Steven Johnson (“Everything Bad Is Good For You”) on Raising Kids in the City.


The year before my wife and I had our first child, I wrote a book that was partially a celebration of the connected city. My inspiration was Jane Jacobs’s classic, The Death And Life Of Great American Cities, and its argument for the social benefits of teeming sidewalks and public characters and dense, mixed-use development. We were living at the time in the very neighborhood that Jacobs had written about so movingly forty years before: Manhattan’s West Village. But even as I wrote my paean to Jacobs and her sidewalk symphonies, I had an occasional pang of guilt, a sense that perhaps I was romanticizing my neighborhood. I liked walking about the streets as much as the next guy, of course, but my encounters with the strangers I stumbled across in my roaming weren’t any more profound than what I remembered from prowling suburban malls as a youth. Conversations with anyone beyond the most mundane talk of the weather were limited almost entirely to cab drivers, and even those seemed increasingly rare.

Then our son was born, and all that began to change.

I first noticed it in our building’s elevators. Our son didn’t obey the golden rules of New York City elevator decorum. He didn’t stare blankly at the closed doors or the floor numbers, as though he were alone in the space. He stared directly at people. Sometimes he tried to communicate with them. In our building, there were some well-trained Manhattanites who pretended as though they weren’t being stared at, who ignored the giggles and the da-da-da’s. But most of our neighbors cracked a smile, and a little conversation ensued. Nothing epic, of course, but enough to transmit a few particles of information: names, ages, other kids. The next time we ran across each other in the elevator, or the lobby, on the grocery store, they’d call out to my son, marvel at how much he’d grown. Some days it seemed like he was on a first name basis with half the building. And he hadn’t even started talking yet.

Those connections extended all the way down the block – to the guy at the deli, the dry cleaner, the sandwich shop, even the baristas at Starbucks. I used to joke that if he ever came back as a teenager and tried to buy booze underage at the wine store down the street from us, he’d be busted immediately, because the guys there know exactly when he was born. (Not to mention how much he weighed.)

And then we had a second child, and moved to Park Slope in Brooklyn, and the web of connections thickened. We’ve made dozens of friends through casual, kid-facilitated encounters at the playground or the local coffee shop or just sitting on our stoop eating ice cream. More often than not, the kids start the conversation, but the grownups end up finishing it. When we lived in our apartment building in the West Village, on only one occasion did we step into one of our neighbors’ apartments in the five years we were there. In Brooklyn, we’ve had our neighbors over for brunch or a backyard barbecue countless times.

This isn’t to imply that our kids are unusually outgoing. Any parent who lives in the city will recognize the phenomenon immediately. Children strengthen the connective tissue of urban streets. My wife and I happen to be at the age of viral parenting: every other week, it seems, another close friend of ours is having their first kid, or a second one. And not one of those couples – a dozen or so, in the extended group – is even contemplating a move to the suburbs. We’re staying put partially because we’re not ready to give up the city ourselves, and partially because we want our kids to be exposed to the diversity and energy of the metropolis. But I think we’re staying for another reason, too, which is that we’ve come to recognize that children help create the kind of urban space we like to think we belong to: a space of connections, of links.

My book had included an extended analogy between the way that ant colonies organize themselves into robust communities and the unplanned, bottom-up way that city neighborhoods form. Ants secrete pheromones as a way of communicating with other ants that they stumble across in their meanderings; out of those multiple interactions, the broader unit of the colony takes shape. As Jacobs observed more than forty years ago, something equivalent happens in successful city neighborhoods, which rely on the chance interactions of sidewalk life to create the magic of city living. Jacobs’ vision was an implicit critique of the automobile-centric city, where the channels of communication were necessarily limited by the speed of highway traffic, where the only chance encounters were car accidents. Pedestrian-centric cities, on the other hand, broadened the channels linking people, making the city into a web of connections rather than a space of isolated units, each trapped in their own solitary vehicle.

But after we moved to Brooklyn, I started to think that maybe there was something even better than the pedestrian-centric city: the stroller-centric city. Kids made the sidewalks more lively and humane spaces, but they did something else as well: they spread the pheromones more thickly; they made connections happen between strangers who otherwise wouldn’t have reached out to one another. The addition of our children transformed our sidewalk promenades. Strangers suddenly had a reason to talk to us, and I had a reason to talk to them. Before long, we stopped being strangers.

The beautiful truth of urban parenting is that it flows against the current of traditional cliches about parenting in the suburbs: rather than pulling you into an ever-tighter circle of close friends and family, making you a prisoner of the rec room and the back yard, having a child in the city makes you more interwoven in the fabric of that exposed, public life. Children help create a city where diversity is not just a slogan, where encountering difference is not just a grad school seminar topic. Children make our shared spaces – our sidewalks and elevators, our stoops and laundromats – into places where you can finally get to know your neighbors, after trading glances for all these years. They widen the net.

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