Best Places to Raise Kids: Raising Kids in the City

Noticed the number of strollers on Walnut Street lately? Why more Philadelphia parents are bringing up urban baby ... and how that's about to change Center City

Center City District’s Levy already sees non-government entities responding to the increased number of families with young children who now call the city home. Back when my husband and I were looking for a good pre-kindergarten for Addie, for example, we learned that the private Philadelphia School at 25th and Lombard, responding to demand, had added a preschool class. The open house we attended was packed. St. Peter’s School at 3rd and Lombard, too, has witnessed an explosion of families looking for places to educate their wee ones.

“We are seeing many more families staying in the city to raise their children,” says Brit Munsterteiger, admission director at St. Peter’s, whose preschool and pre-K classes have grown by a third over the past decade. “It used to be commonplace for families to leave the city when their children reached kindergarten age, but we’re not seeing that trend nearly as much anymore.”

A trio of downtown dads who founded a new kids’ activity center called Nest—located at 13th and Locust, inside a former strip club—embodies the new ethos. “We are committed to raising our kids in the city,” co-founder Matt Gorman said in an Inquirer story about the project. “[Nest] was born out of a desire for that.”

While Nest is a members-only place, other parents are putting their organizational skills to more egalitarian use. “There are more parent groups taking on recreation projects,” Levy says, pointing to improvements at Greenfield Elementary School at 22nd and Chestnut, the grassy, slanting park behind Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmount, Headhouse Square Fountain at 2nd and Lombard—which has become a gathering spot for the stroller crowd—and the renovation of the Weccacoe Playground in Queen Village. “These improvements might have happened because middle-class parents with young kids pushed for them, but they benefit everyone and add to everyone’s property values, which only strengthens the tax base. It’s a cycle.”

As for the private sector, Levy ticks off the names of churches and synagogues that have added weekly kids’ services to accommodate the growing number of members with children. His favorite sign of the changing times: St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at 3rd and Pine used to post a sign on its front gates stating, “These gates are open to all.”

Nowadays, the sign reads, “Fussy babies welcome.”

IN THE LONG RUN, of course, all the convenience of urban living won’t count for a damn thing if it negatively impacts the people parents care about most: their own kids. I certainly can’t speak for the long-term well-being of all city-raised middle-class kids, since childhood is impacted by so much more than geography. All we can do is the best we can, and hope our kids will give us points for trying—and maybe appreciate that we tried in the city.

“I’m so proud of who my kids have become,” says Christina Stasiuk, a Philly physician and mom in the village of families we both rely on to look out for our kids. Christina and her lawyer husband have two children—a college-bound son and a daughter who’s a junior at a special-admissions public school—and she nails it when I ask what it is about urban life that makes her glad to have raised her kids inside Philly’s borders.

“The city gave them exposure to a breadth of racial, cultural, economic and social differences that has helped them discover who they are,” says Stasiuk. “Instead of feeling pressured to fit into a narrow demography defined by geography, they could define their place in a much broader world.”

Christina and her husband are wonderful, thoughtful parents, so I think her kids would have turned out great even if they’d been raised in an isolated subdivision’s cul-de-sac. But her point becomes more clear when I talk to another parent, “Lila.” (She doesn’t want her real name used.) She and her husband left the city 30 years ago to raise their son, Jonathan, in Bucks County, thinking the area would be more gentle and child-friendly than the fast-paced concrete jungle on the other end of I-95.

“It was a disaster,” says Lila, who moved back downtown when her son left home for college. “Jonathan was a small, quiet, bookish kid. But our neighborhood and the public schools were loaded with big, strapping jocks, and the predominant culture was organized around sports. Jonathan was so miserable being the ‘different’ kid that we eventually enrolled him in a small private school where he didn’t feel like the odd man out. We were already paying sky-high taxes for the county’s ‘excellent’ public schools, and we almost went broke. Looking back, if we’d stayed in the city, I think Jonathan would’ve found more places to fit in. But we were so afraid of the city, we never gave it a chance.”

Because diverse culture is so easily accessible, Addie has developed a casual relationship to it. A visit to the Art Museum, for example, isn’t the day trip it would be if we lived in the suburbs. Instead, the Museum is where she took weekly art classes for several years (prompted by our dismayed discovery that her public school offered skimpy art education). She’d visit a gallery and sprawl across the floor to sketch drawings of master works. I didn’t know who Rodin was until I was 22. My kid was acquainted with The Thinker at six.

Her school also lacked decent phys-ed, so we signed her up for lessons at a rigorous karate studio near her school. She eventually got her black belt, and now teaches there part-time and executes intricate martial-arts moves with fellow black-belters from every walk of life on Rittenhouse Square, her home away from home.

Because her education and extracurricular activities have been racially and economically integrated, she’s at ease around people who don’t look like her. Once you’ve invited such people to your birthday parties, stayed overnight at their houses and gossiped with them in the school cafeteria, you understand that skin color and dress are only part of what makes people who they are.

What I especially appreciate about raising a child in the city is that the environment accommodates a kid’s growing need for independence. I remember the look of pride on Addie’s face the first time we let her walk to the corner store to buy milk for dinner. Then we let her ride the bus across town, solo, to her karate school—a quick commute that filled her with a sense of confidence. These days, she pedals her bicycle around the city, finally independent of both SEPTA and our car to get where she’s going. All of this has made her street-smart in a way I never was until I was well into my 20s. Her antennae are sharp and nuanced, allowing her to discern, by observation, the harmless vagrant from the sketchy stranger.

Addie’s only 15, of course. We still have a way to go in getting her raised. But we’re in the home stretch, and we really like who she’s becoming. Might she have turned into this well-rounded, interesting and thoughtful kid if we’d raised her outside the city limits? Since that’s a path we didn’t choose, we’ll never know. And there are thousands of wonderful kids being raised by wonderful parents and enjoying wonderful childhoods in the ’burbs. If we’d chosen differently, I have to believe Addie would be among them.

But we didn’t. And we’re glad.