Ode to an Urban Childhood

Once upon a time in the city, you had a kid and went burb-ward. Today, even with all the rhetoric of the urban renaissance, skinny jeans and fixed-gear bikes, things are little different. Maybe you have two kids now before giving in to the reality that the two-bedroom condo you spent the last decade pimping out doesn’t have enough space for two diaper-toting cuties, and then reluctantly move beyond the Beltway, beyond the city limits, or to Jersey.

The plain and simple fact is that you don’t have to follow the last two generations model of retiring from life itself just at your peak. Your kids can benefit from you choosing the opposite in ways you can’t imagine.

Growing up in a city can be an amazing thing. I know. I did it.

Thanks to James Barton Photography.

Thanks to James Barton Photography

I was born in 1985 on the Northwest side of Chicago, ostensibly the worst time in history to be raised in American cities. I was in grade school when the city’s homicide rate peaked in the mid-nineties. (It’s hard to believe that there was ever a more dangerous time than today, now that the city is known as Chiraq for it’s Iraq-like violence). But my childhood was the era after cities had been drained of civic pride, wealth and its population by the suburbs.

Despite that, my childhood was rich in a way that you don’t get outside the city. My parents were early believers of urban renewal. When I was born, they lived in a particularly sketchy neighborhood. When they couldn’t get the alderman and police forces to control drug trafficking in the alley, we moved two stops up Blue Line on the “L”, not out to a far flung suburb like all their friends.

No, they stayed in the city they loved because they knew they could make it home to our family. My sister and I went to Chicago Public Schools our entire childhood. My parents dedicated themselves to the local school councils (LSC) and parent teacher association (PTA) along with a wide range of parents, from Harvard grads to Spanish-speaking immigrants. The teachers at all my schools knew the kids—and our parents—far too well, in a nearly Leave it to Beaver type way.

But this wasn’t a Leave it to Beaver area. White kids were an absolute minority. Kids made fun of me because I didn’t speak Spanish, despite being Mexican (I learned later). It was a mix of everyone, all socioeconomic backgrounds, and all races. Not that we all got along, but you had to at least confront people of other backgrounds in every public setting. Everyone went to the same grocery stores, the same schools and the same park.

Independence Park is actually the center point for the neighborhood. It’s got one of the nation’s oldest sub-1-mile parades on Independence Day—the event for which the park was named. We also had block parties, spaghetti dinners, a local newspaper and an annual ad hoc skating rink (probably like any suburban community). It is a tree-lined neighborhood where people take pride in being residents.

Childhood on Chicago's Northside, thanks to the Daily Herald

Childhood on Chicago’s Northside, thanks to the Daily Herald

But it’s not a ritzy place by any means—the current median income is $53,000. There’s a good mix of housing and people. There are large apartment buildings with a range of units, two-and three-flats that offer families a bit more space and houses from our modest 3-bedroom to 6-7 bedroom homes, some owned by a few minor celebrities (why they choose this unexciting and obscure neighborhood, I could never tell you… but they really do).

The things I gained from the urban context were unbelievable. I grew up taking the trains and the buses around town (and to school). When we were bored, we did everything that was free—the city’s stretch of beaches, the street festivals, the parks and the zoo.

My parents were patrons to the museums too, so on the many cold days, I stole the membership cards out of their wallets and took troops of my friends down to the museums to get away from our folks. Other days we went to the libraries, dicking around, but probably picking up a thing or two on the way.

The city is packed full of art and architecture. The architectural musings I write for this blog are the result of a childhood that enlivened my critical eye for aesthetics. We absorbed the cities multitude of public art, and heard open air music without even understanding what we were doing to our developing brains.

When I got older, there was an endless source of music, entertainment, galleries and festivals. We walked along the lakefront with first dates, marveling at the gorgeous skyline. All of us guys took girls to the Zoo Lights at Christmas and the fireworks on the lakefront. We took them to gallery walks and got plastered on free wine, picking at salmon and caviar platters.

By just leaving my house, I learned about the history of the city, the world, art, architecture, literature, and music. I rode my bike and took the train to see world-class work by virtue of proximity. I never thought twice about it then.

Race relations and labor history became an engrained part of the childhood of all Chicagoans as we read (really read) Richard Wright and Upton Sinclair, first with pride, and then with sincere interest and horror.

To be sure, not everything that wouldn’t ever happen in some little suburban community was positive—like the time my buddies and I were tipped off to an underground party only to find that you had to check your gun at the door (oops!). But it was an awesome party, and we learned to be more selective of who’s invites to accept—a good life lesson, I’d say.

I didn’t live the most sheltered life. My parents let me explore the world around me—and most of my friends’ parents let them do the same. Even if not wealthy in the traditional sense, our parents were able to give us things that most parents can only dream of.

You may wonder the result of this incredibly diverse, exciting and urbane childhood? My sister and I both have master’s degrees—I’m an economist and she’s a historian. We both speak two languages—she picked up French and I speak Spanish. We’ve both traveled the world and come back to endeavor in ambitious careers (though to this day, we both fear living more than two blocks from train lines).

So when you think of buying your minivan and moving beyond the city limits, know that you are giving up on the city—the culture and beauty of real urban life. You’re not exhausting your options by any stretch. Every city has pockets that won’t break the bank, but can still offer your family safety and worldliness—if not boredom. I loved growing up in my city, and your kids will too.

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