We have lived in downtown Indy for five years now, and during that time I have been asked many questions about why we live here. Or rather, I've been asked the same several questions over and over again. I don't think people who live elsewhere are necessarily ignorant or prejudiced, but there is a general lack of information about what it's really like to raise a young family here in a downtown neighborhood. So I aim to address that by providing real information, using our daily experiences (and those of other families I know doing the same thing), backed up by numbers and facts and statistical data. Maybe you won't be convinced to move into the city from the suburbs, but you might understand why people you know are doing just that, and in greater numbers than ever before. It's a trend that will be picking up speed in the next few years in Indianapolis, as well as in other American cities. I believe that urban living is more than merely a passing trend; rather, it will ultimately prove to be the future way of life for the majority of Americans because of economic and sustainability issues.
5 Myths About Raising Kids in the City
1. It's not safe. In other words, it's not safe to walk around city neighborhoods because we might get shot. It's not safe to take my kids to the local parks because there might be drug-dealers, pedophiles or dead bodies there. Someone might attempt a break-in and burglary while we're sleeping.
My answer: Are all of these things possible? Yes, because we live in a broken world and there's no guarantee that bad things won't happen. But are they likely to happen? No.
Sure, certain sections of the city may be less 'safe' than others, depending on how you want to define safety (which is important to think about logically, not emotionally). But ultimately, you are no more likely to be a victim of violent crime in the city than in the suburbs. The statistical probability of being shot by a stranger is actually minuscule compared to the likelihood of being injured or killed in a car accident. Therefore, anything you can do to reduce time spent driving a car makes you much safer (such as moving to the city, or some other walkable area near your place of employment). Petty crimes of opportunity, like car break-ins or thefts from garages left open, are indeed more commonplace in urban areas than in suburbs. I see this as a minor inconvenience, not a major drawback, of living in a city neighborhood. Knowing your neighbors and the presence of "eyes on the street," like people on front porches or using sidewalks, both help to reduce petty crime. Practical tips on how to safeguard your home and property in an urban area will be available in a separate post.
2. My kids will have to attend low-quality schools.
Answer: This is absolutely not true! We heard this from many people, including our realtor, who tried to convince us to look at houses in Zionsville and Carmel because he was concerned our kids (preschool-age at the time) wouldn't have any good school options. We had done our homework [no pun intended] and knew that our children would have plenty of choices we felt excited about.
There are actually a lot of different options available within the IPS (Indianapolis Public Schools) system, most notably the magnet schools with special focus areas like science & technology, Spanish immersion, the arts and humanities, Montessori or Emilia Reggio methods, or the Center for Inquiry schools, which hold the prestigious International Baccalaureate designation and just added a fourth location this year due to popularity. There are also at least 40 public charter schools in the city and some of them are very highly ranked, like Herron High School (which has a wait list of 600+ students and is opening a second school, Riverside High School, in 2017). Charter schools have free tuition but more autonomy than other public schools. A third option is private schools, which vary widely in cost and educational philosophies. The School at Distelrath Farms combines academics with real-life agricultural experiences like growing produce, caring for animals, building structures, and nature study. Some private schools offer large amounts of financial assistance and scholarships. For example, at a nearby private school, The Oaks Academy, 50% of students are low-income and 75% of all students receive financial aid. And of course, homeschooling is a great option anywhere you live: the popular homeschool co-op program Classical Conversations has a downtown Indy group that meets near Garfield Park. For more information on school options in the city, please check out No Mean City's Schools Primer.
3. We can't afford it. Everything is more expensive in the city, so the rationale goes, and we couldn't have the same quality of life as we do in the suburbs - same size house, nice lawn, two cars, etc.
Answer: This one is a bit tricky. Some things are more expensive in the city - I tend to go grocery shopping in the suburbs if I am buying a lot, or to stock up on something. You are probably not going to find the same square footage in a house in downtown Indy for the same price as you would find in a subdivision in Fishers, unless it is a fixer-upper. But there is so much diversity in housing options in traditional city neighborhoods, compared to the suburbs, that if you find an area you really like, there is most likely something affordable for you there. It might be half of a duplex, a townhome, an apartment, an old house that's been recently updated, an old house that needs some love and renovation, or an empty lot waiting for you to build your own brand-new house. Several organizations exist to help people find affordable housing in city neighborhoods: King Park Development Corp., NEAR Indy, and SEND, as well as the city concierge service at City Gallery.
There are trade-offs in every life decision. In moving from suburbia to the city, you can trade away a bigger house on a larger lot, and in return, receive a better overall quality of life: no more long commutes, less time spent in your car (which equals lower stress and better health), more incidental contact with your neighbors, walkable neighborhoods, front porches, corner coffee shops, locally-owned restaurants, and beautiful public spaces like libraries and parks. The hidden cost of the suburbs will be explained in more detail in a separate post, but if you live in the city, you'll save money on some things (transportation, healthcare) and potentially spend a little more on others.
4. There is no space for kids to play. Small backyards and busy streets make it impossible for kids to play outside in the city, right?
Answer: Depends on where you are. Our backyard is too small for a playset, although we have a sandbox for the kids and some basic outdoor toys. But there are six public parks (4 playgrounds, a Victorian garden, a public pool, basketball courts and soccer fields) within easy walking distance of our house. My kids do play in the backyard often, despite its small size--looking at bugs, helping my husband with the vegetable garden, collecting leaves and grass and using their imaginations. We have no cul-de-sac for them to ride their bikes or scooters on, but they do ride on sidewalks around the neighborhood and on the Monon Trail, only a few blocks away (which connects to the Cultural Trail nearby and also to the Fall Creek Greenway). They regularly go on nature hikes as part of the school week, and on field trips to Holliday Park or Eagle Creek Park. So my kids end up getting a lot of outdoor playtime, even though we live on a fairly busy street. Other side streets around our neighborhood are much smaller and quieter.
There are many houses in the city with much larger backyards than ours, and some smaller, but nowhere in any urban location would you have a huge empty meadow behind your house, like you might have in an outer-fringe subdivision. But if you have a field behind your house now, it may not be long before it disappears like the greenspace or farmland that existed before your current house and subdivision were built. Developers have to keep building, so don't be too sure that backyard-cornfield-view is going to stay. Here's why: the problem with suburban sprawl (and why it is ultimately unsustainable) is that it is like "a giant Ponzi scheme," according to one expert. Leigh Gallagher, in her book The End of the Suburbs, explains,
"The way suburban development usually works is that a town lays the pipes, plumbing, and infrastructure for housing development--often getting big loans from the government to do so--and soon after a developer appears and offers to build homes on it. Developers usually fund most of the cost of the infrastructure because they make their money back from the sale of the homes. The short-term cost to the city or town, therefore, is very low: it gets a cash infusion from whichever entity fronted the costs, and the city gets to keep all the revenue from property taxes. The thinking is that either taxes will cover the maintenance costs, or the city will keep growing and generate enough future cash flow to cover the obligations. But the tax revenue at low suburban densities isn't nearly enough to pay the bills...Most suburban municipalities [are] therefore unable to pay the maintenance costs of their infrastructure, let alone replace things when they inevitably wear out after twenty to twenty-five years. The only way to survive is to keep growing or take on more debt, or both."
5. There's no one else like us--we just wouldn't fit in. Urban living is really just for hipsters, right? Maybe we're not cool enough to pull it off. After all, we don't have any tattoos.
Answer: Wrong again! Yes, there are hipsters and artists and young professionals and a lot of cold-brew-coffee-drinking millenials here in urban Indy. But there are SO many young families with little kids and minivans and playgroups and school fundraisers (not that there's anything uncool about all of that!). There are also middle-aged people with teenagers or college students. There are gay and lesbian couples and older retired couples with grandkids. There are homeschooling families with six kids or more, families who are passionate about adoption and foster care, people who love sports and people who love Pokemon. There are doctors and lawyers and CEOs, architects and scientists and engineers, teachers and artists and writers, clergy and fashion designers and accountants, chefs and small business owners and administrative assistants. There are working moms, work-from-home moms, single parents, stay-at-home moms and stay-at-home dads. There are foodies who prefer to eat local and people who love McDonald's. My point is, whatever your particular passions and interests and hobbies and lifestyle, you can find your tribe of people like you here in urban Indy. And what's even more important: you will get to know people who are different from you, whether in age or stage of life or socioeconomic group or race or ethnicity or fashion sense or politics, and maybe start to build community with your diverse neighbors. When that happens, it changes us, it changes the world we live in, and it makes all of us better humans.