Young families take new look at city life

Andrew Ginsberg, Emily Lauterbach and their son, Eli, on the steps of the home they rent in Chicago.


Kai Ryssdal: Since at least the Second World War, a big part of the American dream has been owning your own house. Often that meant one out in the suburbs.

Sixty-five years on the Census bureau says the vast majority of young, college-educated couples still leave cities once they have children. They're looking for good public schools and affordable housing, two things that haven't always been easy to find with city life. In today's installment of our series, "The Next American Dream," sustainability reporter Sam Eaton tell us that a growing number of young families are moving back into town anyway.

SAM EATON: It was in Kansas City that Emily Lauterbach and Andrew Ginsberg discovered how quickly the American Dream of homeownership can slip into a nightmare.

EMILY LAUTERBACH: We got married, and then we bought a house, and then we had a baby and . . .

ANDREW GINSBERG: . . . and then the whole world fell apart.

Virtually overnight, layoffs transformed their once gentrifying inner-city neighborhood into a sea of foreclosed houses. Whatever hope they'd had for the area vanished.

The stray pit bulls and corner drug deals no longer qualified as neighborhood charm. Especially now that they had a toddler to worry about. So Emily and Andrew put their $65,000 Craftsman on the market and skipped town.

EMILY: Our goal now is to not own that house. We'd really like to get rid of it.

This is the stage when most young families trade their cramped urban lifestyles for the affordable space, safety and schools of the suburbs. Emily and Andrew considered moving to Lincoln, Neb., Emily's hometown. But then they thought better of it and chose Chicago instead, after Andrew was offered a job there as a labor organizer.

Today they live in an airy, two-bedroom apartment on Chicago's North Side. It's the bottom half of a historic duplex, surrounded by trees and nearby parks. And the only reason they can afford to live here is because they're renting. In fact, they've sworn never to own a house again.

ANDREW: I mean, I do think that we just, like, bought in to this whole thing. Like, you know, you make an investment and you make your payments and that's what responsible people do. And you keep up your yard.

It's not the way we look at things anymore. We live in a big city with thriving neighborhoods, and there's lots of places that we can rent from. And someone else can do all those things, and we can pay them.

Leaving Andrew and Emily, who's now a stay-at-home mom, with more time to raise their son, Eli, as a savvy city kid. A childhood they both wish they could have had. But even for the most determined families, trading the American Dream's suburban comforts for a life in the city isn't always easy.

JOEL KOTKIN: For the most part, cities have repelled this population.

Joel Kotkin is author of "The City, A Global History."

KOTKIN: Most cities today are not interested in their middle class. They're interested in hip, cool, young people who eventually grow up and leave. Their endless quest for the empty nesters. And the poor. And that's what they do.

Often pushing the issues that matter most to middle-class families -- things like parks, playgrounds and schools -- to the bottom of city priorities. And that keeps Emily up at night.

EMILY: I know that when it's time for us to pick a school we're going to have a lot of fights. I think that if somehow we can't get Eli into a public school that I think will give him enough opportunities, I would be happy to pay for school for him.

ANDREW: I can't believe you said that on the radio. I don't know. I think, kind of for the same reason, I think you should stay in the city and pay taxes so the city can be good. I think you should go to the public schools. And I will never, ever change my mind -- unless I become a different person.

University of Illinois urban planning professor Robert Bruegmann says this is one of the most challenging dilemmas facing families with school-age children in Chicago.

ROBERT BRUEGMANN: We have the honor of having what are arguably the worst schools in the country, by most objective standards.

And that's not going change anytime soon. But, Bruegmann says, as more middle-class families choose to stay, new models arise.

BRUEGMANN: The experimentation is really vigorous. We have all kinds of new options in charter schools, in magnet schools, in parochial schools, so that there's no longer this feeling of hopelessness. Now, at least, you have a lot of choices on what you can do.

But even those choices can be a tough sell for parents who mostly grew up in the suburbs and in small towns.

Emily's extended family still gathers at her grandmother's Lincoln, Neb., home every year for Easter.

After an early dinner, Emily and her family watch Eli run through the backyard with his cousins, searching for Easter eggs. Of the entire bunch, Emily is the only one who chose to live in the big city, a decision even she sometimes questions.

EMILY: It would have been pretty easy to move back here. We have a support system and could have lived in the house I grew up in. And I knew the neighborhood, and we have a lot of family friends. It would've been easy to get a job and know people.

Eli's education would've been easy as well. Emily's old elementary school is just a few blocks away. Unlike Chicago, she says here there's one choice -- and it happens to be a good one.

I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.
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My family was one of the top three that Sam interviewed for this segment. We sold our 2BR in Hoboken and bought a 4BR several blocks away. We have been saving money for years on a pretty modest income because we figured that we would need a huge down payment to afford a bigger home in our area. I would like to think that frugality is the new American Dream.

It always strikes how the media keeps thinking that 30 is "median" middle class. It may be for the mid-west but it certainly is NOT for other parts of the country. My husband and I are both in our mind early 40s, we have a 4 years old and schools loom large on our horizon. We are the "median" where we live, and we could only afford the house we live in because we chose to share our house with my sister, and it was only by pooling our moneys together that we were able to afford in the Bay Area. What I like about where we live is that it does offer a bit of suburbia without actually being one, and the parks and amenities for young kids in the East Bay is extremely varied and as "un-white bread" as you can get. But to afford anything - even now in this downturn - cities like Berkeley remain out of reach why? because their public school system is still the best around without going private or over the "hills" in real suburbia which many eventually do because of the schools.

I am 30, my husband is 37. We are raising our 2 year old daughter in an old neighborhood only 3 miles from downtown Dallas that is seeing constant revitalization due to lots of young families and older gay couples wanting single family homes, but not wanting the infamous 2 hours a day in the car commute. We've sacrificed square footage, and we've sacrificed every house on the block always being perfectly kept, but we've gained in so many ways. We get that "American dream" idea, the "joy" of home ownership, we get to spend those extra hours each week we'd spend commuting at home visiting with neighbors and spending time with our daughter, and we also get to live in a neighborhood where everyone doesn't look exactly like me, which I think is invaluable.

What I found in my public school way back in jr high and high school, and what I've now found in my community, is it is what you make it. Want it to be better? Fix it. Want your school to have more programs? Help them. Join the PTA. Volunteer at the school. Raise their arts program some money. There is power in community activism.

Everyone enjoys chiming in on what should happen here, there, and everywhere- Start with making things happen in your own backyard. Then it will not only increase your quality of life, but it will probably also increase your property value!

I'm sorry for being off topic but I had one of those - oh no he did not - driving moments when you said, "The stray pit bulls and corner drug deals no longer qualified as neighborhood charm." Equating pit bulls with drug deals is offensive to me as a pit-mix owner. I don't doubt there were stray dogs in the city but I doubt you were able to identify them as pit bulls. But more to the point, stereotyping breeds of dogs, whether its the pit bull/lipstick remark or the LG's Dare commercial (showing pit bulls as junkyard dogs) just serves to stigmatize the dog and its responsible owner.

I would just like to say that i am a little offended about the way you talked about city schools. As a thirteen year old living in New York city, I would think that I know how good city schools are (at least in NYC) better then random adults that went to school in the suburbs. And i would just like to say that i don't know about Chicago but here in NYC the schools are amazingly good, and most importantly you have choices, you can choose a school that fits you. This is something you never have in the suburbs. I went to a REALLY good elementary school, am now in a amazing middle school, and as an 8th grader I just got my results back for high school and I am extremely happy with the high school I will be attending. so next time please do not air untrue stereotypes. I expect better from you!

Re-thinking the American dream as you contend in your piece begins with re-thinking the U.S. tax system that so grossly (and unfairly) favors property owners. I'm 42 and was all for staying a renter forever (especially living in the Bay Area in California) until my tax preparer showed me the numbers and the undeniable fiscal benefits of paying a mortgage versus paying rent in a reasonable housing market. That last caveat is key: buying a home in the artificially inflated housing bubble of the last decade was a proposition that benefited very few people who bought in at that time, even with the tax breaks.

I almost always enjoy Marketplace. I generally think you typically do a very thorough, phenonminal job presenting all sides of a story. But in today's broadcast, "Young families take new look at city life", Marketplace did not live up to those standards. Interviewing an urban planner for the story put using his commentary on the public education system as representation of his expertise was disingenuous at best. Airing his uninformed, unsupported opinion of the Chicago Public School system as "arguably the worst schools in the country, by most objective standards" - which is patently false, by all objective standards - was irresponsible journalism. The schools are not fantastic, but the majority have improved astronomically over the past 10 years - and 7 of our HS are ranked in the top 200 in the country. Please ensure that your "expert" commentators are presenting a factual, well-informed perspective, and not tired old anti-urban rhetoric. Marketplace and Bruegmann should be chagrined.

I have had to rethink my concept of the American Dream and home ownership. I grew up in rural Idaho where I spent days riding my bike around town and exploring the surrounding riverbanks and horse pastures.

A few years ago, after my husband and I had settled into our two bedroom rental apartment in South Pasadena, we decided to look at the homes under construction near the Mission Station, which were featured on Marketplace today, and found they had been sold out for over a year. The only homes we could even begin to afford were in the next county far from convenient rail lines into downtown. We gave up on the home search.

With the crumbling housing market, we got back into house hunting and have found some single family homes in Pasadena in our price range but not within walking distance to rail. I only dream of owning a home in South Pas. We love the Mission Station area with the weekly Farmer’s Market, Heirloom Bakery and nearby library. My husband catches the Gold Line there for his daily commute. We will miss it when we buy a house and have to move to an area that might necessitate a second car. I think presenting the South Pas model as the future of car-less home ownership is unrealistic. While there are limited numbers of large lots in the suburbs, there are also limited numbers of higher density affordable homes near train stations.

This "new look" at the American Dream is exciting and consoling. At 26 and 27, my boyfriend and I have many friends who are getting married, having kids, buying houses, etc. I am noticing the hardship these things are introducing into their lives (money, time, and stress) and I am seeing them justify these hardships because it is the American Dream and they believe they are doing things "the right way." That is their choice and they are happy with it. OK.

What I want is for our choice to not pursue the American Dream to not be considered immature or stupid by our friends and family. I don't want my boyfriend and I to be considered as needing to "grow up" and "get real." I want to say, "Listen: We have ZERO debt, we enjoy a vibrant learning and social and philanthropic life, modest savings, adventurous travel, a comfortable, happy lifestyle, and a wide-open future. We're renting low, we have no kids, and we are in a strong 6-year relationship with no pressure to have a wedding. I don't want the cloud of feeling as though we are not high enough up on the life-progress measuring stick to be shadowing our happiness. We're happy, we're progressing, its never too late; what's the problem?

This program made me feel that we are doing something right. Or, at least, this that this is right for us. And it is also OK.


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