Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tribute to the City

In 1990, I graduated from high school, and started college. My college experience was going to be in the city, and I was excited about living somewhere new and different. I was a kid, who had been raised in suburban America. I had been craving for a change, and thought urban life would be the perfect place to spread my wings and put on a new pair of shoes. I spent my four years in the city, and loved every minute of it. Reluctantly, when I graduated, I moved back home for one year. I hated to leave the city, because I had become intoxicated by it. I missed the excitement and liveliness that the city offered. Like a child waiting for my birthday to arrive, I could not wait to go back. As soon as I got married, my husband and I bought a house in the city. As of now, I will never return to the suburbs, not if I can help it. I have so much admiration and intrigue for my city, and I want to share it's allure.

Looking back, growing up in the suburbs, was a surreal and an imaginary world. The phrase "cookie cutter", evolved in America when the suburbs developed, to describe a place lacking originality, with a conformist attitude. In a nutshell, that is exactly how I remember my childhood. Everyone in my suburbia was white, of European decent, of a Christian faith, middle class, and living in the same architectural homes. There were (and still are) two Jewish families on my street, but they were the only Jewish families in the whole borough, they just happened to be on my street. My brother and I could never understand what they did on Christmas. Seriously, how could they possibly be of another faith? They must just be confused: that was how I thought. In my school district, there were three black families. If you met a black kid, you had a good idea of where he lived and what his last name was. Diversity was not a term anyone was familiar with, or cared to understand. It is a society of homogeneity. Everyone wants to keep up with the proverbial Jone's. No one wants to diverge from the norm, because that is being different, and different in the suburbs is not good. That is how I grew up, in a world, which conforming, was and still is, the only way of living.

Every couple, once they have a child, and if they make enough money, will look at a home in the suburbs. Even if it is not what they want, they will look, because it has been burned into every Americans mind, that suburbia is the next step. It is the American dream: homes with picket fences and blue ribbon school districts. It is the epitome of uniformity and conformity: defined families, with two cars, two and a half kids, and a dog. It is just safer there, right? I know, with absolute certainty, driving down any road in a suburb, exactly what to expect: strip malls, chain food restaurants, soccer fields, MC mansions, and teenagers wearing Abercrombie and Fitch. I do not believe it is safer, it is just predictable.

Although, it may be a natural tendency in human nature, to be attracted to those who are most similar, it is not a productive tendency. There is a comfort in being surrounded by people who are similar, but it creates stagnant and sterile behaviors. Nothing evolves out of a comfort zone. Diversity induces change, and change is a sign of an advancing, and evolving society. But, change is intimidating and uncomfortable. Therefore, it is understandable, how the suburbs evolved to be a place that resists change. It is a place of safety and comfort, where people want to raise their children. But, the world is changing. Globalization is the trend. In order to educate ourselves, and our children, we must live as a member of a global community. The city is the perfect alternative to a tiresome and dull suburban existence. It is the one place where everything comes together, in a melting pot, and being alike is extraneous. Families and businesses have been migrating to the suburbs for far too long, and it is time to migrate a new direction.

I live in the city. I live in a place that on every block you will find something inspiring or maybe, even revolting. It is it's uncertainty that is intriguing. There are mansions one block away from apartment complexes, row houses, and the ghetto. Catholic schools function right next to Yeshiva schools. The synagogues and the cathedrals are scattered in the sky line. Everyone is just trying to make it through their day in the city. It's people are too busy living life to worry about who the Jone's are, or trying to understand a useless concept of being alike.

There are different markets in every neighborhood of a city. Even the worst neighborhoods, have at least one special spot, that everyone has heard of, and everyone likes. It could be the Muslim butcher, the Italian groceria, or the kosher deli. Sometimes all of these markets can be found all in the same block. There are seedy convenience stores selling lotto tickets and cigarettes, and right next door there is a sophisticated restaurant. Not one block is alike.

I have wondered, are my children influenced by the city, like I have been? So, on a recent family drive, we discussed the ethnicity and religions of the United States. I wanted to know if my kids have any concept, of the percentages of whites and blacks in America. Of course, I just filled out my census form, so it was on my mind. Overall, they were correct in their estimates, based on our city. They figured 50% of the population was black and also thought about 25% of the population is Jewish. Interestingly, only my middle child, stated that it depended on your location in the country, as to the breakdown of diversity. My city is 68% white and is one of three cities in the world (outside of Israel) where the majority of the City's Jewish population still live in the city limits. Why is this important? It is important, because my children do not think that the world is all white, middle class, practicing the same faith, and following the same path. They have a strong grasp on the differing cultures that make up this world we live in. They do not want to be like everyone else, they want to find their own voice. They have no pressures to be the same as all the other kids, because all the other kids are so different.

My children do not even notice, or care if their new friend looks like them or not. It is more common, that their friends will be of a different ethnicity or religion. What they do care about is: character, morality, being fun, being nice, and wanting to share. Our closest friends, as a family, are Muslims and Jewish. Their friends are colorful and multicultural. They have Russian, Italian, Egyptian, and American friends. Their world is so different from how I perceived it at their age. The ability to comprehend and accept people's differences, is an education that cannot be taught: it must be experienced. As the world becomes smaller and smaller, this experience and understanding, is imperative for a successful future.

There are so many reasons I love where I live. I will continue to pay tribute to my city, because it gives so much back to me. It does not ask for anything in return. It will embrace, it will excite, it will cause a stir in your soul. It will make you see the world through a clearer lens. Cities offer you the world in a few square blocks. It might not wrap it up in a pretty little package, and it might not hide it's flaws. It is honesty and reality in all it's splendor.

What do you like about where you live? Are you in the country, suburbia, or a city? Will you move to suburbia when you have a family or are you already there?


  1. I grew up in a suburb, lived in two different cities for awhile, and now live in a different suburb. My husband grew up in a huge city, then lived in a small city with me. This is his first experience of the suburbs.

    Ideally, we would live in a city, but we are tied to this location because of my husband's job. I agree with you in general about the lack of diversity in the suburbs, but I know many, many people who live in cities and are surrounded by diversity, but still only maintain friendships with people who look like or worship like them. I am certainly envious of your daughters' situation.

  2. Kristen,
    You are right, there are still the hold outs that cling to to being alike, but atleast as a whole they know they are being isolatory on purpose. I notice it the most with certain sectors of wealth. The private school, clubs, and groups. It does defeat the purpose of having diversity at your finger tips.
    It is hard to stay in the city with the many businesses that moved to the suburbs in the 90's. I hope someday you get a chance to sucked back in by it again. You would make a great a coffee date.

  3. I love NYC for the diversity of its communities. However, the only difference between the city and the suburbs is proximity: in cities, the communities are separated by single blocks rather than superhighways.

    I grew up in the suburbs of PIttsburgh and attended a large, diverse public high school. While my own residential community was pretty much white middle-class, I met quite a gauntlet of ethnicities and economic backgrounds from my various classes, sports teams, and clubs.

    I don't find city dwellers more or less accepting than suburbians--I think it is all about the particular city/suburb and specific community in which you reside. Certainly, we are intimidated by that which is different from ourselves. But there is a difference between feeling intimidated and feeling unwelcome. When I walked down the streets in queens and got oogled by construction workers who didn't speak my language, I felt unwelcome. When I walk into an Indian grocery store where I cannot read the labels on most of the products I feel intimidated. But I love adventure. And I hope that no matter where I choose to raise my kids, I can inspire a sense of adventure in them, too.

  4. I grew up a total suburbanite, but... always longed for the city... being in dance and all (thought I'd be famous, of course). My kids are all such "city slickers" now; when we go pumpkin picking in Oct, we begin musing about the bigger yards, quiet, etc.... and my middle schooler just gives us the mother of all eye rolls with a "what would I do out here" implication...... Though... I have to say.... my neighborhoods in the burbs (and I lived in a few - Dad was transferred a lot - like I went to two different high schools, etc.) - were pretty diverse, but.. maybe because we were outside Cleveland, Detroit, etc.... I like the city, though - I'm staying put :-).

  5. agoldste,
    I get what you are saying about feeling intimidated and uncomfortable, but I do believe both of the emotions are good to have. It was exactly my point about the suburbs being too comfortable and safe and that can lead to complacency. I will have to say that for the most part the idea of city people being the same as suburbanites in their level of acceptance: I would say you are wrong. There is a reason gay couples live in the city. I can tell you: gay nieghbors, a house full of 20 something girls or guys, and black families are not widely accepted in the suburbs(all of which are in my one square block). That is just fact. That is precisely why they dont live there. Thanks for visiting!

  6. This is such a rich, intriguing topic, Joely. Really fascinating to think about.

    I grew up on a farm in the country, ten miles from the small town where I went to school. Town population was 2,000 and there were about 100 kids in my class. Now I live in Minneapolis - my husband and I bought a house in the city, and we love it. As much as I loved growing up in the country, I could never move back. City is where I am home.

    The issue of diversity is not easy. I agree that diversity is something to be valued, but also that people are afraid of change. I'm afraid most of my friends are like me (maybe not all white or Christian, but all middle class and college educated). It's not easy to meet new people and make new friends beyond these circles. It's something I want to work on.

  7. Eva,

    I know, it is so difficult to move outside of our comfort zones. But isn't that the beauty of life, to challenge ourselves and go beyond. I just feel so strongly, that living out your life in the suburbs is not healthy for the psyche. It is a community meant for those with kids and once your kids grow up, you have nothing to do, no worth to the community. I see it with many adults I grew up with.
    It is hard to jump outside my boundaries of likeness , but everytime I do, I am surprised and pleased that I did. I volunteer sometimes at this home for inner city girls, and I tell you what, I wanted to cry at first , I was so scared. But in the end it was all good. They met the "white, richy" girl and I got to reach out of my zone, in the middle we met, it was grey, but it is worth it. People need to see and feel like they are noticed outside their group. It makes for a better world I think. I just want to a part of something good.

  8. Joely,
    When I was a kid growing up in Skokie, Illinois, we couldn't even fathom how a person wasn't Jewish! There were a few in that very Jewish suburb of Chicago and we felt sorry for them - how could they stand not being Jewish! Funny how kids can have such limited world views. And, like you, my kids go to parochial schools but are taught a world view as well.

    When I moved from Chicago to Arizona, my whole world flipped around. I won't shock you with the names I was called because of my religion by kids in 8th grade. I had no idea that it was supposed to be bad to be Jewish or that it should be something I hid. Obviously (as you can tell from my blog) I've never hidden it. The lessons of my earliest years stuck with me more than the prejudice of the later years.

  9. Joely, do you know Gale at Ten Dollar Thoughts? She posted today about suburbia - and whether it will last in its current form throughout our lives. Interesting stuff!

  10. Linda,
    Glad you visited. I like the humor of your blog. I agree with you, the world wiew is the way to go it today's world. I was especially struck by your comment that the lessons of your earlier years stuck with you more. I hope that is the case with my children, I feel like it took me so long to catch up and really understand diversity because of my upbringing.

  11. Eva,
    I do not know her but I will check out the post.

  12. I grew up in a suburb outside of Boston. The city there had diversity, but my little corner did not. I have now spent just over half my life in a suburb in the Midwest. No diversity.

    Last time I vacationed in a city I loved the vibe and wondered if someday, when my kids are grown, my husband and I might become urbanites.