I chose to raise my kids in a city. Not a superstar city, not a boutique city, not a city where most of the white middle class choose to do much of anything but leave. I took a lot of heat for that, and it wasn’t cast in “Minnesota Nice”; I was told by just about everyone who cared to offer an opinion that voluntarily subjecting my daughters to an urban lifestyle in a poor neighborhood was tantamount to child abuse.
My reasons for doing so began, undeniably, with an unusual preference, given my late Baby Boomer demographic: I loved cities. Whether it was taking the Springfield Street Railway (bus) as a 12 year old to visit my mom as she worked her part time job at a downtown shop, or skipping class at Classical High School and wandering down to the hockey themed storefront McDonalds to buy a Big Mac, I preferred the hustle and bustle of downtown to the residential street where I grew up. The contrast between the sprawling Circle K festooned stroads of my Provo-Orem university experience, and my East Coast hometown (and later Spain!) confirmed for me that I wanted to live in what people now call a walkable environment.
I didn’t have that vocabulary yet of course. I had read William H. Whyte’s “City: Rediscovering the Center”, but that was about public space, not about making the choice to live in the city. It was Kunstler who first gave me some vocabulary to use to describe what underlay my aesthetic but he never denied that the American city was decaying and in decline. Nope, the verdict was in: my daughters would become illiterate, homeless crack-whores (that’s a more or less word for word quote) because, rather than purchase a very reasonably priced raised ranch in East Longmeadow, I chose to subject them to apartment living and being educated in the poorest city schools…and even that dire outcome optimistically assumed they even survived the vicissitudes of gang warfare and random urban violence.
I hadn’t yet found, or in some cases it hadn’t yet been discovered and published, that “stranger danger” was actually more acute the further one got from a city center, that drug use was higher in the suburbs, that self annihilation was not just a greater threat to young people than street crime, but that suicide was negatively correlated to urban living. What I was able to discover from my own investigation, and published research was that much of the argument for the superior quality of suburban public schools was specious.
That was enough to get me to start pushing back a little bit, but my push back never took the guise of telling people that they should like cities, it was just making the case that raising your kids in the city shouldn’t be viewed as a completely non-viable option. I had lived it myself, I had seen it in Spain, and there were differences I could detail and describe in the incrementally expanding autonomy of young people raised in traditional, walkable, urban places which contrasted sharply with the barriers that auto-centricity first threw up against that autonomy, and then unleashed in a sudden dangerous torrent.
These, then, are the origins of RationalUrbanism. It was never intended to convince people who love suburban and rural life that they should prefer cities, but rather to make the case to people who like cities that many of the arguments they will hear to discourage them from living in especially the most affordable cities are not based in fact. People do pick on and make fun of small towns and rural areas there can be no doubt, but when it comes to raising a family, or even finding community, the zeitgeist in America has leaned heavily in the favor of these places in contrast to what I think is a general consensus against traditional, densely populated cities.
I won’t deny then that all of this left me seething as I listened to last week’s Strong Towns Podcast. The author is being interviewed in connection with Strong Towns because of her thinking and writing about the importance of place, which is all well and good, but the discussion immediately degenerates when it becomes apparent that what is overtly stated numerous times to be a contrast between urban versus rural is really the difference between staying in a community where you have roots versus moving to a completely new place especially when a person chooses to live a commuter lifestyle.
What follows, then, is a point by point response to the assertions made in the interview both by her and by my good friend Chuck. If you haven’t heard the interview you can listen to it here. From the outset I think it’s important to acknowledge that it is the clear intent of Gracy Olmstead to contrast rural with urban lifestyles; to deny that is to deny what she makes clear is the operative premise of what she is doing. If I say “suicide is proportionally less frequent in urban areas” I don’t need to add “as opposed to rural ones” to make clear that is what I am saying; what else could it mean? “Suicide is proportionally less frequent in urban areas than in the audience of dramatic readings of The Cherry Orchard”? I would probably need to clarify that I was making that comparison.
I’ll start with a comically fallacious assertion; because one tends to interact with more strangers in an urban environment one necessarily sees fewer people one does know. Um. That’s not how it works. I may see 100 people I don’t know on the way to the drug store, but the five I see that I do know are still there to provide community. We live this. Every time we walk to our favorite restaurant, or go to a hockey game, or the symphony, or a random event each one of us; Liz, Luna, and I, sees any number of people we know. That hundreds or even thousands more people we don’t know are there does not diminish our community and the “intimacy, knowledge, or background” that we share with the people we do know.
There’s a strange assertion made very much in passing about this topic in the podcast as well. It describes walking and driving as equally ineffectual at creating community: “You have to drive to get it, walk to get it, or whatever.” I would first claim that, unless one lives in a commune or one confines one’s community to a nuclear, albeit multi-generational, household one will need to move to interact with community, and clearly one of those modalities is superior to the other. Except on rare, usually gesture intensive occasions, people don’t interact with other drivers on the road, but walking permits, and sometimes demands (against every wish, and against every fiber of our being) that we stop and talk to friends and family: If we had made reservations for Liz and Luna’s birthday dinner at Panjabi Tadka we would have been late we had to stop and talk to so many people!
“Families were closer, generations of families used to live together in one household…being in the city for several years I was too far from any family member. In a rural context that question would have never come up” Until my sister died, 4 generations lived under my mother’s roof. My nephew and his family now live in that same house in the city of Springfield. When I was raising my older daughters, Xela and Mckenzie, they stayed with grandma and grandpa; for childcare, as babysitters, or just because the four of them wanted to go and do things together. Mckenzie was my father’s pride and joy until he passed away, and Xela Rachel Shultis was holding my mother Rachel’s hand when my mother died two years ago. Gracy Olmstead is ascribing the problem she had of not having any family nearby to the typology of the environment and not, as it should be, on having moved 2,500 miles away from her home.
One of the reasons I stayed in Springfield was to give my children just the kind of rootedness which, apparently, doesn’t exist in places like this. Or maybe people, whatever the typology of their place, sometimes choose to exchange that for other things? I wouldn’t make the claim that it would never be the right decision, but if I made that choice and moved to rural Idaho I wouldn’t blame country living for severing those roots.
“In our small towns, we watch out for each other.” The story of the Idaho girl who sees the familiar hometown license plate and is relieved that she will have someone to turn to in an emergency is given to illustrate this point. So, would it be completely ridiculous then for me to point out that, when I went to college 2,300 miles away from home it was my next door neighbor from Springfield, Massachusetts, Jim Dabakis, who picked me up at the airport and let me stay at his place while I got ready to attend my first semester at BYU? Just coincidence then that we were from the same neighborhood. And that hometown friend and then sophomore Krista Robison made sure to check in on me all the time my freshman year, that would be coincidence as well.
“In rural America it comes from the sense that people have long histories there.” I have to admit that, despite the fact my family arrived in Massachusetts on the Mayflower in 1620 (John Alden and Priscilla Mullins), and I also descend directly from Rebecca Nurse of Salem Witch Trial fame, my parents moved from 5 towns away to live in Springfield only in the late 1950’s. I was born here in 1964. On the other hand, Luna has had theater classes with a descendent of the first Europeans who were deeded the property we live on in 1636. The family of our handyman’s wife owned the tavern which George Washington visited on two occasions. But, you know, people in Minnesota and Idaho have roots.
There is even a claim made that urban living puts a strain on finances. As someone who lives like a king on a teacher’s salary I would say that it depends, as it would in a suburban or rural location, on which one you choose. I live in a very unpopular place. It’s urban, but it’s cheap and it’s awesome. Chuck has had our $2 Italian pastries. I live in a huge Victorian townhouse that cost me less than my yearly salary. My yearly taxes are much lower than most people’s monthly mortgage in the superstar places. I get free admission to 5 municipal museums with a better fine art selection than can be found anywhere outside a handful of non-northeast cities. Look at these seats at the symphony:
That’s the mayor behind my friends at the Thunderbirds game (Springfield 8, Hershey 1), my friends paid and I didn’t even ask to use their magic V.I.P. token, but I was tempted to ask the T-birds mascot Boomer what special powers it gave me. My wife decided to spend the evening with friends and, since she intended to drink, rather than take an Uber she took the bus there and back; super cheap!
Yes, if you choose to live in Alexandria, work in D.C., and go to church in Fairfax it isn’t the fault of D.C., or Alexandria, or even Fairfax if you feel fragmented! Commenting that she wanted to feel less spread out in terms of living her life made her want to move to a town of 300 or so people just doesn’t make much sense to me. Sure, I suppose it’s possible that some places with tiny populations contain dense core areas which provide the infrastructure for having community and not being spread out, but certainly that is the defining characteristic of a traditional, pre-Euclidean city. Working, shopping, mailing packages, going to the doctor or the dentist, seeing a movie, dining at a friend’s house, attending a party, going to school, attending a municipal meeting, a farmer’s market, a concert, voting, and any number of other things are all activities in which we can and do engage within walking distance of our home. If I were still LDS I could even walk to a Mormon church; thank god for atheism, it’s right up the street but that hill is a killer.
We all go through phases of life, we struggle with decisions we’ve made, opportunity costs we’ve opted for, roads we’ve not taken, but taking responsibility for them ourselves, acknowledging the trade offs that our volition has imposed is the best way to move forward with an examined life that allows us to maximize our gains and minimize our losses.
As an aside, I’m someone who writes a lot about place, pride of place, and why it matters. Try to find an interview with me where I don’t reference Springfield, Massachusetts 12 times in the first 8 minutes. It’s tedious I’m sure. Where does Gracy come from? Where does she live? I didn’t catch that. I listened to the podcast 3 times, but I guess I missed it. I’ll let the previous Strong Towns go-to person on pride of place have the last(ironic) word: