I’m a misplaced Millennial. My parents lived through the Great Depression, my father fought in World War II, and I was born during the last year of the Baby Boom, but everything I read about the characteristics of my daughters’ generation speaks to the life I’ve already lived and the choices I’ve already made. I’m not much for generational conversations when the underlying premise is “woo woo” in nature, but if what is intended is understanding how the material realities of a time and place impact the tendencies of a cohort of people, then I can get in to that.
When I was finishing up my undergraduate degree and was completing my teaching certification I chose to live downtown because between my wife and me we had two jobs, I had to get to different high schools to complete my practicum, I still had to get to classes at the university, we only had one car, and the hub of the bus system was a block from our apartment. On most days I took the bus to school, walked to work, and my wife took the car. If I had to visit a high school off the beaten path, I took the car, she used the bus…and I still walked to work a block from home.
The pattern didn’t change even after we had our first child, only it was my wife who walked to work, and I took the car. When Xela and Mckenzie started school it was within walking distance and we were able to keep automobile expenses quite low. Because the looked for boom in urban living never materialized, we were able to buy a condominium downtown, in my old high school of all places, for under $100,000. We chose to do so and found that the time we weren’t spending on home maintenance and in a car could be spent with the girls taking them to parks, museums, or playgrounds. The Springfield Public Schools were still under a desegregation order and so a “school choice” magnet program was still in effect which brought students from the more suburban parts of the city into the downtown to make the racial profile of the school more closely approximate the make up of the district, so on occasion we’d have to drive the girls to “play dates” and sleepovers in what seemed at the time far flung parts of the city.
Our relatively inexpensive living situation allowed us to do more in the community, more hockey games, basketball games, more trips to Boston, more trips to the beach, more art classes at the museums, more music classes at the community music school, and eventually, we were able to spend a summer in Madrid as a family while I finished my master’s degree. Experience was what drove our day to day lives.
But we were alone. When I coached my daughters’ basketball and soccer teams I would occasionally run in to acquaintances from high school. They all lived in the suburbs, they all opted for houses with yards, and they all wondered why I would have opted to live, not just in the city, but in the heart of the downtown. In the condominium where we lived, in those one hundred units, there was not one other couple with children which decided to stay in the building and send their children to school “in the city”. There were a few who had children, but as the children approached school age it was like a Logan’s Run scenario and the families would make for the hills. We stayed pre-k through graduation and reaped the rewards of two well-educated scholarship winning daughters going on to attend, and graduate successfully from, 4 year degree granting universities.
I can’t say why I was, in a sense, ahead of my time. I found everything about downtown exhilarating and invigorating from the very first time I wandered out of Baystate West onto the streets of the city center to encounter, what I was told, was nothing but the decaying carcass of what had been a vibrant city center. My mom had taken a part time job at a retail outlet, The Leprechaun Shop, which had an outlet at a mall and an outlet downtown. After classes at Forest Park Junior High School I would occasionally take a bus to visit her at whichever location she was working. I preferred downtown.
Springfield had a school choice system at the high school level based on interest; college prep, math and science, business, and vocational education. All but the last program were located in schools at the center of the city. As the city bus packed mostly with students, but also with adults commuting to their jobs, wound its way down Main Street I would focus on the life I saw on that street. To me there was something more integral and more authentic than what I saw in the drive-in drive-thru parts of the region.
My years in college spent in the horizontally expanding car paradise of the Utah Valley would later confirm this to me. I found the walled streets with sound barriers protecting backyards from the roar of traffic interspersed with Circle K’s (Circles K?), Seven Elevens, Mormon Churches, and gas stations not just disorienting, but dispiriting. People would talk about the beauty they saw in the Wasatch Front: I’ve never seen a less inspired place.
Conversely, I had the opportunity to spend a little over two years in Spain. The Mormon missionaries I was assigned to work with we’re nearly all from suburbs in the western United States, and they all looked down on the Spanish way of life, not just the Catholicism, but the narrow streets, the daily trips to the market, the old buildings, and especially, the emphasis on public space and public life and tradition. They preferred backyards, television, and the shiny and new. What I saw was the model I had been seeking: A family focused life in a beautiful and cultured man-made environment.
Thousands upon thousands of other young people had at least some of the experiences that I had when I had them, thousands of high school students attending school in classic pre-war schools, thousands of kids visiting parents working in traditional downtowns, thousands of Americans spending time working or studying in Europe, but very few took from those experiences the idea that the heart of the city was the place to live and raise a family. I’m hearing that fellow Baby Boomers, most at least a decade older than I, will soon be moving in to take advantage of the walkable city. As my wife and I dined last night at a packed Lebanese restaurant just a block or so from Symphony Hall it was obvious that dozens of other couples had the idea of eating at Nadim’s before attending the SSO concert. I knew that these people had driven in and parked their cars at a nearby garage, that they lived in huge, now mostly empty, overpriced and heavily taxed suburban homes in Longmeadow or Wilbraham. It wouldn’t surprise me if a few more of them decided to move downtown, especially with the hype surrounding the new MGM casino, but they’ve missed out on so much, and I feel that I’ve lived a marvelous one half of my life in this place, albeit with very few people of my race and class.
(As Millennialls contemplate living, working, and raising families in cities where that hasn’t been the norm for people with options, I’d like to think that my experiences give me something to share.)