I’ve lived in the city since the fall of 1992. Of course, the first 4 years of that was on SLU’s campus, pretty sheltered in comparison to actually living on your own. After I graduated, I married Mike, moved to an apartment on South Grand, lasted through one hot summer with a tiny one room air conditioner. Spent the whole time living in one room. We ate a lot of salad and Chinese take out because the kitchen was too hot to cook anything. Moved up a notch to a wonderful rehabbed apartment on South Compton, but were chased away, essentially, by the upstairs neighbor’s dog, rotating girlfriend collection, and penchant for loud music and sex.
We bought our house in May 1998, on a block of largish one-family and two-family houses. Some elderly neighbors, some yuppies, some gay couples. The house was in really bad shape, but livable. Mike and I have a high tolerance for squalor, and we didn’t really do much to the house. We lived out of the house for the most part, busy with jobs and friends. Our first daughter was born in 2001, and our second followed in the fall of 2004.
By then, the block had changed from “childless and old” to “stay at home mom with two kids.” Our block now has 22 children and 2 more due in August. And it’s not like there are families of 8 kids—these 22 children are spread amongst 11 households.
Every so often a neighbor will consider moving—our house, for instance, quadrupled in value in the 8 years we’ve owned it, and it is tempting to want to cash in (of course, then we’d have to go buy something else). After a few weeks of looking around at houses in different neighborhoods, the answer tends to be the same: you can’t duplicate this block. One neighbor said, “You know, you don’t find concentrations of families like this on cul-de-sacs in the county.”
You did in 1983 when I lived in Oakville. Perhaps in 1987 when I lived in Columbia, Missouri. But by the time my family lived in the suburbs of Houston in 1990, her statement held true. More working parents with little time to spend getting to know their neighbors. People my age were raised in the stranger-danger era of Adam Walsh and I don’t think we grew out of it. We know our families, our coworkers, and close friends, but we don’t spend a lot of time getting to know the strangers next door. If on top of this generational shyness, you are also busy and likely to move again when this house ceases to be big enough or nice enough, you aren’t going to waste your time.
In contrast, the people who have bought on my block are either committed to city living or bought when the block was cheap and now can’t believe their good fortune (like my family). It did take us some time to really meet each other, and it was mostly due to hazards of city living that we finally did come to be friends. The car thefts of ‘02, the drug dealers on the corner, 2004-2005, brought us into each other’s living rooms and back yards, made us build a block contact list, got us to recognize each other’s cars, kids, and patterns.
In the 8 years we’ve been here, we have watched as south city has quietly changed. We haven’t been the catalyst, we haven’t even attended that many meetings. But we have definitely benefited from the changes. South Grand has medians now, which in turn has slowed traffic a bit. The business district has changed; it needs more work but it’s more and more inviting to people like me all the time. Other abandoned sites have filled with stores—some are big boxes like Petsmart and Office Depot, but others are smaller. It isn’t perfect, but it’s good to see the progress. My dad remembers biking up Grand to work at Firmin Desloge hospital in the 1970s, and the businesses on South Grand were boarded up and dark. Now there’s a bike path on Grand and plenty of places to eat and shop.
One morning late last year, I wound up out in Chesterfield Valley. It was supposed to be for a play group, something we started via the internet but hadn’t actually met people face to face. Everyone was perfectly nice, but I realized how far we would have to travel and I told them that morning that I didn’t think we’d be able to continue to attend. Everyone else in the group lived in St. Charles or North County and those areas are beyond my comfort zone of commuting time. One mom said, I think with the best of intentions, “Have you ever considered moving out here? Things are so rundown in the city. It must be hard to keep it up.”
I shrugged off her question with my usual response: At this point we probably couldn’t afford to move anywhere within realistic commuting distance for my husband. It silenced her, but I thought about it later on the way home. What kind of response was that? It paints this picture of a desperate city dweller, longing for a two car attached garage three bedroom house on a street named for racehorses or trees. Gee, I’d love to live here and commute 45 minutes to anywhere, but I can’t because of the huge millstone of city life hanging around my neck.
On the way home, I passed the largest strip mall in America, Chesterfield Commons. As I drove past, I realized, we’ve got all that stuff. We’ve got a drive through Starbucks and a Target with a parking garage. What we don’t have within a 5 minute drive, we have just across the city-county border into Brentwood. What advantage is there to living so far away?
I don’t want to tell people that they have to live in the city. Many people would probably be unhappy here for whatever reason—the lots are small, for instance, that might be a legitimate reason to look in the distant county. But I’ve decided I’m going to stop the self-deprecation when the topic comes up. I tend to be shy about that, frankly. I don’t discuss who I’m going to vote for, lest that person loses and I look like I’ve wasted my effort. I don’t talk about my hopes for my children very often, even to my husband. I don’t push my child-rearing beliefs on others. I hold back and make the assumption that the other person has good reason to believe what they are doing is right. But I’m not going to do that with where I’ve chosen to live anymore. We’ve got all the positives that those county people have, and what’s more, we’ve got neighbors we like--intensely. County dwellers can’t tell me they’re the best sneetches on the beaches these days. I have nothing to envy them for and now I finally know it.