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.