Wednesday, July 13, 2011

City living

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.


life_of_a_fool said...

I wish I lived in your city, because I'm pretty sure the housing costs in my city are way higher than the suburbs, even with the crap schools and the relatively high levels of racial/economic/behavioral diversity. Still I am a huge city snob and can't bring myself to leave them.

Anonymous said...

The one thing I noticed you didn't mention in your post was "city" being code for "black people live there," which I know is how "city" is used in Cosimo's town, and I know it's how it's used in my location. Seriously? All the stuff about the schools sucking and the poor services in those locations is a cover for that. Now, this may not be the case in your location, but it was something that occurred to me.

Flavia said...


Heh. I was just adding a sentence to that effect probably as you were posting!

This is one of those posts that kind of got away from me, but yours was actually my original point: a speculation that people often insist on the difference in the nature of the housing stock or the population density in the city vs. the suburbs, despite all evidence to the contrary in their own cities/suburbs (most cities are nothing like Manhattan, and most people presumably know that about their own nearest city) as a cover for their discomfort with OTHER aspects of city living.

And those discomforts tend to be about race and class.

But I'll tell you that the services often really do suck. I lived in central (ungentrified) Harlem for three years, and basic city services were ridiculously bad compared to neighborhoods just 20 blocks away. There was a massive phone system failure that was not fixed for--I kid you not--eight days. Businesses couldn't run credit card transactions and thousands of people who depended on a landline didn't have one. This city runs pretty well, but my new post office here reminds me of the two I used in Harlem, and that's not a compliment: dingy and radically understaffed, especially for the complicated transactions of many of its patrons.

Sisyphus said...

I'm jealous!

Walkable! Community contact! I miss city living. Both at mom and dad's house and in my Postdoc "city."

Renaissance Girl said...

Please tell me you're in the market for exotic reptiles.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I came here to make l_o_a_f's comment - that in my current city, and the city I moved from, you get a HELL of a lot more house in the suburbs than you do in the city. You just do. Staying in the city and sending kids to private school would be way more expensive. (Which obviously doesn't negate the way "city home" is used in your region, of course.)

I mean, I totally agree with your overall point that people make certain arguments about housing and neighborhood to cover up what they really mean about class/race. It's just been my experience that in a number of American cities, you tend to have quite wealthy people (mostly white) who can afford the nice homes in the city, and quite poor people (usually mostly of color) who can't afford any homes in the suburbs. The people in between are living in the suburbs where they can in fact have a yard and more bedrooms and more bathrooms for less money than the equivalent would cost in the cities. WAY less. Not every suburb, sure, but a lot of them.

I also agree that city houses are frequently more architecturally interesting, but they're also often older, and in my experience, liking historic/older homes is a class marker, too. Generalizing wildly, but when I lived in a very rural town, there were "old" houses (very late 1800s-early 1900s), and there were "new" houses (1940s on), and we were pretty careful to buy a "new" house, because the only people who liked the "old" houses were the weird and wacky overeducated profs - the townspeople all wanted new, clean, low-maintenance, cookie-cutter homes, and for resale purposes, there were a lot more townspeople than profs. (This was a town where one of my friends said, if the townspeople could put aluminum siding on trees, they would.) It's not quite the same as the suburb/city distinction (because this town was WAYYYYYY too small to be a city/have suburbs - the suburbs were corn fields!), but I do think there are quite a lot of people for whom "architecturally interesting" = high maintenance/small closets/old bathrooms & plumbing/no great room/no master suite/no jacuzzi tub/small kitchens/small garage, and who rate it accordingly.

(Interestingly, the one thing being in such a small town has going for it is economic diversity. There are no bad neighborhoods - there are scarcely even bad streets. You have bad houses interspersed with very nice houses. It's almost more mixed than in cities, where neighborhoods can get really insular, I think. So the dynamic is really different.)

Like you, I really like the exposure to other people that I get from living in a city, and walkability, and so on. I have NO desire to live in the suburbs here AT ALL. But I know a lot of people who do, for reasonable reasons. (and if I could get a wee home in the mountains that's SO buffered from the neighbors I can never see/hear them, that sounds kinda nice, too!).

New Kid on the Hallway said...

(Since I can't shut up tonight, forgot to say: I totally agree that race is a huge thing here. But in my last city, you had a lot of African-American flight from the city, too - middle class blacks got out, and created their own suburbs, just as middle class whites did. Although definitely different suburbs!)

Flavia said...


Your (and LoaF's) point is well-taken; it definitely varies by city. However, most cities are pretty big, and I wonder whether more-expensive-to-buy-a-house-in-the-city actually means all parts of the city, or just the really desirable ones. That is, is it more expensive to buy a house in the outer reaches of Queens than it is to buy a house on Long Island? I don't know the answer to that question, but it's important to be comparing relatively similar things. It strikes me that part of the issue, too, is whether the city is in an area where "the new urbanism" is cool, or where some form of gentrification has happened. And I really believe that there are more cities in the U.S. where city home ownership is not a bourgie, upper-class thing than places where it is (they're just not the biggiest cities, or the ones with the most dynamic economies). I'd love to find some way to get statistics on that, though.

But totally agreed re: older homes (and the class issues involved in liking them). We fell for our house hard, but recognized that the things that sold it to us (a butler's pantry! leaded-glass windows!) would not have sold it to people who wanted, say, more than one bathroom. Or a garage that fit more than one car and that didn't list to one side.

Flavia said...


I'm not in the market, but I freaking love that store (which has crazy neon signage and an even crazier webpage). I've promised many curious locals that I'm going in, soon.

Who know? I might emerge with a new pet.

Megan said...

As for data, have you seen this slide show of the most segregated urban areas on the U.S.? It's an interesting look at a piece of this problem.

scrc said...

I thought under-staffed was *all* post offices! It takes 20 minutes to get to the counter no matter how many employees or patrons. Dingy, not so much.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

What you describe is pretty much what I want, but I'm coming up short so far in our house hunt. Things I can't live with in old (or any) houses: "high maintenance/small closets/old bathrooms & plumbing." Things I find positively desirable: "no great room/no master suite/no jacuzzi tub/small kitchens/small garage." Try to get THAT combination, anywhere. If it's been rehabbed to fix the closet & bathroom situation, it has a family room & a master suite. What the hell do Sir John & I need with a master suite? There's no one in our house to get away from. I want a small, dark, quiet bedroom that faces north, because of my sleep disorder; the last thing I need is a big light bedroom where things other than sleep happen. I begin to see why people design & build their own houses. But I think I know where you live, & I've loved the housing stock there since I was in grad school & visited a friend's mother, then went to some open houses for fun.

life_of_a_fool said...

Just to respond to your response to New Kid's comment, my experience is *not* in the most desirable neighborhoods (i.e., the most desirable for wealthy/middle class white people, which actually aren't the most desirable to me personally). Those are much more expensive than my neighborhoods, but my neighborhood now -- quite nice, but still with a bad reputation among many (middle/upper class white people), some of whom will not set foot in it because they're sure they're going to be shot immediately (i.e., there's a sizable number of black people that live around here, and some of them are low income). There's NO WAY I could afford to buy a house here. The same is true of my former similar-type neighborhoods in Chicago. I couldn't do it in the fancier neighborhoods either, and there's definitely variation across neighborhood. But, at least middle-of-the-road neighborhoods are out of reach for a lot of people, and more so than many suburban communities.

So, your question is a good one, though I think it's still an open question about variation across neighborhood and city. And I agree on most of your points.

Janice said...

We loved our city home for location but sadly outgrew the house (eldest daughter would not be able to stand up in 3/4 of her room and youngest will probably live with us for decades). Trying to buy another "city" house was an exercise in frustration so we opted for slightly suburban. The biggest adjustment has been the lack of a bus route here: apparently buses aren't classy enough unless they're school buses!

Judging by our neighbours, we are supposed to buy multiple cars and drive everywhere (classic suburban mindset) but we still try to live our city lifestyle. Though, to be honest, compared to a lot of the US suburbs I know, we're very urban in location and only a half-mile walk to the grocery or pharmacy.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

The thing about whether it's all parts of the city or just the desirable parts - it becomes difficult to assess that, because in the cities I know, you have a hierarchy that kind of goes like this: most expensive = desirable parts of the city; in the middle = suburbs where you can get the housing amenities of the desirable parts of the city for much less money; least expensive = less desirable parts of the city. People just don't compare suburbs to less desirable parts of the city; they're only comparing upward (if any of that makes any sense).

Or, looking at it another way: someone who already wants to stay in the city will say, "I can afford to stay in the city if I'm not in the most desirable area, so that's what I'll do." Whereas people who want what's "desirable" will say, "I can't afford what's desirable and stay in the city, so I will leave the city."

I mean, obviously (many) suburbs don't have the same amenities as wherever in the city, in the sense of cultural opportunities and ability to walk to stuff and public transport and what not, so leaving the city gives up those "desirable" things. But if you're talking purely about the building on a lot that you're going to buy, I think that hierarchy works.

I do think there are US cities where city house ownership isn't a bourgie, upper-class thing, but I think they are the *old* cities. Philly was definitely like that. (NYC, of course, is an entity unto itself, and I'm almost reluctant even to include it in any discussion of housing, because it's so sui generis.) Parts of Boston are probably like that (and in both those cities most of the suburbs are genuinely fricking expensive!). But in parts of the south, where you've had significant white flight, in the midwest, in the west, in places where there's been so much growth in even the last 50 years, cities are organized quite differently (for instance: downtown proper is purely economic, not the kind of mixed residential/business you get in older cities). And financing structures mean that suburban schools frequently have a lot more money than urban cities. The cost of education is a HUGE thing for a lot of parents, even those who'd love to stay in a city.

(and yes, for a lot of people, it's also about education with the right people and not the wrong people, which is code for all sorts of race/class issues. I'm not trying to minimize that at all. I just think that the economics are still complicated.)

Flavia said...

Since I'm traveling, no time to reply at greater length--but I'd love love love for others to continue this conversation.

But just wanted to say briefly: 1) Megan, great link. Thank you. 2) DEH & Janice: right on. 3) I don't mean to imply that the suburbs are all the same, any more than that city neighborhoods are all the same (and I'm not down on suburbs as a category, though I obviously tend to prefer cities).

Sarabeth said...

I want to highlight what you said about the culture of the city itself mattering. I'm in the midst of a move from a major coastal city to a largeish (but much smaller than Chicago) midwestern one. In the former, it is actually more expensive to buy a house in a working class city neighborhood than in a middle-class suburb. Partly this is about mass transit accessability -the working class neighborhood feels connected to the rest of the city in a way that the suburbs don't, and people value that. Part of it is just cultural - this is a city full of people whose identity is wrapped up in a cosmopolitan urbanism.

In my new city? Exactly the opposite, and much like you are describing now. And it really is about the race/class character of the neighborhood--which is itself related to the quality of services, because of the different property tax bases. Suburban neighborhood south of campus has well-kept houses, but also nice sidewalks and streetlights that work and a fantastic public library. "City" neighborhood north of campus has couches on the porches and junk cars in driveways and much more racial diversity, but also more trash in the streets (which aren't cleaned as often) and a dingy library with reduced hours.

Interestingly enough, the two neighborhoods share a high school, so it's not about that, although I'm sure the elementary schools are very different experiences.