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 remember the first time it truly hit me that my daughter’s urban childhood was so not my suburban one.

Addie was 11 years old (she’s 15 now), and we were walking on Chestnut Street in Center City when she recognized a disoriented panhandler sitting on the pavement, against a storefront.

“I know him,” she said casually as we approached the man, who stared placidly at a traffic light. “We see him every day.”

By “we” she meant the handful of friends with whom she passed the man most afternoons as they walked to their after-school karate class. Apparently, at the beginning of the school year the man detected something divine in their faces as they trundled up the block. He lunged at them, spread his arms as if to deliver a group hug, and said, “Hellooooooo, little baby Jesuses!”

I stopped dead in my shoes as she related this tale.

“What did you do?” I asked, looking back and forth between my daughter—the light of my life, her father’s greatest joy—and this disheveled, unstable-looking man I’d never seen before.

“We were like, ‘WHOAAA!’” she said, excited by the memory of that initial encounter. “We ran around him, and we took off!”

“Were you scared?” I asked.

“Not really,” she shrugged. She explained that it had been the middle of the day, she was with a gaggle of others, and the sidewalk teemed with passersby. “We thought it was funny.”

“Have you talked to him since then?” I asked. I wanted to learn the extent of my kid’s relationship with a strange man who, until that moment, I hadn’t even known was part of her life. “Is he bothering you?”

“Mom,” she said, exasperated. “He doesn’t bother us. We know him, that’s all. Sometimes he tries to talk to us, sometimes he doesn’t. He’s just our street guy!”

As I pondered the news that my kid had a “street guy” the way some kids have a “soccer coach,” I thought, as I have at other oddball moments in Addie’s life, God, I hope this urban-childhood thing was a good idea.

THE TRUTH, THOUGH, is that my husband and I thank our lucky stars that the “urban-childhood thing” is working out much better than we could have hoped when we were pondering whether to raise Addie in Philly or exit the city for the ’burbs, as so many young parents around us were doing.

And in this context, I mean middle-class parents, since those are the ones with enough resources—education, decent employment and adequate income—that they’re able to choose where to live. And those are the ones who have created the baby boomlet that has overtaken Center City and its adjacent neighborhoods, where about 20,000 kids were born between 2000 and 2010.

Not that Paul Levy, visionary head of the Center City District, needs hard numbers to prove the trend.

“The simplest barometer I use is the stroller count,” says Levy, whose advocacy for downtown amenities and services has helped spur the revitalization of Center City. “Starting in the early part of the last decade, the number of strollers you’d see on the streets, in the parks—it went up astronomically. You couldn’t turn around without bumping into one.”

The boom, he says, is the natural result of a big push the city has made over the past 15 years to retain college graduates in Philadelphia. That led to the creation of more places where they could socialize and shop (like bars, bookstores, storefront retail and cafes), and of more housing (including new construction with seductive 10-year tax abatements) where they could set up domestic life together. These goal-directed 25-to-34-year-olds, like many in their demographic, have postponed parenthood longer than their parents did, and by the time they have kids, they’re pretty thoughtful about the lives they imagine for them. Unlike many of the parents who were having kids when I was having Addie, however, they’re not willing to trade the urban life they’ve come to love for the suburban one they might have experienced when they themselves were growing up.

“This demographic of parents is often well educated and world-traveled, and they don’t want their children to grow up in an isolated environment,” says Homa Sabet Tavangar, Berwyn-based author of the wonderful Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be at Home in the World. “Urban life gives them a chance to expose their children casually to many different cultures.”

Such parents are conscious that the world today is very different from the one they knew as children—“For their kids to compete in a global workforce, they’ll need to interact comfortably with people from many cultures,” Tavangar says—and they’re environmentally aware. “They don’t want to be living a life with a big, energy-consuming house with water-guzzling grass and the gas-guzzling car they’ll need for even the simplest errands.”

Still, if they’re anything like my husband and I were when we were young parents, they’re less concerned with shrinking their carbon footprint than with what’s best for the precious lives they’re nurturing. And they’re asking: What impact will city living have on my child?

And for those on the sidelines, watching them ponder their choices, an equally interesting question is: What impact will all these kids have on the city?

WE DIDN’T DECIDE to raise Addie in town just because the school situation—the mother lode of all issues, which I’ll get to in a moment—worked out well for us. It was also because we found that urban living added more to her development and to our family’s quality of life than anything we’d find in even the most raved-about suburb.

Still, I am slightly embarrassed to admit that when Addie was born 15 years ago, my husband and I didn’t think too hard about her future, other than that we wanted her to feel happy and loved. Our child-rearing strategy was of the let’s-work-it-out-as-we-go variety.

On the matter of where we would raise Addie, though, we were pretty sure we’d never budge. It was Philly or bust. Our thinking was straightforward: We already lived in the city, less than a mile from our jobs, so commuting didn’t consume hours of our day. We had wonderful neighbors. Plus, on foot we could get everything from bread and aspirin to haircuts and a steak dinner. By bus or bicycle, it was a quick zip to movies, concerts and doctor appointments. In short, we loved urban life.

We figured it would suit Addie, too. I mean, what else would she compare it to? Her home was with us, wherever we’d be. 

That’s certainly how family life was decades ago, during my childhood in the tiny suburban town of Oreland, in Montgomery County. My huge family—nine kids!—lived on a leafy cul-de-sac where lawns were mowed regularly, where bikes left in the driveway overnight were still there in the morning, where the only “street guys” were the mailmen. I walked to my Catholic elementary school, played dodgeball in the street, caught fireflies at dusk, and fell asleep on summer nights to the music of cicadas singing outside unlocked windows. Oreland was (and still is) a quiet, lovely and safe village in which to raise children, and our neighborhood was jammed with families just like ours: white, overwhelmingly Christian and middle-class.

My upbringing was so racially, socially and economically homogenous that it was a shock, when I graduated from high school and began commuting to Temple University, to see so many faces of color in my classrooms. To hear so many accents from the vendors who sold Greek coffee, Chinese dumplings and Indian curries from campus trucks. To spar with professors whose political and cultural backgrounds were so different from mine. And to see everyone apparently tolerating the differences.

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.”

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.

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