Why it's awesome to raise a city child

June 21 | Guest post by Ariel Troster
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By: LordcolusCC BY 2.0
I grew up in the suburbs and didn't really know our neighbours. For some reason, the street we lived on in Thornhill, Ontario, was rather transient in nature. We lived in our house until I moved away and went to university, but many other families only stayed for a year or two and then moved deeper into the 905 regions of Markham and Richmond Hill.

I vaguely remember hanging out with a few other kids when I was really young — ex-pat Jewish South Africans who didn't stick around into the mid-1980s. But I didn't have much connection with my street, because I always went to schools that were out of our neighbourhood. At first, my parents sent us in taxis to a private Jewish school, and then I attended specialized arts public schools that required me to take at least two public transit buses. I received an excellent education, but my friends never lived within walking distance.

My parents moved to a new house when I was away at university, so I rarely go back to the street where I grew up. My sense of family isn't rooted in a particular community or geographic place. So I never randomly bump into people I went to high school with when I go home to visit family.

My roommate in first year university was the child of a single mother and grew up in the heart of Toronto's Little Italy. She was the quintessential downtown kid — comfortable riding the street car at 2am, quietly street smart and cultured in a way that I envied. My family was never really suburban in the traditional sense of the word. We went downtown often, attended lots of theatre and ate in interesting restaurants. But it was always a long schlep to get anywhere. We needed to leave the house an hour before any dinner reservation. And I always had to make sure to catch the last TTC ride home, curbing late-night teenage adventures. I hated walking across the deserted parking lot of Finch subway station to retrieve the family car and drive the rest of the way home. It was too quiet. I always preferred the noise and bustle of downtown to the eerie silence of deserted suburbia.

I am delighted to now be raising a baby in an inner city neighbourhood. Our house cost a lot more than an equivalent property would have in the suburbs, but the trade-offs are so worth it for us. I have never felt isolated as a new parent, not even for a second. The coffee shop down the street is a magnet for young families, and the baby drop-in at the elementary school nearby is always bursting at the seams. The neighbours across the street with three-year-old twins routinely drop off boxes of hand-me-downs. The family members living on a fixed income down the street are the first to assist elderly neighbours with snow shovelling and other physical tasks. A woman I met at a breastfeeding drop-in at the community health centre recognized me eight months later and invited us to a block party. Daphne has five close friends who live within a ten-minute walk away.

This is not to mention that as a queer family, it's so important to us that our daughter grows up surrounded by other LGBT families. A couple of nearby schools have become magnets for kids with same sex parents. And downtown schools are more likely to attract children from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds.

We live near a busy intersection and our nearest pharmacy is home to a methadone clinic. When we put our recycling out at night, all of the beer bottles are removed by morning by people who could use the spare change. I occasionally see a couple of sex workers on Gladstone street, discreetly conducting their business. None of these things bother me. They are part of the fabric of a city. I want my child to grow up knowing that not everyone grows up in a privileged environment and that our neighbourhoods have room for all sorts of people.

Luckily, Daphne is too young to discriminate. She enthusiastically waves "Hi" to everyone we see — the people in our neighbourhood.

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  1. Great post! I live in Niagara and would love to someday move to toronto for all the reasons you specified, and then some. For example, there are homeschool groups there that aren't religious, which is difficult to find here.

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  2. I have never felt isolated as a new parent, not even for a second.

    This was SUCH a huge part of my decision to live in-city with my family… having a baby is isolating enough, without the prospect of having to schlep into a car every time you want to get out. Even in my darkest postpartum days, I'd just strap a little dude to my chest and walk out the door to smile at the stream of hipsters, addicts, aging gays, yuppies, and homeless people we share our neighborhood with.

    Yes, my son still sleeps in a walk-in closet… but the trade-offs are so incredibly worth it for all of us.

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    • Yes! We lived in a very, very diverse neighborhood when our daughter was first born. Walking around with a baby was like wearing a giant "Come say HI!" sandwich sign. We may have had a lot of gang activity in our hood, but most of them always said hello and seeing them answer a stuffed bunny (used as a telephone) was endlessly entertaining. We moved from that neighborhood to one with less gang activity but we still walk everywhere and say hello to our neighbors and love living in the city.

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    • I had a rough time in the first few months. Breast feeding was a disaster. My otherwise sweet baby wailed every time I tried to feed her. I made friends with an awesome group of women who dropped off breast milk and went on long walks and tours of local coffee shops with me. Even if I was having a terrible day, I forced myself out for a walk and I always bumped into someone I knew or was able to distract myself with window shopping. I really think city living saved me from post-partum depression.

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  3. >>Our house cost a lot more than an equivalent property would have in the suburbs, but the trade-offs are so worth it for us.<<

    I live in the U.S., where the term "inner city" must mean something different. Here, it refers to a usually low-income urban environment cut off from the more prosperous areas of the city, either by geography or lack of transportation. It often connates an area with a large percentage of people of color, frequently due to de facto segregation and racist housing policies like "red lining." Housing in the suburbs is exponentially higher than that of these neighborhoods, where one can usually buy a home for shockingly little money (as an example, a house in an inner city neighborhood in my city can be bought for $15K).

    I am curous what inner city means in your city, province, or country. It sounds like it just means "urban area?"

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    • This is a great point – I think maybe "downtown" or "urban" would be more appropriate to describe the area I live in (post below) – not sure about the writer of this article though.

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    • The inner city is the central area of a major city or metropolis.

      In the United States, the term has the additional connotation of impoverished black and/or Hispanic neighborhoods. Sociologists in these countries sometimes turn this euphemism into a formal designation, applying the term inner city to such residential areas rather than to geographically more central commercial districts. source

      In terms of my own personal semantics, I reject the connotation that "inner city" should mean "impoverished area." American cities are seeing some massive demographic shifts, with urban gentrification in the "inner city," and poverty stretching out into the burbs… so for me, the connotation feels outdated and irrelevant.

      That said, I don't want readers to get distracted by the title, so I've tweaked it. Not that debating the term "inner city" isn't fascinating for a sociology nerd like myself, but I feel like there are larger topics to discuss. 🙂

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    • Hi! I should have mentioned that there is a lot of rental housing in my neighbourhood. So the property values may be higher when it comes to buying a place, there are a lot of low income buildings and rooming houses in the area. Ottawa is a small city with a relatively low crime rate. So there isn't as much ghettoization. Our downtown neighbourhoods are quite mixed — but I am constantly working to be a good neighbour and not simply a force of gentrification.

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    • I live in Edmonton, Alberta (a few provinces over from the OP's), and while I don't know if this is just a Canadian thing, but I know many people use "inner city", "downtown" and "city centre" interchangeably. I think to us it just means "the middle of the city". Funny enough, the neighbourhoods where some people might call "inner city" due to their improvished nature…are located northeast of the city centre.

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      • I think many cities are similar to what you mention Edmonton these days with poor, marginalised neighbourhoods stretching out into the suburbs where rent is cheaper than downtown but there is still bus access. In Ottawa, the suburb of Barrhaven is a big mix of poor, recent immigrants and middle income, typical suburbanites. I worked in food security in Ottawa and one study (www.justfood.ca/foodforall/wheres-the-food/) found that the suburb had poor access to food and high rates of food poverty at some of the worst rates in the city. Not what you would expect from suburbs, but it seems to be an emerging trend.

        Great article and it just reinforces my love of the "inner city".

  4. I was raised in Cambridge, ON (1 hour west of Toronto) – a white, middle-class, suburban town. My husband was raised in Scarborough (the exact opposite of Cambridge!). We recently bought a house in Little India in Toronto's east end and a traditionally marginalized, "rough" area of the city. I won't lie that I've had my doubts and been worried about my son's safety as he grows up with thoughts about him taking the transit (at 2am, as you noted above), walking through certain parks at dusk when he loses track of time and takes a short cut, the rougher kids from very diff't homes than I or my friends were brought up in, the methadone clinic in our neighbourhood and the people who use it (yep, we have one too) and a whole host of others. However, the day we moved into our house and everyday since, I can honestly say I have NEVER felt the kind of community I do here. I know at least 10 of my neighbours, I am an active part of our community resident organization, I know the officers of our community police services and use them frequently, we shop locally and have become good friends with one of the local shop owners. And, same as your little one, when we go for walks and pass the local "kick 'n' stab" bar at the end of my street, my son enthusiastically waves and says "HI!" – and there isn't a face in that bar whose face doesn't light up when they see my son.
    I hope that, one day, my son will meet someone raised like me (or you) and they will see him as the girl in your story – cool, street-smart, cultured – "the quintessential downtown kid". Nothing would make me prouder.

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  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I could just hug you and jump up and down right now. I love this.

    My partner and I live downtown and when we first chose our place, pretty much everyone we knew reacted with horror. 'You're living WHERE? Aren't you scared? Ugh, what about the children?!" Most of our combined friends figured it was a transition home until we got on our feet.

    Together we have three kids and I have never loved another home as much as I love this one. It's very real, it's SO alive and there is so much character and colour and vibrancy and life here.

    Yes, there is a needle exchange clinic down the street, we do have a few girls out working at night, our trash is consistently sifted through for anything usable. Yup, sirens are close and there's times we've sat on the fire escape and wondered what the hell just went down next door. Our area is in the news fairly regularly – violence at a party, break in at the convenience store over night.

    But as long as we aren't stupid (which goes for everyone, regardless of where they live) we're perfectly safe. In fact, in the 2 1/2 years since we moved here, not once have I ever felt unsafe, vulnerable, or at risk of anything.

    There are people on the sidewalk of all races, religions and walks of life – from the girl who always asks to 'borrow a smoke' from my fiance who doesn't smoke to the snazzy little business professional couple I see walking together after work and everyone in between.

    We walk so much more than I ever have because there is always, always something interesting to see and when it's not -40 outside, there's usually something exciting going on too – a parade, a street festival, a multitude of garage sales. Or someone interesting to get to know.

    I've noticed, having lived in a variety of different types of areas (country living, suburbia, and now inner-city) that it has only been here that people really TALK. Small town chatter is usually either gossip or weather. Surburan speak has always felt more guarded and held back. Downtown – people talk…waiting for the bus, standing in line at the corner shop or just happening to fall in step with someone walking down the sidewalk and the variety of random conversations and connections that I've made is just…beautiful.

    I wouldn't choose to live anywhere else. I love it, my fiance loves it, our children love it.

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    • Glad you liked the post. Even though our house could be a tight squeeze if we choose to have a second child, I really don't want to sacrifice the benefits of living walking or biking distance to everything. I am so much more physically active just from the incidental exercise of commuting by foot or bike. The thought of getting stuck in traffic every day sends me into a mild panic. I really hate driving. We have one car, but I rarely drive it.

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  6. I am glad that we are raising my daughter in the city, but that largely has nothing to do with culture, but a matter of convenience. We don't have to drive to take her places. We are a one car family, so my daughter is already well-experienced in mass transit.

    I do still try to keep a lot of awareness that there are basically "two cities" wherever you go. There's the city that people want to live in, the one the creates cultured, urbane kids (the one we're lucky enough to be in now by virtue of our jobs) and the other one, which I was raised in – the one in which kids can ID gunshots by sound, where everybody had seen the Irish gangsters wailing on somebody outside a bar, stuff like that.

    Most of the people who I know are transplants to the city. My husband and I are alone in not just growing up here, but growing up in an area that most of our friends now intentionally avoid. It's a strong reminder that the "two cities" still exist.

    I want my daughter to be an "urban" kid, but I want her to be able to reconcile her upbringing (which we admittedly would love to give her everything possible) with the other "urban" upbringing her parents had. And so far, we are still trying to figure that part out. I do think you're doing an awesome thing for your son by wanting that experience for him. I certainly want it for my daughter.

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  7. Loving this!

    My husband and I both grew up in the same suburb of Edmonton, Alberta. And while he really liked the suburbs (it was a nice enough place), I felt too isolated growing up. It took forever to walk anywhere within town, and to get into the city, public transit was a 2-hour long nightmare or at least a 30min-1 hour drive.

    When we decided to buy a place together 4 years ago, I pushed for downtown Edmonton. I wanted to get out of isolation and get to where the action was. My husband and some people we knew thought we should just stay in the suburbs. It seems to be a condition of people who grow up in the suburbs…they never leave! I suppose I can understand why. It's comfortable. It's safe. But I did convince my husband and we've been living downtown, AND LOVING IT, ever since. It's a 5 min walk to the farmer's market or the grocery store. 10 minutes to the movies, art gallery, theatre, wine bars and restaurants. The train is a block away, and my bus stop is across the street. My gym and hair stylist? 30 minutes. There's also an old cable car that runs in the summer to take us to the hipster/indie shopping area (otherwise we drive). And it takes a maximum of 30min to drive anywhere in the city. I don't want to leave!

    We're currently expecting our first child, and while we wish we could stay in our awesome condo for a few more years, space wise we can't. But we're looking at neighbourhoods that are a 20min walk from downtown, and are considered heritage. There are lots of cafes and shops, and walking distance to so much. The downside, like you mentioned, is the higher price tag…which we are willing to fork over for the need to be in civilization.

    We tried looking at houses in "established family neighbourhoods" on the outskirts of the city…but I immediately felt like I was back in the suburbs and felt the isolation wafting over me again. No thanks! Nipped that in the butt super-fast!

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  8. Another Ottawa Mama here: I love this city. Love it, love it, love it. I grew up in what is now called "Wellington Village", but when I was a kid it wasn't Westboro and it wasn't Hintonburg, it was just pawn shops and used car lots. I live a little further west now, in a fairly mixed area in terms of housing and incomes, but we're close to the river, parkway, transit, shopping, my work, and an amazing drop-in program at our local school. It's not always rosy where we live, but we're making the most of our community and our city.

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  9. My fiancee and I love living in Toronto, and I grew up in Little Italy/Little Portugal, whereas he grew up in Markham. As much as I love living in this big, diverse city I'm not a fan of being downtown.

    As a kid it was great, I learned a lot of things wandering around the downtown core, but now that the novelty has worn off, I prefer a bit more quiet. We wanted a bit of both, a peaceful area where you don't hear streetcars, but you don't exactly hear crickets chirp after 9pm. So we chose mid-town T.O. We have shops, an amazing community, schools galore, but without the hustle and bustle of places below Eglinton. Also, rent is significantly cheaper.

    Sure, it takes an hour by transit to get down there, but for us, the peacefulness of our area is worth it. Plus, our kids will have the best of both worlds!

  10. I find that people living in the suburbs are large cities are all saying they felt isolated and getting every where was a pain! I had that experience too.
    I lived in Rural WI with the next town over was 60,000 people (HUGE! 😉 ). I knew all of the neighbors growing up, and my friends & I would ride bikes everywhere. Going to the gas station for candy was a big deal. As we got older & we saved for our cars we could go over to the next town for a movie and walking around the mall. When I moved out of my parents house I lived in Vancouver, BC & Seattle.
    Not until just over a year ago my husband and I moved to the suburbs (Brampton) of Toronto. Holy crap was that isolating. None of the neighbors were friendly or said hi to us when we said hi. I'm not sure, but maybe because we were pretty much the only white couple in an Indian neighborhood. We couldn't afford a car (Insurance rates were through the roof) and transit was awful. We couldn't really go anywhere without it taking 2 hours. We made the decision after a year to move into Toronto and it was the best decision we've made.
    I wonder why it is that when I was in rural WI I didn't feel isolated at all, but when I was in the suburbs it was the worst experience ever?

    • I've been wondering lately why the suburbs are so isolating as well. We live in a city that is one giant suburb, and I definitely do not have friendly neighbors, have very few good dining or entertainment options, and am really bored out of my mind most weekends. It almost feels like in the suburbs, you have to fit a certain mold to get the most out of it. My husband and I really don't, and maybe that's why we feel so awkward here? We both have excellent jobs here, so moving is out of the question for several years, but we plan on taking our soon-to-be-here daughter to the nearby cities as frequently as possible for many reasons, not the least of which being that I want to expose her to 'non-suburban molds.'

  11. I grew up in the suburbs, and now live downtown (Toronto). I will never live in the burbs again. I moved here when I was 18, and have absolutely no desire to do the suburban lifestyle again….needing a car to get anywhere, the only cultural centre is the mall, we never really knew anyone outside of our immediate neighbours. Sure, we had a nice house and a yard, but now I live in a beautiful totally-big-enough-for-us apartment, and our yard is a GIANT PARK 1 minute away.

    We know (and like!) many of our neighbours, and we live in a wonderful low-rise building with lots of other families and people at different stages in their lives. We walk, take transit or bike everywhere. I take my kid to daycare on public transit every morning, and so we have a half an hour or so where we can just connect, check in, talk about what we see out the window….it's a part of the day I really treasure, and feels so much nicer to me than having her stuck in the backseat of a car while I struggle with traffic.

    Anyway, I could go on and on. Of course, like Ariel mentioned, one of the main things for us too is that being queer, we want our kid to be around other kids with queer parents.

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  12. Oi, I don't know if I could do city….I'm a country girl at heart.

    However, my husband and I are days away from (hopefully) closing on a house. It's sort of the perfect location for us because it's rural (like, surrounded by an organic farm), yet 5 minutes to all of the schools, the highway, a yuppie college (in case we accidentally raise yuppie kids), and the quaint downtown. So…we'll be ALMOST raising a city kid. Still, not urban or even suburban.

  13. I am so encouraged to read this! I have lived on the outskirts of cities all my life. I grew up on the outskirts of Chicago, I now live on the outskirts of Lexington, KY, and I told my husband that when we moved next, I wanted to live in the city. I was tired of telling people where I lived near. I wanted to tell people where I lived. So, we are now preparing to move across the country to Seattle. We are getting an apartment downtown, and we are also planning on starting a family not long after we get there. After all my big talk, I was, at heart, just a little nervous. I mean, I had all my reasons why I wanted to raise my children in a city. I wanted to them to grow up surrounded by art, culture, opportunities and diversity. I wanted them to grow up somewhere they could be proud of. But I had those nagging suburban voices in my head still. This article really reassured me of the choice that I already knew was right. Thank you for writing it!

  14. I'm really glad that raising city children has been a great and non-isolating experience for so many people. However, as someone who grew up in NYC in the 80's and 90's, my experience was different. I was the only child on my block, as far as I could tell, and all of my friends lived far away. In nursery school, I went to a school in the Village where I was considered the kid that lived far uptown, and some parents did not want to bring their kids that far. Then from kindergarten on, I went to a school on the Upper East Side, and it was difficult to convince people to venture downtown. They thought my neighborhood was dangerous (some parts of it were) and my family often faced ignorant comments like "does public transit even go that far downtown" or the more general "how do you get there".

    Every interaction with other children was a carefully planned in advance "play date" and there was next to no opportunity to interact with other children spontaneously. Play dates tended to happen only once a week (at most) from kindergarten onwards (on Fridays when people had more time). Since I am an only child, I was quite isolated. I would have to imagine that my mother also felt isolated, since she didn't have a lot of opportunities to interact with other parents in my early childhood years. No one talked to each other on the street, in stores, and even in playgrounds interaction was limited. (Technically I wasn't even allowed in some of the local playgrounds, which were supposed to be only for residents of specific apartment communities.)

    Now, don't get me wrong, there were lots of great things about growing up in NYC. My love of history came from the fact that I had lots of access to museums at an early age. I'm comfortable with figuring out public transit and travel just about anywhere due to my urban upbringing. But, I did not find the sense of community that everyone is talking about. Perhaps it was a product of the times, NYC in the 80's was quite different to how it is now.

  15. I found this article interesting because at 29 years old I grew up in and resided in 4 different large US cities and found them to be as cold and isolated as the author describes her suburban upbringing. Whether it was the economically depressed inner city or the gentrified yuppie/buppie neighborhood or the upcoming immigrant, green focused creative neighborhood I found that most people do not speak, are not that friendly and generally stay within their own social circle. I do not think that the argument is as simple as suburban versus city lifestyle. I think it depends on which suburb and which city, some of the individuals I know who are the most connected and feel like a part of a REAL community live in the suburbs. But I think that is what it all boils down to in the end, a sense of COMMUNITY and depending on the which suburb or which city, people will find that in different places.

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