In the debate of raising your kids in the city versus raising your kids in the suburbs, the most important thing to consider is what's best for your family. A Manhattan mother discusses the benefits of both, and what you should consider before moving to the 'burbs.
Sometimes it seems like the grass is always greener on the other side: Friends who relocated to the ’burbs boast of driveways but curse the absence of great curry, while those who define themselves as forever-urbanites decry their lack of storage and the cost of preschool. How do you determine the best place for your family to call home?
Anyone who has ever lived in any borough of New York City, and who has kids, or is planning to have kids, has certainly run the following debate over and over again in their minds: Where is a better place to raise a family: In the city, or in the ’burbs? For some, leaving the city seems an inevitable path to carving out their family structure; others stubbornly cling to the city life.
Personally, my little three-person family unit falls in the latter category. Nine years ago, my son was born at (the now-defunct) St. Vincent’s Hospital, and my husband, kid, and I never left downtown Manhattan. Whenever friends or relatives outside of the city ask me how we can stand raising a child in the city, I admit to getting wistful when I contrast my tiny 750-square foot “2-bedroom” apartment with their sprawling stand-alone houses, attics, basements, front and back yards, and vegetable gardens… Sigh. And yet, we’re quick as New Yorkers to rattle off the benefits of raising kids in the city. My typical recitation sounds something like this: “When my kid became interested in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, we hopped on the subway to look at armor at the Met”… or… “We can walk to about six playgrounds within a 10-block radius of our apartment. We can also walk to school and back, and down to Chinatown, which is our favorite place to rat around on Saturdays.” As I look out the window and watch rain fall, I’m comforted to know that this afternoon my son and I will while away the hours indoors at the Chess Forum on Thompson Street—one of my favorite places on Earth that seems intrinsically unique to life in New York City. Yep—we’re hooked.
That said, we keep a car and get out of the city with a frequency that belies reason.
• 42% of parents cited they have always lived in the city and are raising their kids there too, and 41.5% have always lived in the suburbs and are raising their kids there. For those who did make a move when they had children, suburbia takes a marginal victory, as 10% of respondents cited a move from the city to the suburbs to raise their kids, while only 6.5% cited a move from the suburbs to the city to raise their kids.
• Suburban parents were more satisfied with their choice, with 46% of parents raising their kids in suburbia citing they would make the same choice again. Comparatively, only 34% of city parents felt the same affinity for the urban upbringing of their children.
From a nationwide survey conducted by Rent.com among 1,000 parents in the U.S. in 2012.
To Move, or Not to Move
There are so many things to consider before moving with kids. School districts are, of course, the No. 1 driving force behind the Big Decision. It probably goes without saying that both indoor and outdoor spaces are huge issues. The fantasy of bicycles thrown on a lawn after school will make some swoon for a stand-alone house (with driveway and storage in the basement!); others can’t imagine life without 24-hour delis available on every corner. Where do you fall on the city/suburb spectrum?
Alison Bernstein, owner of The Suburban Jungle Realty Group, spoke with me about many of the factors parents should consider before picking up and leaving the city. Bernstein’s company offers a wide-reaching consultancy about everything from length of commute to special needs offered in various school districts. Their process with clients begins with a simple questionnaire that includes thoughtful questions such as “Where did you grow up and what did you love/hate about each place?” and “What are the things that are most important to you about a community?”
Moving to the suburbs from the city is overwhelming. With more than 500 suburbs within commuting distant to the Big Apple to consider, where do you start?
The Commute: To understand what an average commute looks like, consider that a short commute is going to be between 30-35 minutes, door to door. Towns with short commutes like this include Scarsdale, Larchmont, and Montclair, NJ. “The longest commute that most would want to consider would be around 75 minutes on the outside,” Bernstein says, and would include places such as Fairfield and Westport, CT. For many, like Kristen Kemp, a writer who’s raising three young children in Montclair, the close vicinity to the city for quick hops were paramount when choosing her suburban landscape. “We wanted to have a big space, yard, and good schools. For us, the easy access to the city is key. The bus that goes to Port Authority stops right in front of my house.”
The Community: To a large extent, your actual dream house should be the least of your initial investigations outside of the city. It’s critically important to understand the beat of the community. Bernstein suggests you ask yourself the following questions before you settle on an actual house.
“Consider the age that your kids will be when you move,” Bernstein says. “Are there nice playgrounds nearby? Will you need full-time nursery care? If so, have you checked out the options?” The questions don’t stop there. “Do you want to be able to walk down to Main Street to have brunch, or are you cool hopping in your car to go everywhere?” See if you can’t talk up a parent or two in your prospective suburb to help you get an initial lay of the land.
“We have made a point to have consultants in each of the suburbs who can speak to the culture of the community and to answer questions that may not be obvious after a visit or two. Is it largely a stay-at-home mom town, or a working town? Consider where you would fall in that general social spectrum, because you don’t want to be the odd man out,” Bernstein says.
The Schools: “We moved to the ’burbs because we lived in Morningside Heights in Manhattan in a terrible school district,” says Chandra Czape Turner, an editor who commutes to Manhattan, and who is raising two kids in Pelham. “Think Waiting for Superman, only Madelyn didn’t win the lottery for any of those great charter schools. So it was either send her to her zoned school, which scored 1.5 out of 10 (no kidding), or move. We moved to lower Westchester right before kindergarten and it was the best decision we’ve ever made. It’s surprisingly more expensive to live in the ’burbs than in Manhattan, but the (free, award-winning) schools can’t be beat. Plus, it’s all still walkable—so no school buses, even. And I can walk to the train and get to work in a half hour. I miss the city, but it was a good decision for our family to leave.”
What are the schools like in the city neighborhood where you currently live? (Check out ratings for New York City schools at InsideSchools.org.) Are you planning on looking at public or private schools? Regardless, “We make a point to visit the schools with our clients,” Bernstein says. On these visits, they’re looking for the pros, such as reasonable class sizes, but they’re also keyed into the possible cons. “If you’re looking into high schools, are students smoking outside? Are many of the kids loitering? If you have a child with special needs, will the school system be able to meet those needs to your satisfaction?”
Do you want to be within walking distance of school, or are buses okay? What are the extracurricular activities like? What does life look like for kids in the hours after school?
City Mice: Case Studies
Those who decide to leave NYC for greener pastures should carefully consider school districts, space, and overall lifestyle factors before making the leap. But for some parents who grew up in the city, such as Laurie Shapiro, a writer and self-proclaimed lifer who is raising her 9-year-old daughter on the Lower East Side, moving away will never be an issue. “I don’t drive, which is a big issue, but I love New York City childhoods anyhow. I need to be around the culture and the interaction with various ethnicities and orientations. The subway and walking, versus riding in cars, does that. Rarely does a native New York City kid grow up to be racist or homophobic,” Shapiro opines.
Eric Pomerance, Shapiro’s writing partner and a New York-native hailing from Greenwich Village, says he and his wife love raising their son in Manhattan. “We enjoy seeing him grow up around all kinds of people. New York in the ’70s was dirty and dangerous and had virtually no good parks or playgrounds, yet I’ve never heard anyone say ‘You know, if I could do it over again, I’d have preferred to have grown up in the suburbs.’”
Marijke Briggs, an art teacher with two sons, lives with her family in the East Village. “I emphatically love living in NYC and raising my kids here,” Briggs says. The story of her city-mouse decision now has near-mythic status from the telling an re-telling:
“When our oldest was a year-and-a-half, we were being bought out of a Williamsburg loft. Since I work in southern Westchester, I decided we should have a Tudor near my school. We only looked at one house. During that time, we moved into a friend’s apartment in Stuyvesant Town with a one- to two-year sublet plan. On our first weekend there, we went up to the Met. Our toddler fell asleep in his stroller towards the end of our visit. We walked outside into an oddly warm December drizzle and decided to walk. We ended up walking all the way back down to 14th Street, happy as clams. Back at the apartment, I slipped into a hot bath with a juicy book and a glass of wine and felt complete bliss. I yelled for my husband George—who came running—and proclaimed that I would never leave Manhattan again. The suburbs have never been spoken of since. That was 10 years ago...”
Check out what other parents are saying about the city vs. suburbs debate on the blogosphere.