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Why Raise Your Kid in a Big City?

As an adolescent, I watched Woody Allen movies and Seinfeld, listened obsessively to Talking Heads, and fantasized about living in New York City. When I moved here after college, exuberance brightened my view of my new home, turning the negatives — the crowds in Time Square, the sewage-y odor in the summer, the threat of muggings when walking home alone from a party late at night — into positives. I was, if not tough, street smart. I could handle myself, I thought, patting myself on the back.

That’s part of what the city is about when you move here in your twenties, right? If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, and of course you envision yourself as making it — you’re headstrong and young and not had the experience of trying and failing or trying and being denied. And so the nightmarish aspects of the city seem like part of the dream.

A lot has changed since I moved to NYC in the late 90′s. I remember walking down a dark, deserted stretch of Broadway in Chinatown, trying to hail a cab who wouldn’t mind heading to Brooklyn. Now that area boasts so many flagship retail stores it looks like an outdoor mall, and Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue teems with taxis. The Avenues near where I live once held storefront churches, bodegas, and unused, abandoned storefronts. Today, Manhattanites flock here for pre-Prohibition era cocktails, craft beers, and haute cuisine. A couple of blocks away, big monied developers filled in the abandoned train yards and erected The Barclay’s Center, which hosted this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. The city is safer and perhaps cleaner, but it’s also expensive and terribly bifurcated between the 1% and the hoi polloi, a city that veers from impoverished projects to luxury condos in the space of a block, with no options in between.

As one of my New York heroes, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, recently put it in a piece for Creative Time Reports, “Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.”

Novelist Cari Luna is one such artist, a New York native who moved to Portland, Oregon, and now has a backyard where she grows asparagus and keeps chickens. As she wrote in her essay “Priced Out of New York” on Salon, “To be a middle-class family in New York these days is to be in eternal survival mode, always scrabbling, always scraping by. What happens to a city that’s priced itself out of reach of the average family?”

Certainly many of my friends from college have left, especially after having kids, and even David Byrne threatens to decamp if the economic divisions in this town continue to grow. So then why am I sticking around? We’re lucky to be renting from my mother-in-law, which puts us in the fortunate position of having a patron. My mother-in-law could get more than double the amount in rent that she receives from us. And still we avoid vacations and watch our budget as we try and get by — we probably could afford to buy two meals in most parts of America for the price of one meal out, and I’m not talking about a fancy restaurant here, I mean at a neighborhood eatery.

And so, I thought it worthwhile to compose a list reminding myself why, with all the financial worries, we still love living and raising our son in New York City. Because we do! It’s still a great town, and one I believe worth staying in, and fighting to improve. I don’t mean improve for just the few, but improve for all who live here.

  • It’s not all bad! Click on to find out the benefits of raising a kid in the big city… 1 of 10
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  • Exposure to All Types of People 2 of 10
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    The streets of New York are like the Tower of Babble laid flat — you hear all languages spoken, and you'll see all kinds of people. The borough of Queens is, I've heard, the most ethnically diverse place in the country. You also see folk on the fringe: the non-conformists, the down-and-out, and the just plain crazy. It's a rainbow of people, a true melting pot, mingling on the Avenues, in parks, and on the subway. My son will grow up thinking this is the norm, and that's the way the world should be, I think. A big jumble, all types welcome.

  • Having Access to Vibrant Culture 3 of 10
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    Movies, literary readings, plays, concerts, dance performances, art galleries, happenings that fall in between the cracks of these categories or combine elements of multiple disciplines — New York has it all. Perhaps, as David Byrne attests, not as much as it had before, but it's not yet gone. Just last weekend my son sat with me, watching two marvelous blue grass musicians perform on the edge of the farmer's market. Sometimes, visitors will express awe at this. "I saw the coolest street art in Union Square today!" And I'll be interested, but not surprised. The city clothes itself in culture, and residents sometimes forget to notice it, like a well-worn sweater we take for granted. Which in itself is pretty cool. To be around art so much that it's just a part of your day-to-day life? Exactly.

    Pictured: Bridget Davis + The Viking Kings at Pete's Candy Store

  • Eating Great Cuisine 4 of 10
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    Oh, the food in New York! At four years old, my son already eats a wider range of food then I knew at fourteen. He can be as picky as any little kid, but he loves his fancy cheeses, and he knows about (even if he doesn't always partake in) Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and Middle Eastern foods. It's an international city in all senses of the word, but primarily the sense of taste.

  • Becoming Savvy 5 of 10
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    With all the people and goings on in the city, you become savvy at social situations, even when those situations are just run-ins on the street. Sure, your kid is going to hear some bad language and see some crazy stuff growing up here. My wife, for example, remembers crack vials in the streets when she was a little girl. Just yesterday, on a ride around the block, my son and I witnessed a drunk guy being hauled off in an ambulance, screaming about how he needed one more hit of his flask. As Bruce Watson recently put it on The New York Times Motherlode Blog, "even a tough neighborhood can be a great classroom." You learn how to read people, and situations, and keep yourself safe in all kinds of environments.

  • Staying on the Cutting Edge 6 of 10
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    Fashion, technology, trends, you name it, you'll see it on the streets of New York early. This is one of the reasons New Yorkers can seem so jaded when they're taken out of the city. You see so much, that to ratchet down the amount of stimulation seems boring. As my son sometimes asks when we're visiting his grandparents, "Where are all the people at?" New Yorkers stay on the edge of hip, and life can seem flat elsewhere.  

  • Developing Confidence 7 of 10
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    With so many people in the city, you have to stand out. This means learning to look people in the eye, introducing yourself, talking about who you are and what you do. As Jessica Grose wrote on Slate's Double X Factor, the New York rat race can lead to a lack of ethical behavior, what with so many people clamoring for so few opportunities stressing to get their children into daycares, say, or being one of over a hundred applicants for a single job. On the plus side, it requires you develop a thick armor, and a sharp game.

  • Becoming Adept at Navigating 8 of 10
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    Learn how to find your destination by subway, bus, bike, and foot — reading signs and checking your smartphone map along the way — and chances are you can successfully travel through any city in the world. This doesn't mean you don't get lost, rather, you know how to get lost and not lose your cool. When I moved to Shanghai, which is much more crowded and convoluted than New York, I knew people who felt overwhelmed and threatened by the city. I acclimated pretty quickly, in part because of my unflappable New York attitude toward the world around me.

  • Nurturing a Sense of Civility 9 of 10
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    With so many people living so close together, you learn who your neighbors are, and you look out for them. You also help people in need, like when someone's trapped between subway doors, or you see an elderly person looking for a seat on the bus. It's impossible to feel alone in the city, and that fosters a sense of community. Besides, everyone has their complaints about the noise, the traffic, the dirt, the crime, and so you bond with people, and work to keep your little slice of New York as pristine as possible. That's a great attitude for a kid to have, I think. Already, Felix loves helping to sweep and shovel the neighborhood sidewalks!

  • Maintaining a Strong Sense of Personal Space 10 of 10
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    It can be hard to find your own space in the throngs of New York. You have to go out of your way for solitude — taking an early morning walk, or finding a quiet section of the park for having a picnic. Sometimes, in the midst of your day, while on the subway, you're in your head, carving out a bit of breathing room in the crowded city. I think this is a good thing. If you can find some calm and peace here, you can find it anywhere! Being able to go withing yourself for solitude and strength is a powerful thing to do, like a Jedi mind trick, of sorts. One that kids who grow up here learn to do by necessity.

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