City vs. Suburbs – THE SMACKDOWN!

This is the feature article I submitted to the magazine this month. It pretty succinctly maps out the city vs. suburbs debate that is constantly raging in my head.

When my partner and I were on our third date I asked him, ever so nonchalantly, if he planned to raise his kids in the city. His answer? He didn’t plan on having any kids. How I managed to get him to change his tune is a story for another day.

If he had planned on having kids, he would have answered, yes, I expect I’ll raise them in the city. I know this because five years later we’ve had that very discussion countless times. Over and over again we debate what is important to us, how we might attain it and where we might eventually have it.

Mi.Vida, my loving partner, is of a dying breed. He was born and raised in San Francisco. His father worked for the city and his mother stayed at home before working for the preschool he attended. They bought a condo through a lottery available only to San Francisco city employees and built their life here. Mi.Vida grew up appreciating the culture and freedom that a child in an urban environment experiences and he wants the same for his own children. He also wants it for himself.

My upbringing was more varied. I actually spent my elementary years in Hong Kong, one of the biggest and most bustling metropolises in the world. There I frequently took buses and the subway downtown by myself in fifth and sixth grade. I returned to the Bay Area in middle school and my family settled on the peninsula, where we had a big house with a yard for our dog and I had to beg my parents to drive me anywhere. I have experienced the two ends of the city vs. suburb spectrum and value aspects of both. While I love the adventure and accessibility of the city I am wooed by the space and quiet of the suburbs. I’m less sure which would ultimately bring us greater happiness.

My uncertainty has spurred an intense amount of personal research and internal debate on the subject. I’ve spent the better part of the last two years talking to those who have stayed or plan to stay, and deliberating with those who have left or plan to leave. I’ve created quite a list of the pros and cons of both urban and suburban life. Here is a sampling of what I’ve come up with.

WHY WE WANT TO STAY

One of the main reasons my husband wants to stay in the city is for the culture. As a lover and curator of Bay Area music my husband tries to attend an impressive amount of live shows every month. We also love trying whatever exotic cuisine is being served at the newest restaurant, visiting one of the myriad museums at our disposal and checking out whatever interesting events are happening around the city. There is no other single place in the Bay Area that has so much to offer as far as food, music, art and community are concerned.

One of the reasons I want to stay in the city is for the neighborhoods. I love that each neighborhood has a distinct feel with its own identifying markers and local haunts. I’m especially in love with my own little neighborhood, Duboce Triangle, where I can walk to a playground complete with dog park, a library, the Randall Museum, the Eureka Valley Recreational Center with its incredible tot room, a sampling of supermarkets-big and small, tons of restaurants and cafes and a weekly farmer’s market. We can easily walk to three amazing neighborhoods, plus we’re five minutes from the freeway, all the Muni lines stop within blocks of our apartment and a few major bus lines aren’t far. Our little neighborhood truly has all the best the city has to offer; the weather is nice, the rest of the city is pretty accessible and there is plenty to do within fifteen minutes of our front door.

Another important reason we want to stay in the city is for the diversity. Our daughter has more opportunities to interact with children who look and speak differently here than in most of the suburbs surrounding San Francisco. At our local playground we hear a half dozen different languages daily. In the Mission and other neighborhoods I can easily expose my daughter to Spanish, the language I speak with her at home. While there are certainly higher concentrations of certain cultures in some towns and cities in the Bay Area, San Francisco has one of the most diverse mixes of different cultures.

Of course, if the city offered only the above we’d never imagine moving. As every parent who lives here knows, San Francisco offers a lot of challenges for those trying to build a family.

WHY WE MIGHT LEAVE

Let’s be honest, staying in San Francisco with kids can be hard, really hard. In fact, the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported (http://tinyurl.com/familyexodus) that San Francisco boasts a smaller percentage of residents under 18 than any other major metro area. In fact, SF’s measly 13.4 percent is significantly less than that of San Jose and Oakland, where 24.8 and 21.3 percent respectively of the population is under 18. It’s obvious that families find it more difficult to stay in San Francisco than other major metropolitan areas.

One of  the biggest hurdles is cost. San Francisco is EXPENSIVE, and the most expensive thing about SF? Housing. In fact, according to the National Realtor’s Report, at the end of 2012 the median cost of a single-family home was higher in San Francisco than any other metro area in the United States (http://tinyurl.com/housingmarkets). Many families leave San Francisco for other enclaves around the bay because they can get more space for their buck. This seems especially true since the economic downturn, as some housing markets in the Bay Area have been hit harder than San Francisco. In January of this year the median price for a home in San Francisco was $580,000 while in San Rafael it was $505,000, in Daly City it was $401,000 and in Oakland it was only $215,000. It’s also important to consider what that amount of money is buying you. In San Francisco it’s especially hard to find a two bedroom, one bathroom for under $650,000 where as you can probably get three bedrooms and two bathrooms for that much elsewhere in the Bay Area.

The elusive third bedroom is what ultimately sends a lot of San Francisco families packing and I can see why. If we are able to have another child our plan is to put our daughter in the office, which is actually a small area partitioned off from her playroom by a gate. Then our second child can inhabit the closet under the stairs that acts as our daughter’s nursery. (Yes, it’s very Harry Potter, I know.) Of course, that might put a band-aid over the problem of sleeping arrangements but it does nothing to alleviate the discomfort of four human being sharing 900 square feet of space. When our hypothetical second child can walk we will have to move out of our tiny apartment and find something bigger.

Space is a commodity in San Francisco; it’s not just more bedrooms but more space in each room that people want. Also, a backyard, even a shared one, is highly sought after and almost impossible to find in a city where stand-alone, single-family homes are the exception, not the rule. Even condos in a two or three unit building with a shared backyard are hard to find and even more difficult to afford. When you start hoping for parking, a living room big enough to entertain, and storage space, the options become even fewer. If you have your hopes set on a specific neighborhood, it becomes almost impossible. It is clear that families who want to stay here have to make sacrifices to do so.

The Chronicle (http://tinyurl.com/familyexodus) reports that in the last 10 years, San Francisco has lost 5,000 children under the age of 18. What’s interesting is that it has gained 3,000 children under the age of 5, which means it actually lost 8,000 school-aged children. This may just be anecdotal evidence that many people leave SF because of the school system, but it’s quite convincing.

San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has long been portrayed as the nemesis of the middle class family trying to make it work in San Francisco. While SFUSD touts many amazing, highly sought-after schools, the admissions process is notorious difficult to manage. The new lottery system, which went into affect last academic year, is intended to address past problems but there seems to be little hope it will do so. Many families stay in San Francisco until their kids are entering Kindergarten and then escape to the more predictable districts nearby, where you’re assigned a school based on where you live.

As a teacher in a great district I have a back-up plan in place if navigating SFUSD proves too difficult. Still, I would like my daughter to go to a public school in San Francisco. First of all, I want my daughter to speak Spanish fluently and I hope to get her into one of the many impressive bilingual schools in the city. Of course, so do hundreds of other families, as bilingual schools are very en vogue at the moment. The chances of my daughter getting into Buena Vista or Alvarado are very slim and there is pretty much nothing I can do to increase them. This leaves me with the frustrating reality that she may be assigned to a school across town from us, requiring a 30-minute commute to get there and another half hour to get back. I don’t want to drive my daughter 25 miles away to my district, assuring all her friends will live far away, but it’s easier to commute with her there than to get across the city and back two times a day.

When I do start looking into schools there will be a lot to think about. The “success” of a school is frequently based on its API scores, which are generated from California Standardized Test (CST) scores. Schools with a higher number of English language learners (ELLs) generally get lower API scores because ELLs frequently score lower on CSTs. Does that mean good teaching doesn’t happen at these schools? Absolutely not. That is why each school must be thoroughly researched, and when you have to rank 10 schools for the lottery, and might be assigned a school that isn’t even on your list, the task quickly becomes overwhelming.

I don’t know if the SFUSD lottery system is as sinister as rumors suggest but I do know that thoroughly researching and then touring ten schools is a monumental task, one that would be hard to take on knowing my daughter might not even get a school I so painstakingly researched. I can understand why so many families choose to avoid the situation completely and move to a town or city where they know exactly what school their child will attend and what that school has to offer.

WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?

I am very torn when I consider leaving the city to raise my family. On the one hand, I love my neighborhood and adore being able to access so many community resources with just a stroller at the ready. On the other hand, I love those resources so much because I’m completely dependent on them. With an apartment as small as ours, we can only stay home for about an hour at a time before everyone gets cabin fever. Would I care so much about living in a great neighborhood if I didn’t depend on its resources so completely?

When we leave our apartment in search of more space we won’t be able to afford anything near us, or in any of the surrounding neighborhoods. Chances are we’ll end up in the outer reaches of of the city where I worry we’ll feel as isolated and unconnected as we would in the suburbs. Does it makes sense to pay San Francisco prices and endure San Francisco fog, wind and cold to live in a neighborhood where we can’t walk to a local grocery store, library or playground? It doesn’t seem sensible to move to the far edges of San Francisco just to say we still live here if we lose most of the benefits of urban living.

In my wildest dreams, we would be able to buy a three-bedroom condo in our neighborhood, with a shared yard, off street parking spot and an in-unit washer and dryer. Of course in my wildest dreams we would have to be making twice as much as we make now and even then we’d be struggling to make ends meet. For those of us in the moderate middle class, living in San Francisco is a challenge. Until the city provides more of the amenities middle class families need–like affordable housing and dependable school assignments–even those of us who do want to stay probably won’t be able to do so.

10 responses

  1. There’s a lot to be said for not needing to get in the car to get to places. For having everything easily around you. When you have to work hard to get there, you often don’t go (so says the woman who left DC to live out in a rural area).

    When we left the city, we really left the city. I wanted the kids to grow up near the farms, without wanting to take care of a farm myself. I wanted them to volunteer on farms and learn where food comes from and what it means to live sustainably. I thought I could teach that in lessons in the city, but it’s different to live it every single day. To see it around you.

    Though, this area has been being built up. Farmland is gone. The space changes.

    I sometimes think that as long as you can get a foothold of moderate happiness, you can make any place work — city, suburb, rural. That our brains adjust. But that may just be wishful thinking.

  2. You really laid out the main pros/cons of each side. That housing situation sounds so frustrating! Our house is also only 900 square feet (2 bedrooms), but we have an attic, a finished basement, and a yard. It makes a huge difference. And I feel like we have a nice balance of city benefits and suburbe benefits: diversity, public transportation, lots of businesses & resources, but a suburban feel of being able to play outside and know our neighbors. A loong time ago, I posted about a house for sale down the street from me, and you said “ooh, I want it!” It is still on the market, and I always think of you. It does sound like what you want. 🙂 The schools here aren’t the greatest, though, and I’m not sure what to do about that.

  3. This is exactly what we’ve been debating here in our household. We’re in Noe Valley with a single family home and a backyard BUT property taxes are ASTRONOMICAL and it pains me to think about how much money we’re throwing away just to stay in the city. We are definitely thinking of moving across the bay to Marin sometime in the next five years, just like you’ve said before the first kid reaches school.

    Ugh, I wish this city would sort itself out regarding schools!!!

  4. Speak on sista’. We live in the east bay for all the reasons you mention and it feels really perfect on a lot of levels. The price (still not cheap, but at least it’s do-able!), the space, the quiet, and fortunately where we are, the awesome public school system. I miss the city, but having BART nearby makes it feel more accessible without having to deal with driving over the bridge, finding/paying for parking, etc. It’s such a tough choice though, I really understand!

  5. I live in the suburbs and have become so used to driving 30 minutes to an hour to go do things that I don’t even really think about it. Your neighborhood sounds amazing with everythign so close! For me, the school thing would be the biggest priority in determining where I raised my kids. I hope in the coming months or years your decision becomes more clear.

  6. This debate is going on in my head constantly. We’re in the suburbs now, and probably will be for another 13 years, but it is a struggle every single day…the isolation, the traffic, the lack of culture and diversity. We’re here mainly because the schools here are amazing. I truly wish you the best in coming to a decision.

  7. Ah, the eternal debate. As you know, if money was unlimited we’d buy a house and yard in our favorite neighborhood of the city and send our kids to private school. AND, that’s totally not possible.

    Some really rich friends of Darcy’s lived in the most posh town we have here in Marin for a while, then moved back to the city.

    Anyway, we are NOT rich so I’m trying to enjoy the burbs. I do visit the city a lot, though 😉

  8. Nav and I have this discussion about where we’ll settle down in 5-years when he retires from the AF. He’d love to live in downtown Boston where he lived until he was 5 before moving the the suburbs. I’m in favor of a Boston suburb, more similar to my up-bringing. Ultimately, schools will probably be the deciding factor.

    It’s not easy and sad for cities to shut out (whether deliberately or not) people that want to live there.

  9. you definitely articulated the struggle so well.

    I know SO many families who have had to leave SF because of the cost of housing and the school system. most headed to oakland but some went to berkeley or marin, or the peninsula. let’s face it though, the bay area suburbs are really not “affordable” either, at least not where you’d want to live and send your kid to school. honestly it took us 20+ years to buy a house, and we had to keep getting further from SF to do it.

    many families I know that stay in SF just accept that they will rent instead of buy, as they would in NYC. you do live in such a fabulous neighborhood. but the school system is truly a mess.

    no good answers, just a huge SIGH in solidarity.

  10. We live in Bernal and also have a small two bedroom house. We do have our own lovely private backyard. I can’t say that living here really makes me drive less. I still drive five minutes to our local market. I often stuggle to get parking. I still have to drive 20 or 30 minutes to various activities, so I don’t think this is any different than if we lived in Berkeley.

    My husband works in Sunnyvale and I work in Berkeley, so we still end up driving many miles. Interestingly enough, ten years ago, we both used to work downtown, but the city’s tax structure and unfriendly business policies have driven many high tech businesses out of town.

    We did not succeed at the lottery. As a result, I now drive my daughter to and from school, which is twenty minutes away.

    As to Alvarado and Buena Vista, you are right. These schools are next to impossible to get into. Also, I know someone who had their son at Buena Vista. That school has many problems, especially after third grade. It seems like there might be easier ways for your child to learn a second language.

    For high school, we plan to leave the city. I don’t really consider parts of Berkeley, Piedmont, Burlingame, Sunnyvale and Cupertino to be the “burbs”. They have many of the amenities that we have here in the city, including dance studios, fitness facilities, local markets, nice parks, cafes and restaurants. Recreation facilities for kids are frequently better than here in the city.

    In the “burbs”, schools are certainly better and assigned by address. Real-estate is similarly priced or cheaper.

    One thing that I really can’t stand about San Francisco is that nobody knows anyone. Those on our street with kids seem to be at different schools. Someone tried to organize a local neighborhood committee, but we’re too busy working and driving to go to any of the meetings. Because so many people here don’t have children, many neighbors don’t realize how busy parents are. Events are not scheduled to welcome or accomodate working parents.

    One further thing I would add is that I think the streets in the city are very unsafe for pedestrians and bikes. So San Francisco children really may have less autonomy than in the “burbs”, not more.

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