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Why only cities vs. suburbs? In praise of raising kids in small towns

st joseph

Last week I clicked over from Facebook to a NYT essay asking whether city life is really good for children. Predictably, the comments section was full of passionate debate over the relative benefits and drawbacks of cities vs. suburbs when it comes to raising kids.

And, just as predictably, an entire category was left out of the alleged options: small towns.

I’ve moved a lot during my adult life, and have had the opportunity to experience parenthood in a variety of locations. I’ve raised kids in two big cities (Minneapolis and Chicago) and two economically depressed medium-sized cities (South Bend, Indiana and Lansing, MI). I toted babies around a strip-mall suburb outside of Minneapolis and in an apartment complex on the edge of a well-to-do suburb outside of Nashville, TN.

But I’d also lived in small towns throughout my childhood, and when my husband and I were tired of moving around and decided to settle in somewhere, it was small town life we chose.

St Joe Collage

Going on five years ago, we settled in St Joseph, a sleepy beach town on the shores of Lake Michigan. The population is a little over 8,000 people, with just three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.

While a small percentage of residents do travel to Chicago (90 minutes away) to work, you couldn’t reasonably call our town a suburb. It’s the county seat, and one of the more hopping communities in the mostly-rural region.

No, St. Joseph is a small town through and through, and that makes it somewhat immune to the problems that come up again and again in the city vs. suburb debates:

*Big-city critics claim that cities are noisy and smoggy, lack trees and natural places, and that they can be prohibitively expensive places for “normal” people to live.

while

*Critics of suburbia point to sprawl, long commutes, and soulless cookie-cutter communities in which houses (and people) all look the same.

Of course, both viewpoints are exaggerated and leave a lot out of the picture. But from my vantage point, the small town has it all: an easy commute to everything from jobs to schools to grocery stores, trees and natural beauty everywhere you look, and a surprisingly economically-diverse population residing in houses ranging from brand-new McMansions to creaky Victorian cottages. (Which, by the way, cost a whole lot less than houses in most major cities or their neighboring suburbs.)

Whether I’m going to the doctor or heading out to dinner, there’s not a place in town I can’t get to in ten minutes or less. My kids roam the neighborhood freely, and my sons have had the same friends for years. We have an adorable, charming downtown with local shops and independent restaurants.

But what I love most about small-town life is the sane pace. Almost everyone I know works as a “normal” job: they’re teachers, nurses, bank tellers; they work for the county or city government or hold 8-5 jobs at one of the limited number of local employers. The movers and shakers work in marketing or run their own businesses or hold executive-level positions at Whirlpool Corporation, our area’s largest employer.

There doesn’t seem to be a jarring distinction between the haves and have-nots; my sons attend school with richer and poorer kids but mostly in-the-center kids who cover a span of lower-to-middle-middle class. (The middle class appears to be very much alive here.)

By 5:05 PM most days, our main street is clogged as an exodus of workers leave their offices and head home. It is the one time of day that you are well-advised to wait before running out for that takeout pizza or gallon of milk.

Fortunately, it doesn’t last long. By 5:20 or so the congestion has cleared, and it’s smooth sailing again. By that time, I imagine, most of the workers at the handful of major employers in my small town are already home. Of course, there are exceptions. But even executive-level moms and dads, for the most part, make it to the 6:30 curtain for the school play.

Whenever I read articles about parents who feel obligated to work crazy-long hours, insane preschool competition, or suburban sprawl, I have a hard time not rubbing in the fact that we only have, I think, three preschools (all of which almost always have openings), that the cost of living is so reasonable here that there truly is no need to kill yourself at work, and that instead of “sprawl” there are miles of orchards, farms, trees, and of course, bright-blue lake water just outside of our city limits.

Small towns are as diverse as big ones, so of course not all will be as great as St. Joseph. And I know that small-town life isn’t for everyone. There are definitely drawbacks to this kind of living.

For example: 

I encounter a frustrating amount of small-mindedness (like any place, you have to look around to find “your people”; in a small town there are fewer people so you just have to look harder.)

I wish it were more ethnically diverse. Coming from the school my sons attended in Chicago, in which they were in the minority as white kids, the white-ness here was hard to get used to.

Work opportunities are limited. I don’t know anyone who actually can’t find a job, but if you want to work in, say, publishing, you don’t have a lot of options here. My husband travels into Chicago a couple of times a week to meet with clients, and I’m lucky enough to work from home.

It can be boring. During the off-season, downtown is a quiet place. Many times my husband and I have had the opportunity to grab a bite to eat at 9 PM, only to find that all the restaurants are closed. The bar scene isn’t exactly hopping.

But you figure out how to work within those limits. You take your kids into the bigger city so they can experience the museums and the culture and the diversity; you talk to them about how very white it is in this little pocket of the world, and how that’s not exactly normal. During the winter months, you take advantage of outdoor recreation, you invite family and friends over for dinner, you watch a lot of movies while the kids run around.

You wait breathlessly for the summer, because boy, does this place do summer well.

photo by Jeff Denapoli

photo by Jeff Denapoli

There is a lot to celebrate about other kinds of places to live, too. True rural living rarely gets acknowledged as a viable option. People also forget about medium-sized cities, but they can offer the best of both worlds. For example, I could totally see our family thriving in Grand Rapids, a laid-back, thriving city about an hour north of here, filled with arts and culture, a great wine, beer and food scene; and plenty of tree-lined streets. (Full disclosure, I work with Grand Rapids’ CVB.)

But for now, my family is happily tucked away in our beautiful, somewhat sleepy, super-easy-to-live-in little city.

No, small-town life isn’t perfect. But if you’re a parent frustrated by the choice between big city or suburb living, I encourage you to give it a second look.

My kids enjoy a lot of freedom under the watchful eye of other local parents, who will call me in a heartbeat if they see anything questionable. I can get through entire weeks without ever sitting in a traffic jam or frequenting a strip mall. And when the local bar is open, you can get a drink for about 1/2 what it would cost in a big city.

To me, that’s worth a little bit of boring-ness any old day.

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