I found it thrilling. It was as if the entire world was waiting for me when I climbed on SEPTA for the train ride into town. As soon as I could swing the move after college, I settled into a shabby but sweet two-room walk-up on Spring Garden, where, when the windows were open, the din of passing buses drowned out the ring of the telephone. My soon-to-be-husband—whose love of urban life was honed playing stickball on the streets of his native Jersey City—had a similarly dumpy studio four blocks away. We spent our non-working hours exploring neighborhood haunts and hidden alleys in every corner of Philly, feeling more like city folk with each sortie. Two years later, we had a block-party wedding; eventually, we bought a house in Fairmount and put down deep roots we could never imagine tearing up.
When Addie came along, we simply added her into the mix, strapping her into a bicycle seat, then onto a tag-along bike and finally onto the backseat of a tandem as she traversed the city with us. We had no yard for her to play in, so we hung out in the Azalea Garden behind the Philly Art Museum, which became the go-to place for birthday parties among the friends she met at preschool, whose parents became our village. We had no front porch, so summer evenings were spent socializing over beer and wine on the steps with neighbors while our kids scootered up and down the block. When we ran out of happy-hour finger food, we’d wobble to the corner store for reinforcements.
The weekends that we didn’t spend mowing a lawn or shoveling out a driveway were spent in museums and parks or meandering around Chinatown, Reading Terminal Market, and the cultural polyglot that South Philly’s 9th Street has become. The evening hours we didn’t spend commuting home to a far-flung suburb from our downtown jobs were spent around the dinner table, lazily catching up with each other.
And it was all easy bliss until Addie turned four. That’s when it occurred to us that she’d need an education, and we had no idea what our options were.
For most middle-class parents, this is when their lives as urban dwellers come to an end. The issues with Philadelphia’s public schools are well publicized and legendary. The cost of private-school tuition can exceed the price of a decent education at a mid-tier college. And it can be hard to suss out which charter schools are doing a fabulous job and which are using smoke and mirrors.
Hoping to get a handle on the situation, we held a meeting in our living room and invited every parent we knew whose kid was Addie’s age. Some had older children in public or private school, so they were fonts of front-line information. The meeting was both helpful and unsettling, as many of us confronted biases we had both for and against the city, the suburbs, class, race and means. But we also clarified our personal hopes and dreams for our kids.
In the end, my husband and I decided that we’d give the city public schools a try, since they seemed to be working well for some families whose values and temperaments were much like our own. If it didn’t work, we’d reassess. But Addie proved to be an easy kid academically—no learning issues, great test-taker, lover of learning. And her downtown elementary school worked out just fine. She had excellent teachers—a few stellar ones (if you’re reading this, Roseann and Alison, we can’t thank you enough)—and a principal who knew how to respond to problems when they arose. Today, Addie’s a sophomore in a truly exceptional special-admission public high school, doing well and thinking with excitement about college (when she’s not teaching us why the teen years are, well, interesting).
And we are grateful beyond words. We were able to stay in the house we loved, in a neighborhood that feels like home, and we haven’t gone broke paying private-school tuition to do it. But we also know our good fortune was a total crapshoot. It could have easily blown up in our faces if Addie had learning quirks her teachers couldn’t accommodate. If her school hadn’t been responsive when we needed it to be. If her (or our) physical safety had been compromised anywhere along the way. And if she hadn’t been accepted into her stellar high school, we would have faced a difficult choice: find tens of thousands of dollars to fund four years of private education, or sell the house and move to an expensive suburban district whose public education is head and shoulders above what’s offered in most Philly public schools—but where we’d have to build a new community from scratch, a heartbreaking change given how we’d grieve the loss of our beloved village. Or, maybe, rent out our city house and move into a small apartment near a good suburban school—and then hightail it back to the city the day after Addie’s high-school graduation.
Each scenario filled us with dread.
Understandably, some new parents who are pondering whether to raise their kids in the city want more than a crapshoot to hang their children’s futures on. So it’s no wonder many of them yank up stakes and move across the city line.
“Schools are the issue for parents,” says renowned urbanist and architect Harris Steinberg, the executive director of urban-designing Penn Praxis. “Still, what we don’t know is, if Philly had a highly functioning public school district, would that be enough to attract and retain the middle class?”
In University City, at least, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. Ten years ago, the Philadelphia School District, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania, opened the Penn Alexander School at 43rd and Locust. Neighborhood home prices have skyrocketed as middle-class families move into the area to take advantage of the school’s progressive curriculum and Penn pedigree. Parents’ regard for the school has been so overwhelming that even families who live in the neighborhood have found their kids wait-listed for admission.
It’s a perfect example of “If you build it, the middle class will come.” And if they stay, with their kids, what will it mean for the city?
“A more solid tax base, which would support the services that everyone, not just the middle class, considers vital to quality of life,” says Steinberg, who sent his own kids to private school (the “hidden taxation” of urban living, he calls it). “Great parks and recreation services, good public transit, thriving libraries, clean and safe streets.”