Setting aside the topic of education, dealt with elsewhere, what is it like raising children in the city? I can’t imagine doing it anyplace else. The resources at the disposal of a parent, at least in my hometown, are such that giving children opportunities to explore their own interests are innumerable.
The irony here is that most people believe that raising a family is the one thing for which urban cores are the least well suited. From wilderness to farm to suburb most Americans would view ANY alternative as superior to the city, and that includes the opinions of many who live in the city. My stepdaughter included a party at the local science museum into her birthday celebration and invited her classmates. Keep in mind that the museums here are free for local residents. The one girl from her class who did come didn’t know ( which is to say her mother didn’t know) that the museums were free for city residents to attend. The pervasive idea that cities are bad places to raise kids sometimes blinds people to the incredible resources available to urban families.
Within a few blocks of my home there are 7 museums, a handful of small parks(though not enough playgrounds), one (albeit underused therefor “scary”) linear park, a National Park site, a college campus with athletic fields, a music school, and a few public schools. Of the seven museums, there are two art museums, one sports museum, three historical museums, and a science museum. As I have alluded to, only one of the seven museums charges an admission fee to city residents (The Basketball Hall of Fame), and the Springfield Museums have family programs during every school vacation and at least once a month beyond that. The programs include free concerts, performances, arts and crafts, and animals.
And all of this can be done without strapping your child into the death trap which is the family car.
Throughout the year there are parades, festivals, celebrations, fireworks, and feasts all within walking distance. There are circuses, hockey games, basketball games, more concerts, children’s theater, and other events at the Mass Mutual Center and the Symphony Hall. The worst part is knowing that you’re blowing things off for a little time at home now and again.
What else? Seeing, being a part of, living the experience of growing up in a city! Literally watching the attorneys and the high powered businessmen and politicians share the sidewalk with the homeless, prostitutes, and the working poor. Viewing the history of architecture from Neo-Classicism to today’s “Starquitecture” and understanding how the buildings impact life. Walking nearly everywhere to do nearly everything, avoiding daily bus trips to school, having some level of autonomy while accompanying your mother or father while on his or her errands without being restrained by a seatbelt or a car seat. Experiencing the slowly increasing incremental autonomy of walking instead of the instant change from the nearly non existent autonomy of being chauffeured everywhere to the all too dangerous “freedom” to navigate America’s highways and byways by participating in the single most dangerous activity that an American teen can engage in: Driving.
The downside, at least for a white middle class child living in downtown Springfield is that you may be just about the only white middle class child in the neighborhood. The class differences may very well be the most significant, but just as being the only black child in a white suburb could be challenging, being the only white kid around can be tough. The difference in levels of affluence and the disparate nature of home life and life experiences can be difficult as well. While I am not a particularly wealthy person by the standards of some, objectively, my income is nearly double that of the average American family and when it is combined with my wife’s income we earn nearly 6 times the average for this particular neighborhood.
My children have gained invaluable perspective from living in an urban environment. Their understanding of rich and poor is closer to the statistical reality which exists in the United States. Their life experiences nearly all involve people of different races, classes, language groups, and cultures. The most difficult thing for my daughters to overcome at the universities they do attend and have attended is the overwhelming lack of diversity therein. The growing diversity of our society is creating a general reality which conforms much more to the life experiences of my daughters. Racial, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural variety are the rule for them and they revel in it. It is this richness of life, and the variety of so many aspects of our collective humanity which most thoroughly manifests itself in cities. Diversity in art, architecture, music, language, food, and dance; these things have surrounded my children nearly every day of their lives. As I said to begin this essay, I can’t imagine raising children anyplace else.