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Against Suburbia

Megan McArdle (aka “Jane Galt”) and Matthew Yglesias grew up in the city (New York, as it happens) and are sticking up for cities as places to raise kids. Conventional wisdom says the suburbs are better, but Megan and Matt say they turned out just fine (I’m sure they both did), that they lost the “muddy creek” in exchange for urban hang-outs instead.

I grew up in the suburbs and I won’t defend them as places to raise kids. I would much rather have grown up in the inner-city where I live now. (“Inner-city” is not synonymous with Cabrini Green except in the heads of people who don’t live in cities or who live in Cabrini Green. “Inner-city” simply refers to the dense urban core, not all of which is a slum. In the case of Portland, Oregon, none of which is a slum – at least not any longer.)

The way I see it, the suburbs combine the worst of the city with the worst of the countryside. In the suburbs you’re stranded as if you were way out in the sticks, but you also get traffic. You have no choice but to get in a car to go anywhere, just as if you lived in the middle of nowhere. But you get none of the peace, quiet, and expansiveness of the woods, or prairie, or desert, depending on where you live. (Around here we have farmland and forest, but mostly forest.)

I live in inner-city Portland. I can see the skyline from my front yard. I can walk there in forty-five minutes if I feel like getting some exercise. More important, I have lord only knows how many restaurants, bookstores, cafes, movie theaters, urban parks, corner stores and practically everything else within five minutes walking distance from my front porch. Now that I don’t have an office job and do all my work from home (or, just as often, in a coffeeshop) I almost never have to get in my car. I can do or get anything in less time on foot than it takes a suburbanite in a car.

I grew up in Salem, Oregon, which is forty-five miles south. It’s not a small town, it’s a suburb without a city attached. It’s just barely too far from Portland to be a part of the metro area, especially from the point of view of a kid who can’t drive. Portland might as well have been in Canada for all its “closeness” was worth. Salem was (and still is) a dead moon in a long-shot orbit.

I was perfectly happy with Salem when I was six. I didn’t know it from Manhattan or Palookaville. When I was sixteen it was awful – truly a thundering bore. Now that I’m 33, my detestation for that town is at its peak. Not only is it a dreary smear of strip malls and burger joints, it’s a cultural black hole. You want museums, live music, bookstore readings, the theater? Forget it. Drive an hour to Portland. Worst of all, the place is an utter dead-end. Anyone who grows up in Salem absolutely must leave. There is little opportunity there outside the low-wage service sector and the state bureaucracy. Several people I grew up with never left, and every person I know who stayed is less successful than every person I know who got out. The place is a trap that must be escaped. I’m surprised how many don’t make it. Supposedly it’s a great place to raise kids, but I don’t know a single person who grew up there and left who agrees.

I know it’s harder to find good schools and enough space to raise kids in Manhattan, as Megan McArdle explains in her post. But not every city is like Manhattan. Most cities aren’t.

In Portland (as well as in other cities of a similar size, such as Minneapolis and Seattle) it’s easy. Some of our best schools are in the city, and the nicest neighborhoods are definitely in the city. Nothing in the ‘burbs can compare to our heavily wooded Victorian neighborhoods and the top-notch schools nestled inside them. The pre-automobile urban design is far easier on the eyes, and you can get anywhere without a car. That’s a bonus for bored kids and also for parents who otherwise have to cart them around.

There isn’t a right or wrong answer in the city versus suburb debate. Salem may have had some (well-hidden) advantages for me, at least when I was small, even though it didn’t as I got older. There probably are drawbacks to growing up in the city, disadvantages that I’m not aware of since I didn’t have that experience.

My real point is this: Conventional wisdom says suburbs are better for kids, and that any kid who grew up in the suburbs agrees. I’m saying that’s false. You can find people who were happily raised in the suburbs, and you can find others who were glad to grow up in a city. But you can also find people who grew up in the suburbs and hated it.

Every single one of my childhood friends who made it out, either to Portland or to a city someplace else, are glad they got out and wish they didn’t start out in that town in the first place. None of us like to go back. It’s boring, it’s ugly, and worst of all it’s depressing.

Not everyone agrees. My parents love Salem and think I’m totally full of it. Either way, it doesn’t matter who’s “right,” since much of this is a matter of personality, taste, and opinion. But don’t go thinking it’s a no-brainer that your kids will be glad you reared ‘em up in the ‘burbs. You might be surprised what they say when they get a bit older.

Maybe it’s worth asking where they want to live. If you prefer to live in a city, don’t torture yourself in the suburbs just for your kids. If my parents asked me if I’d rather live in a city I would have said yes.

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