It hit me the gazillionth time I hauled the stroller down the icy steps with baby squirming in one arm, purse slipping off the other: It doesn’t have to be this way. A winter walk to coffee in the square had turned into an arctic expedition. Somewhere other parents were pushing a magical button for the garage door, sliding into their warm, non-ice-crusted car, and heading for the drive-thru Starbucks. Suddenly, the suburbs sounded like bliss.
As a native Californian, I’ve been fighting the burbs since college, spending the last decade living smack center in major urban areas. A couple years ago my husband and I hit the housing market jackpot in Boston. Well, actually we drained a good chunk of our savings, but we found all the prerequisites of our dream house: single family with a small yard for the dog, within walking distance of the subway and city square. Now that I’ve put that out there, I’m fully aware a “stop your bitching” is in order and trust me, we’ve loved our cushy compromise of urban living, full of takeout, car-free weekends, and evenings with the neighbors.
But recently, even since the spring thaw, the romance of city living has started to wear off. Rush hour traffic zips down our one-way street with drivers too busy texting to look up. Both the adults and kids yell, “CAR!” every two minutes. On weekend mornings we find ourselves stepping over trash and cigarettes from the night before, not to mention the occasional vomit. Come trash day we continually discover random booze dropped in our recycling bin (who drink two bottles of coffee brandy in one night?).
Last week my neighbor’s young son found a couple syringes out front, which thankfully he didn’t get too curious with. Even worse, over the last four months there have been public drug deals, sexual assaults, and a carjacking in our immediate neighborhood. And this is Cambridge we’re talking about, not Compton.
Lately I find myself gravitating toward the kind of life my parents created (a tough thing to admit, let alone publish). Growing up we had hour-long kickball games in the street. We built tree houses in the creek, sled down hills in the open space on cardboard, camped out in the backyard, and never thought to lock the front door. I took for granted the everyday luxuries like wide streets, big lawns, cul-de-sacs, and the genius automatic garage door.
The truth of it is, the suburbs were created to ease the way of life and when the crowds really caught on in the 1950s, the concept boomed to the point of clich’. Now it’s as if people – especially urbanites and movie producers – only think of the suburbs as the land of conformity, where everything and everyone looks the same as in the The Truman Show or Stepford Wives. To consider moving into it is to become a total sell out – once you go suburban you never go back, and you might as well buy a minivan and get waitlisted at the country club while you’re at it.
When you live in a city for a long time you get used to a certain way of life where the world is at your fingertips – everything is a short jaunt away and you’re constantly bumping into familiar faces. To migrate away instills an instant fear of becoming invisible and far removed from where life happens. Then there’s the ultimate worst-case scenario of going quietly insane, like one of John Cheever’s beautiful, bored characters or hitting the point of depression and suicide Desperate Housewives-style. But if we put our Hollywood-hyped suburb-phobia on hold for a moment, it’s easy to start seeing the perks of more space, smaller mortgages, and better schools.
Many parents I talk to love urban living, but semi-secretly want to move to the burbs one day. There’s a bit of guilt attached to admitting it, like those of us gave our newborns formula in the hospital to catch a little rest. We feel like we should stick it out and not give up. We resist such a move because it’s impossible to imagine it even being a viable option – that was our parents’ choice – not ours, right? Staying in the city means holding onto our youth and still having access to crazy nights and lazy hangover brunches, not to mention being surrounded by like-minded friends who are also raging against the norm. But it begs the question: are we staying for the kids or for us?
Sure, urban living offers exposure, but sooner or later, the American Dream sneaks up on us with visions of a sweet house with green grass. Just imagine opening up a back door to let the kids burn off steam instead of the huge production it is to get to the playground – especially when one child’s must-get-out-or-meltdown moment doesn’t work for mom, dad, or new baby. I like to envision taking a long walk with my dog off the leash and letting my daughter wander happily a good ten feet ahead of me to explore; it’s an image that makes me feel free, not old.
In effort to avoid any potential Revolutionary Road-style isolation and depression, I’m scouting out first-tier suburbs – neighborhoods free of chain link fences, but not quite white picket. There’s a big gray area between urban jungle and tract home hell. There are still places where being able to walk to coffee and safely drop your child off at a good public school won’t require a second mortgage.
What five-year-old kid deserves a commute? The matter of schools alone intensifies the entire city-versus-suburb dilemma. Moving for a good school district is what usually ends up driving people out of the city. In New York, parents dread kindergarten more than college. If their kid doesn’t get into their neighborhood school and god forbid they didn’t apply for or can’t afford private, there’s no telling where their tot will be shuttled off to, and what five-year-old kid deserves a commute? In other cities, it’s the terrifying lottery systems, steep tuitions, and unsafe or poorly staffed classrooms that make moms and dads say enough is enough. Or at least it offers a legit excuse to get out of the city when baby number two arrives and it all starts to feel like a hassle.
The reality is, we are at that stage of life with growing broods when a bit more room to breathe is starting to sound pretty good. But, as with most things, I’m sure in housing the grass is truly always greener on the other side. If and when we make the plunge we’ll quite possibly be crying in our drive-thru lattes over the long commutes and lonely streets. So for now, while I plot our escape, I’m heading out to chat with the neighbors and stroll over to a friend’s house. She’s set out cold white wine and water tables in her garage-free driveway where we can all relax – until the kids break through our makeshift barrier and toddle innocently toward rush-hour traffic.