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The Next American Dream

Young families take new look at city life

Sam Eaton May 13, 2009
The Next American Dream

Young families take new look at city life

Sam Eaton May 13, 2009


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.

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