Lily loves walking to the beach--on this day for the 75th birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge.As readers of this blog know, trying to find home and a sense of place and belonging has been a major theme for me ever since I became a mother. I'm a person who wants deep roots, Sunday suppers with the same families, good conversations over tea, and that sense of tribe that I grew up with in my idyllic ride-horses-and-run-wild-in-the-country childhood. Trying to envision raising a family in a setting so very different than my own childhood has been challenging. I don't have a model, and there's a general assumption with rather deep roots in our cultural consciousness that raising kids in the city isn't really a good idea. Aren't cities dirty, noisy, concrete jungles that attract a lot of crime and vice?
I don't know what the future holds (although filmmaking is an urban craft), but I feel that it's only fair to me, our family, and to the city we've called home for almost nine years, to write about what I do love about the idea of raising Lily right here.
Easily the biggest reason why we love living in the city is walkability. We live right on the edge of the Presidio with easy access to miles and miles of trails. Lily plays in "the woods" almost daily, and at least once a week she meets several other kids that's she's been playing in the woods with for years now. They explore, climb up on logs, pick wildflowers, invent games, and--on sunny days--usually end up rolling down a sand dune buck naked. I laugh at the occasional jogger who comes around the corner of the trail to see five preschoolers running wild and naked in the woods. This is not the image most people have when they think of "city living".
Besides the woods, we're a short walk from the ocean (both the Pacific and the Bay), Golden Gate Park and several great museums, playgrounds and more playgrounds, a newly-renovated library, and many cafes, eateries, and shops. We have a favorite cafes for a sandwich, a wood-fired pizza, a hot chocolate, a burrito, or a the occasional cupcake, all within walking distance. We have numerous neighborhood markets ranging from ethnic grocery stores with rock bottom prices and an experience that feels like a visit to foreign country to mini-Whole Foods types with local, organic produce, 15 varieties of kombucha, and bulk bins. Getting out every day to go to a local park might be a little more work than just opening the sliding glass doors and letting her play in our own yard, but I do love how it forges new friendships, connections, and conversations with our neighbors. We come to the park together, and there's something very human about that interaction.
On an Easter Egg hunt with friends in the woods next to our apartment.We walk (well, Lily scoots) to ballet class, her playgroups, and just about everything else. Without even meaning to, we easily walk a few miles a day. (This is one reason why, even with Lily being 3.5 years old and 37 pounds, we still use our beloved Boba carrier often to cart her around. It's a sure bet that somewhere along the way little feet get tired, and I find it much easier to put her on my back than to negotiate with a tired kiddo about just how many more blocks we have to go.) Her babysitters have no trouble taking her out of the house for a neighborhood playground adventure or for an afternoon at the Academy of Sciences saying hello to her favorite penguins and fish, and the preschool she's going to start at in the fall meets outdoors (rain or shine) in a fairy ring in the meadow of a large, local park that we'll just walk or bike to.
This is not the type of city living most people envision--it's full of nature, the great outdoors, and a rich cultural experience that the suburbs can't offer.
She loves our "woods", and this is just a few minutes walk from our front door.Of course, the biggest issue most people think about with cities is crime. Safety matters before culture and neighborhood cafes. And this is where there are a lot of assumptions without data to back them up. First, just the feel of our neighborhood is safe. (We even inadvertently tested this the other night when I forgot our jogging stroller outside overnight, and it was right where I left it in the morning). I'd never live in certain parts of the city, but I find that a lot of people base their impressions of the city by their own (infrequent) visits, often to the parts of town that aren't very savory. In San Francisco, the parts of the city where tourists flock are the parts of town where the panhandlers and opportunists also flock. I can assure you that the parts of town where families live are very different. We do have a couple homeless men in our neighborhood that we occasionally see (especially one man who pushes a shopping cart down our street often), and our policy is that we will give or buy anyone food, if they ask. So, occasionally, we'll buy an extra burrito or take some baked goods out to share. But I actually like that Lily is growing up seeing and experiencing some of the aspects of humanity that we can tend to hide and sanitize. Eventually these interactions will be occasions for very growing conversations about poverty, privilege, and social responsibility.
Lily's favorite mode of transport around town.But back to the data about the safety of cities. Interestingly enough, while the very rare cases of violence against children get magnified in the media, the most dangerous place for a child to be is….in a car. Auto accidents are the leading cause of death for people ages 5-34, according to the CDC. So, the the walkability of living in the city isn't just about enjoyment or exercise; we are also at a significantly less risk of serious injury or death simply because we don't use our car very often.
As for crime, not only is crime down overall (and that's been a big surprise for those who predicted that the downturn in the economy would lead to an increase in crime), it has been dropping steadily since the 90s. And one of the biggest drug problems facing the country right now--Meth--isn't much of a big city problem, it's a suburban and rural one.
I'm not trying to paint an overly rosy picture of city living--I certainly get tired of looking for parking, carrying groceries up three flights of stairs, not having a dishwasher or a space to host large get-togethers, and the occasional siren we hear in the distance. And San Francisco, in particular, is a tough place for families because of the high-cost of living and the challenging school assignment system (it's complicated, unpopular, and highly politicized). Because of rent-control, people like us can afford (sometimes barely) to rent, but if we wanted to buy, there's simply no feasible way that could happen. I'm already seeing families we've met in these first years of parenting moving out to places with bigger yards, cheaper rents, feasible mortgages, and more transparent school assignment processes. And there are many days when I really get why, times when I feel out-classed by the million-dollar price tags on the homes on our street, misunderstood by the crowds of trendy, urban hipsters in the Mission who seem resentful of parents and children, and utterly overwhelmed by the idea of school lotteries and complicated bureaucracy. I do understand why families leave.
The frolicking princess at a neighborhood park.But just for today, I'm going to put aside the angst and assumptions and just be grateful. My daughter is growing up in a vibrant, richly diverse, and culturally significant city. She has friends to run naked in the woods with. And her idea of a fun family date is to ride her scooter to a favorite local cafe for a hot chocolate or hop on our bikes to enjoy Golden Gate Park car-free (every Sunday is car free!). If we choose the latter, she'll make sure we ride by her favorite sculpture in the park, a Goethe and Schiller statue that she likes to blow hugs and kisses to. Then she's likely to ask if we can ride on the carousel at the Children's Playground. Maybe she can even ride the unicorn? Or the dragon?
And you know what? That makes me happy. That puts the little inconveniences in sharp relief to the big perks. And happy parents make for happier kids, no matter where home is physically located. So, for today, I am a resting in gratitude for our little home in the big city.