Where’s the best place to raise a small child: New York City, or literally anywhere else?

Most days of the week, I wear a hoodie that says NEW YORK IS A NATIONALITY. I do this, obnoxiously, in the midsize Arizona city where I have transplanted myself, so that people know I am a Person From New York. My tiny child has a matching T-shirt, which I enjoy pairing with Knicks accessories.

This feeble gesture at holding on to my culture as a “New Yorker in exile” is part of a larger constellation of concerns around raising my kid in a place that is not New York – and when I say New York, please understand that I mean the city.

I grew up in NYU faculty housing in Greenwich Village. Childhood in NYC is a specific experience on every level, from apartment life to engaging with extreme wealth and extreme poverty side by side. Growing up in the Village, we walked to school on Christopher St, past the leather bars and the sex stores. When we went to get groceries, we’d pass the Gagosian gallery, Madonna’s building and the dodgy residential building that is now the Jane Hotel. Many of my friends lived at the WestBeth, an affordable housing complex for artists (this was before the Village became a home to fintech families).

It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized how tremendously lucky I had been to grow up in the heart of it all, absorbing culture (high, low, and in between) and diversity as something to engage with constantly and casually, rather than something to visit in a museum or a book.

It was not until I briefly moved upstate in my late 20s that I encountered the kind of hyper-conservative people who picket abortion clinics and vote for Donald Trump. I know they exist in the city, but they are outnumbered to such an extent that I understood them and their various brands of bigotry as a caricature from television. This, I now realize, is a very privileged outlook.

I now live in Tucson, where there are as many “Let’s Go Brandon” signs as there are for Black Lives Matter. I moved here for graduate school, fell in love with a man who was rooted, and chose to stay here with him rather than leave without him. It’s a choice I stand behind – love won, or something like that. But I worry about the impact of the sociopolitical climate on my kid, here in this barely blue state – while I suppose this is technically its own variety of diversity, it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me hesitant to get to know my neighbors, even the ones with kids the same age as mine, because so many of them hold political views that I understand to be incompatible with human rights.

Arizona is an open carry state, which means that when I go to pump gas or buy stuff at Target, people are wearing guns on their belts. I do not believe that citizens should be armed, and this is something of a fringe opinion to have locally. I do not send my child to other people’s homes to play because I do not want her in a space with weapons, and weapons are ubiquitous here. Gun ownership is hard to track, because the state does not require licensing or even registration, but it is many times what feels safe and reasonable to me.

Illustration: Beyza Durmuş/The Guardian

In New York City, I do not worry about guns (there are extremely rigorous standards in place to legally own a firearm). I feel safer in Manhattan and Brooklyn than I do almost anywhere in the world. I feel, too, part of something large and thrumming, and that interconnectedness – which often drives you crazy, until you leave and realize you miss it – is something I wish I could offer my kid as part of the ecosystem of her childhood.

“One thing that city living asks of you is to exist in close proximity to others – in your home, in your building, in your neighborhood, on mass transit,” writer and native New Yorker Jessie Chaffee, who is raising her small child in the same Manhattan neighborhood we both grew up in, tells me. “You can’t silo yourself when your neighbors’ lives can be heard through the walls, or you step on to a crowded subway car, and this is something I want my son to experience. The city only works if we learn to be flexible and accommodate others – both in a physical sense, but also philosophically.”

I tell her I worry about what my kid is and isn’t getting, out here in Arizona, about the tendrils of homogeneity and conservative American culture that I feel twining their way into my family. I miss how many different models for how to be a person in the world there are back home, and I hate that my kid is growing up around rampant anti-choice rhetoric and gun conventions.

She agrees. “I love that our son is exposed to different kinds of people who have different perspectives on life and what it should be. And I love that he’ll witness different ways of being, especially in junior high and high school, when there can be so much pressure to conform. In the city, even if you don’t find your place amongst your peers in your specific school environment, the multitude of cultures and subcultures that exist in the city offer another outlet, reality, possibility.”

There are many things I miss about the city: bagels, efficiency, a coherent urban grid, mass transit, accessible creative culture, my personality not being mistaken for pathology. But if I had to narrow it down to the one thing I miss the most, and which I am saddest about not being able to share with my kid, it is walking. Sure, we can walk where we live, sort of, but to get to the nearest coffee shop from my house, we have to traverse a four lane road with no nearby crosswalk, a mile without sidewalks.

When I talk to Lucas Mann, another writer and expat New Yorker who has settled his family in Providence, he too cites walking as an essential criterion. “Once you’re out of the spell of thinking NYC is the only place in the world, you don’t really go back into that. One of the things that made me want to stay in Providence is walking around. You can walk to your local store, your playground.”

Walking seems like a silly thing to get hung up on, but it’s not just the motion of moving your legs across space and the ability to get 10,000 steps a day without a treadmill, it’s what city walking contains: the ability to see people in moments of humanity, over and over again until it is what you expect of the world. It’s graffiti murals and “street style”, which is just a term to describe what we wear when we dress to be seen by each other. We get to constantly study each other, peep what we like, and make it our own.

Here in the desert, I own a home, something that would never have been financially possible for me back in the city. My child and stepchild each have their own room, and I have a home office and a home gym. Where I’m from, that’s rich person shit – my sister and I grew up sharing a bedroom, and the idea of a kid having a “playroom” was so foreign to me that I had to have it explained to me. (“So it’s not their bedroom, it’s like their … other room?” “Yes.”)

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The relatively gentle cost of living in Arizona allows us to travel, and we enjoy gorgeous mild winters and freedom from icy garbage slush. I love that my kid can go out into our yard with a shovel to dig a hole, and I can keep half an eye on her knowing that she’s safe. In the city, being constantly monitored is built into the childhood experience.

Writer, mom and native New Yorker Megan Margulies grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, sharing a one-bedroom rent-controlled apartment with two siblings. “The importance of having our own space seems materialistic, but I learned how important it was for me to have a door to close, my own little space to get away from the world. By the time I was in high school, my dream of being a grownup was a house with multiple bathrooms.”

Margulies, who left the city for a suburb of Boston, “didn’t want to get pregnant until we had a house” and was “almost phobic of raising a kid in an apartment”.

But for Margulies, as for me, there is also a nagging concern that our kids are growing up, well, soft. “Kids who grow up in the city are well-rounded, they don’t take shit, they’re tougher in a sense: smarter, streetwise,” she says. “In the suburbs, everything’s rounded and there are no sharp edges. I worry for my kids that having that sort of soft life isn’t going to give them what I got growing up.”

I share her musings, and I often wonder if my kid’s childhood is better or worse than mine – if her yard and her own room and our seven-minute commute to school is worth it.

When I see my small child unaware that we walk on the right or pass to the left, I wonder how she will learn to move in a crowd, to keep herself safe but relaxed in a large and chaotic group of people. I am useless when it comes to desert dangers like snakes, but on point in any urban environment. What will be hardwired into her? And yet. I do not, despite my extreme nostalgia for 80s and 90s Manhattan, fully wish that I was raising my kid in the city.

I recently spent a few weeks in Brooklyn with my kid, just the two of us, and I loved how immediately we settled into the city. Here, I can teach her everything, from alternate side parking rules and why we don’t go to Times Square to where to spot the kaleidoscope glass water tower from the BQE. Here, I know exactly how to order at the bodega, when and at what volume to bark “YO” when a biker is about to whiz too close to us, and how “you’re good” can serve as an expression of nearly every human response. We walk with our slices and our bagels, and I share my culture with her.

Illustration: Beyza Durmuş/The Guardian

But it has also been humbling to realize the height of my own arrogance in imagining culture as being located only in my city of birth. Seeing the magic of the desert – the neon sunsets, the saguaro cacti plump with monsoon rain, the flocks of quail scurrying across the road – has in some ways softened me, making me a person more able to exist anywhere rather than a person built only for one place, and surely this is good for my child, too.

But then I think about that moment when spring first starts to peek out in the city, when the tulips on Park Avenue are budding, and you’re walking with a hot cup of the best coffee available anywhere in the world. I think about her missing those moments because she is driving past strip malls and I wonder again, might it be OK to call a loss a loss?

The Guardian