Every year, a few kids from my son’s grade at his Brooklyn public elementary school move away. Some relocate to other parts of the country, but a good portion move to the suburbs. They’re seeking what people have been seeking from the suburbs for decades: more space, a yard, a chance to buy a home.
Our family is a prime candidate for this suburban migration. Our neighborhood is a mix of apartments and single-family row houses. The row houses, which cost in the neighborhood of $2 million, are occupied by a mix of old-timers who have lived in them for decades as property values climbed, and newcomers who have the income and investment prowess to buy a prime piece of Brooklyn real estate. The row-house families have yards, basements and plenty of bathrooms.
If we were a row-house family, we would have no reason to consider greener pastures. But we’re an apartment family, which means that although we have a perfectly pleasant home, it’s an expensive rental with no outdoor space and a single bathroom that’s one of the tiniest I’ve ever seen.
For a long time, I’ve thought of this as the trade-off you make when you live in a city. You have a small space but access to a huge number of public amenities, from museums to the theater to city parks. Our tree-lined neighborhood is beautiful and walkable: The elementary school is a block away in one direction, the subway half a block in the other. Two blocks away is Prospect Park, which is an absolute gift. I wake up early to jog the long, car-free loop that circles the park under a canopy of towering trees. In the summer, there are free evening concerts there that we frequently attend. The park has playgrounds, ball fields, a splash pad and a zoo. We live in a small apartment, but the park gives us an expansive, if shared, backyard.
There are other trade-offs that I’ve long considered part of the deal, too. In cities, you live closer to your neighbors and your lives are more intertwined. There’s life on the streets. Your kids are more independent. You drive less.
But as my kids have gotten older, some of the benefits of city life that I anticipated have not come to fruition. Most of the kids at Nate’s school (he’s my oldest, a rising second-grader) live within a few blocks of us, yet rarely does he get to play with them after school. They have busy afternoon schedules, filled with sports practices and activities, and often they’re not available. The bucolic promise of Brooklyn sidewalks filled with kids at play has not, in my experience, rung true. It happens, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like it to.
The truth is that in my world, city people live suburban-like lives. We drive to the grocery store, and to Lowe’s and Costco. We shuttle our kids to karate and swim lessons. We schedule play dates instead of sending them out the door to play. And no matter how long I sit stubbornly on my apartment’s front stoop while my children draw on the sidewalk with chalk, I can’t singlehandedly turn the clock back to an idealized free-range Brooklyn childhood culture. Maybe that existed at a time when society was more egalitarian and property values were more down-to-earth. Maybe it just won’t happen for us.
So when I look out my kitchen window and see those big row houses, it hits me that my neighbors aren’t making all that many trade-offs to live in the city. They have the big houses with the yards. They have the big-box stores and the wealth of child-centered activities and services. And they get to have the pretty, walkable city with the park and the concerts, too.
I’ve started to wonder whether I’m buying into an expensive deal that really isn’t built for me. I’m making the trade-offs, but I’m not getting the communal safety net I expected in return.
I haven’t reached a conclusion yet. But I’m going to stop calling Prospect Park my backyard. A backyard is where you can send your kids to play, to be wild, to get out of your hair. But I can’t send my kids to Prospect Park so I can cook dinner. I have to take them there, supervise them, and schedule play dates there.
There might have been an era when I could have sent them out to play until the streetlights came on. In Judy Blume’s 1972 YA novel “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” grade-school students walk to Central Park to play on their own. But I can’t send my kids to a Brooklyn park by themselves. Because there are no other kids to go with them.