to “Midtown” so she could go on the Ferris Wheel!
Finally we headed home for a more relaxed afternoon indoors. My parents came to visit, but even so we felt the need to get out of the apartment after over an hour inside. It was still drizzling, so instead of going outside we went for a late-day swim in our building’s pool.
Just another activity-filled day of city living.