One of the common criticisms leveled at people who promote urban living goes something like this. “Cities are great for college kids, people starting off in their careers, bohemians, and maybe some older empty nesters with money who have a taste for theater and art. But most people have families and tight budgets. Suburbia is the only place that provides a high quality, safe, affordable life for regular folks with children.”
Last month I flew to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to attend a wedding. As we were all milling about with friends and family on the porch eating ice cream on a gorgeous September afternoon I noticed some of my fellow out-of-town visitors from New York and San Francisco looking around with a peculiar expression. It was the same kind of look that dogs get when they’re curious and a little confused – one ear up and one ear down. They looked at their kids playing in the grass and sitting on grandma’s lap. I knew very well what they were thinking. They were a family of four living in a tiny one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and their oldest child will be starting school next year.
Now, I need you to picture the neighborhood so you get the context here. This is a century old streetcar suburb five miles from downtown. There are tree lined streets, front porches on elegant old homes, a charming Main Street with mom and pop shops a couple of blocks away, and an elementary school directly across the street. Even in this very comfortable and pricey neighborhood a grand home with a patch of grass could be purchased for significantly less than the cost of a one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. You can actually ride a bicycle to downtown Pittsburgh – and it would be a pleasant and convenient ride. Carnegie Mellon University and a dozen other prominent institutions are nearby.
In large expensive cities many young families are having to make harsh choices. They can stay where they are and pay exorbitant rents or a shockingly high mortgage for less than ideal accommodations in order to have access to good jobs and urban amenities. Or they can move to a more affordable suburb and spend a couple of hours each day schlepping in and out of the city. Or they can step away from the city entirely and organize their lives around a purely suburban set of arrangements: the subdivision, the office park, the shopping mall… For many people who value urban life these are difficult decisions with a lot of unsavory trade offs.
Pittsburgh is just one of hundreds of small and medium sized cities in the interior that people in coastal cities like to dismiss as part of “Flyover Country”. What isn’t clearly understood is that Pittsburgh isn’t competing with New York or San Francisco. Instead Pittsburgh is competing with the distant suburbs of places like New York and San Francisco out in the endless smear of anonymous tract homes and strip malls that ring those cities. Pittsburgh wins that taste test hands down every time for anyone who shows up and actually looks around and experiences what’s on offer.