it takes a city

acs_2435In “The Case for Raising Kids in the City,” published last fall, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias argues that while America’s major cities have developed a reputation as playgrounds for the young and unattached, they have plenty to offer families with children. 

I wanted to clap when I finished reading his persuasive list. We’re not in America, of course, and some of the economic factors and social ideals are a little different, but much of what Yglesias says transfers just fine to a vibrant European city like Lyon.

It’s all uncharted territory for me–the raising kids part and the city part–and it was inspiring to read that these two things might go together just fine. Yglesias writes:

Virtually anything you could say on behalf of city-living as a strategy for a fun-loving single 20-something also applies to life as a boring dad in his late thirties, as an excitable 4-year-old, or as a teenager. If you like walkable neighborhoods; “third spaces” that aren’t shopping malls; cultural amenities; short commutes; and non-chain restaurants, then America’s cities are where those things are found.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

I grew up among the flat expanses of the Midwest. As a teenager, I noticed the lack of third places in the community for people my age, though I didn’t know there was a term for it. My friends and I just complained there was nothing to do. Teenagers drove to the historic town square, sat on the tailgate of someone’s truck and presumably drank beer. That didn’t hold any appeal for me, nor did pacing the aisles of Wal-Mart, the other popular way to pass the time.

Third places are those social oases separate from the first main social environment, home, and the second, the workplace. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote that these places restore us, support us, make us happy. In France, tabacs and cafés function as a third place. In England, pubs often play this role. In small-town America, the third place could be the donut shop, bowling alley, barbershop, or the local Elks Club.

The youth, however, don’t have many choices. I craved somewhere I could go just hang out; make a private phone call away from my family. Somewhere I could talk if I wanted to or just read and write when I didn’t. A low-pressure environment to chat and get to know people in a way that whispering during a biology lecture didn’t allow for.

By the time I got to college, I was starving for third places and spent much of my time in them. One of my favorites was the hybrid of a café, bar, indie cinema, and record store. There were always grad students writing, professors having lunch, and people leaving the theater area to stop at the bar for a glass of wine. I’d meet with friends purposefully, or run into people I knew by chance. Either way, it felt like a home, and I was often more comfortable at places like this–alone but not–than at my actual home with roommates.

Third places seem like the kind of thing that will be important for parenting life, too. I don’t know what or where they’ll be, yet, but I like knowing that an abundance of these places exists here, and as Yglesias puts it, they’re not all shopping malls.

I’m interested in how my daughter’s experience with urbanity will differ from my own. The way she’ll play in a park instead of in a huge backyard with hay bales. The way we’ll walk and take public transit instead of driving the ubiquitous minivan around town. Even silly things, like the way elevators–which can hold a hint of glamor for the rural child–will be so totally commonplace.

Into my twenties, I found cities intimidating, intriguing, and somewhat unaccessible. I remember my first trip to a big city when I was old enough to appreciate it. Paris, when I was 16. The main disappointing takeaway was that my year of French didn’t come close to translating. I was irrevocably American.

At the same time, I couldn’t suppress the glee when I saw things as banal as taxis and pigeons. It was all so cinematic, so foreign, and not just because we were in France, where the voltage fried my hair straightener and the hotel breakfast included cute little packets of Nutella. No, more than the French-ness, it was the noise, the rush of people, the dizzying traffic, all so new. New, too, this strange feeling of anonymity.

It took me years to feel really at ease among the frenzied choreography of a city. Depending upon how long we stay and where we go next, this will be Clara’s normal: dodging Vespas, navigating the metro with ease, attending public culture events, hearing the music of multiple languages. I like this for her, that she’ll likely be braver than me. Maybe she won’t spend all her time wondering at “the real world” glimpsed in books and movies, because it will seem like she already lives there. She’ll be acquainted with people from many countries and backgrounds. Her library will include both Petit Ours Brun and Curious George. She’ll have two lexicons available when expressing herself. She might be one of those little kids who likes Camembert.

It fascinates me, how different our stories will be. I chose this cross-cultural life that she inherited. I wonder what kind of marks a place leaves on a person, if the rural-ness of my upbringing forever differentiates me in some way. I wonder if Clara, too, will crave to make a home somewhere far away, or if she’ll feel right at home where she is.