Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A love letter to my 'hood

For me, the decision to live, and, more relevant to this blog, to have a family in the city was a very deliberate one. When my husband and I, then childless, moved here to St Paul, Minnesota two years ago we could have moved anywhere: city, suburb, small town, rural community. The short list contained two cities (Washington, DC and St Paul) and a rural-ish area near a city (the Hudson Valley, NY). In fact, the only thing we never did consider was the suburbs of anywhere! For a variety of reasons we ultimately chose St Paul as the place we wanted to live and raise any children we might have.

Frankly, it wasn't a very hard decision for us. St Paul has a reputation for being a very livable city. Lots of greenspaces- parks and lakes and oh, yeah, that Big River itself, the Mississippi River, right in the city. We walk from our house to a park overlooking the Mississippi. Just a bit further, and down the bluffs is a nature sanctuary, which itself is steps away from downtown. And for when the winter weather is just too much, there are wonderful libraries and museums, including the Minnesota Children's Museum, which is about 5 minutes from our house. Between St Paul and its twin city, Minneapolis, there are three - three! - farmer's markets and the St Paul Farmers Market is soon to go year round. There are lots of great restaurants in the two cities, most of which are more than happy to have you and your kid eating there; they are family-friendly without being Appl*bee's, if you know what I mean. (Someday I'll write a post about "family-friendly" restaurants and the suburbs.) We can walk a block to the corner bodega to grab a pint of milk or a lemon. There's an old-school Chinese restaurant and two old-man bars next to the bodega (we actually go to the restaurant: it has the most innovative and yummy comfort-food lunch all you can eat for $5 including "pop"). The public schools in St Paul are good and have open enrollment. In our neighborhood kids ride their bikes and play in multi-family, multi-age groups, stretched out across the small city yards that run seamlessly together. We know our neighbors and often have block-wide grilling or ice cream parties (in the summer!). The houses tend to be on the older side- ours was built in 1889!, which is a plus since we like older architecture. As an ethnically mixed family it's also important that the neighborhood is ethnically, racially, and socio-economically diverse. So the fact that there are black people, Asians and Asian-Americans, Latin@s, queer folks, all on our block, frankly, that's completely central to our decision to live here. (I know, I know, you're thinking, "uh, you live in Minnesota! Isn't that like the whitest state? I thought it was all Scandinavians there..." But actually, while the rural areas are likely pretty white, the Twin Cities are not. I'll get into that in a later post, for now you'll just have to take my word for it.)

Now this doesn't mean that there aren't lots of families moving to the suburbs around here. Because apparently proximity to large malls (including, OMG!, the Mall of America) is a desirable thing? In all seriousness, the reasons I most often hear for young families moving to the 'burbs are "better" schools and less crime. Now, as I've already said, the public schools are actually pretty damn good here in the city. The elementary school in our neighbohood consistenly wins awards for its excellence, even though our neighborhood is a far cry from the ritziest in the city. And should we want a school that accomodates or promotes alternative learning styles, yup, we've got those. For example there's public Montessori through high school, Open school also K-12, a wide variety of magnet schools for everything from creative arts to environmental science and aerospace, a high school for girls that are parents, International Baccalaurate programs, and Spanish, French immersion programs...the list is seemingly endless! Since our child is only 9 weeks old (that's T. up there in the photo at about 1 week old) we obviously haven't experienced first hand how good the schools are in practice. But they seem at least as good a some hazy notion of the goodness of suburban schools, which is often based on socio-economic status of the surburban cities, SAT scores, and, well, rumor. So. I'm not buying it.

As for crime. Well, I'll admit that we've got a bit of that in our neighborhood. It's often drug- and/or gang-related. But I have to say, given that I'm not involved gangs or in the selling or purchasing of drugs, and the crime is usually restricted to those that are...well, it doesn't often directly affect me. And it's not like we sit around doing nothing, moaning about our "bad" neighborhood. We belong to a block club, which, in addition to social activities, works on reducing crime in our immediate area. The larger neighborhood, in the past, closed down a business closely tied to drug dealing, bought and rehabbed a building that was a crack house, conducted vacant home tours to promote the occupation of those homes (vacant houses often become crack or other drug/gang-related houses). The neighborhood district council works with the city on problem properties. Probably the biggest single thing we do, though, is know our neighbors. We watch out for each other. Not to mention that it's just more fun to be friends with the people that live around you! So, no, my city neighborhood: it's not a crime-free utopia. But I wonder where is, exactly. Furthermore, we're still living in Minnesota: this isn't NYC or Chicago. Our crime problems are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things. And I'd rather live here, with all its layers of complexity than anywhere else.

In short? I love my city. So does my baby. She may not know it yet. But she will.

1 comment:

KJ said...

I love this post. My favorite image is the small city-yard connection. I love small city yards. I think they are infinitely more useful than acres and acres of lawn. We have a great 3 yard connection and could lift our kids over the fence for them to scamper over the the neighbors yard 2 doors down.

St. Paul sounds amazing! I can't wait to hear more.