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

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.”

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  • Natasha

    Thanks for great insights. My husband and I came to Philly in the 90s and never left. Our kids were born here and we still live in Center City. We considered all educational options and went with Greenfield School, where we found a true and diverse global community of teachers, staff and parents who all work together for the better future of the city and our children.

  • Michele

    I feel that families with children belong in the suburbs. People walking down Walnut Street don’t want to have strollers in the way or screaming kids in nice restaurants.

  • Jane

    The city is a place for sophistication and glamour. A place for working professionals and singles. Most parents I have seen are irresponsible and their offspring are annoying to everyone around them. People please take your whinny little brats and move away! Thanks.

  • JT

    The city is a difficult place to raise children. Do you really want your 11 year old exposed to homeless people, etc.

  • R

    No good people ever grow up in the city. Example A – I grew up in the suburbs and so did my parents. I want to raise kids in the suburbs because kids are meant to be sheltered for as long as possible – it is only healthy and it’s probably written in the bible. Frankly, I don’t want me or my children to get shot. Walnut St. is especially dangerous – have you heard there are riots all the time there!

    xoxo!

  • M

    I loved reading this article. Life in 2011 looks much different and city life has more and more to offer for adults and for children. People have a lot of power to define their space and to make their community better. Hats off to people raising their children in the city. Philadelphia is wonderful and having worked at a children’s store on Walnut I know it’s very family friendly. Not all cities are, but when possible, city life is a beautiful thing.

  • Becky

    One point not made in this article is that thousands of us have jobs in the ‘burbs. I am pregnant with my first child and raising a family in the city would mean asking my husband to commute at least an hour each way for his job. Some of us choose to raise kids in the suburbs not because we want to shelter them, but because it makes more sense. Just saying.

  • Lauren

    So glad to read something like that!! My husband and I (newly married) just bought a home in Philadelphia this past summer, and although kids are still a few years away for us, we would like to think Philadelphia would be a great place to raise our children. We both grew up in the suburbs (45 min. from Philly), but yearned for city life. We both went to Temple and couldn’t get enough of our surroundings and all that philly has to offer. We’re so glad that we bought our first home together in South Philadelphia.

    Your article was so upbeat and reassuring for many of us who dream of having a happy & health family in this great city. Thank you for your personal experiences and input. It’s pretty disgusting though to read some of these ignorant comments. Crazy to think some people can really expect a major city to be “glamorous and single”. Try Vegas.