When I started looking at houses, I noticed that a lot of the real estate listing for homes I was interested in included some variation on the phrase "nice city home": charming city home, perfect city home, etc. It didn't quite seem to be a euphemism, but more of a necessary descriptor: "a house, but in the city! If that's the kind of thing you want."
Most of the time, when people talk about living in "cities"--and especially about the difficulty of living in cities or the impossibility of raising kids there and so on--they seem to imagine that they're talking about living in apartment buildings. Not necessarily apartment towers, but places where you're schlepping up a lot of stairs or contending with an elevator, where it's an expensive pain in the ass to have a car.
But living in a city does not mean living in the urban core, which isn't where most of the housing in most American cities is anyway. A lot of city neighborhoods involve single-family homes on leafy streets. They may be sited pretty close to one another and they may not have private, covered parking--but they have porches and backyards, attics and basements, and more than enough space to raise a family. They've got the benefits of the suburbs, in other words, while also being walkable and neighborly, with shopping and dining nearby.
And if "city homes" in your particular city are anything like those in mine, they're half the price of homes just a mile away, in the technical suburbs. They're also, probably, handsomer and more architecturally interesting.
So in many ways, "city home" seems code for "a nice house as long as you don't care that the city schools suck." Except, at half the price? I've done the math. I could buy a city house, send two kids to the local (highly-rated) Catholic school for all four years of high school, and still be ahead financially relative to someone who bought in the suburbs. Actually, I could send two kids there for junior high and high school.
But it's not just about the schools. Ultimately, city living means "economic diversity": there are people who don't keep their houses up, or renters with innumerable family members coming and going. There are people on the street at midnight--heading home from a bar or restaurant or just from visiting their friends--who have loud conversations under your window. Your neighbors have friends who honk, repeatedly, rather than ringing the doorbell or using their cell phones. And let's face it: there are more potholes, crappier post offices, and generally poorer service.
And I guess most bourgeois don't have a high tolerance for economic diversity and a lack of sufficient buffering from the lives of others (I also think that many people who insist that there's so little space in the city do so somewhat disingenuously, as a cover for a resistance to city living that has more to do with class and race). But it's still hard for me to understand, because I can't imagine wanting to live anywhere else. I love that I'm out in public and yet in private when I'm having a drink with a friend on my front porch. I love that the neighbor kids play basketball in the street and in my driveway, and that when I'm outside or when the windows are open, I can hear snatches of conversations from several different houses. (I even kinda love the young woman across the way who has shouted cell-phone arguments while sitting in her car with the windows rolled down.) I love that this is a mixed-race neighborhood. I love that I can walk to a couple of bars, a barbeque joint, and a pizza shop--as well as a store specializing in exotic reptiles.
I moved scarcely more than a mile, from a neighborhood with more apartment buildings than single-family homes. But somehow, in acquiring a house and a porch and a yard, I moved more decisively into a city.