It took my parents a long time to understand why I loved Philadelphia.
Their confusion was understandable. They’d grown up and then lived in small Kansas towns pretty much their entire adult lives. I’d been raised in those same towns, went to college there, and then spent the first decade or so of my career working at daily Kansas newspapers.
Kansas was familiar. Kansas was home. Kansas was … a place with not that many people.
But in 2008, with the Great Recession starting to rear its head, a couple of things happened in my personal life that suddenly made moving to Philly a pressing possibility. First: A startup news site that I’d helped found unceremoniously got its funding pulled and went out of business. Second: My wife got pregnant.
I needed a job. Fast. And as it happened, the best and fastest option was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia. The timing was also a bit fortuitous: I’d loved vacationing in big cities, had thought about one day taking my shot, and with a child on the way it felt as though there might not be another good chance. So we went.
It was kind of a disaster at first, frankly. The recession was wreaking havoc on the news business, and I was not a good fit with the alt weekly’s culture. I lost my job. And we decided to say. I became a stay-at-home dad while my wife worked. My parents wondered why we didn’t just come home.
Then I got sick.
I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say I spent a long, ugly week in the hospital. My dad flew into town to take care of our 2-year-old son. And one morning, grandad and grandson went to the neighborhood coffee shop, a little French cafe with the best soups in town.
Everybody greeted my toddler kid by name. He was like Norm from “Cheers.”
Suddenly my dad understood. We weren’t just living in a big city of more than a million people. We were living in a neighborhood, where people knew and looked after each other. It wasn’t so different from the small Kansas town where I’d grown up, after all.
CITIES GET a bad rap these days. Scratch that: Cities always get a bad rap from folks who don’t live there, who don’t love all those people, or the crime, or the tall buildings, the lack of green space. And often, the problems are real: Whole Foods didn’t just close down in San Francisco because the place is a utopia.
But the hate is a bit strange. We live in an urbanizing country. Most Americans live near or in bigger cities. There are reasons for that.
Me? I just loved the energy of it all. I loved the art museum, and the orchestra and the opera – all world-class institutions that often had free programming for a working family like ours. (Did I see a special showing of “Rocky” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with director John G. Avildsen? You betcha.) I loved the halal food carts that dotted Center City. I loved parks like Rittenhouse Square, a great hangout on spring and summer days. I loved the buskers. I loved the crowds.
And man, I really enjoyed not owning a car.
We sold our vehicle shortly after our son was born. Finding a parking spot in a Center City neighborhood was nearly impossible, we’d found, but we also realized that we just really didn’t need our own vehicle. The grocery store was a five-minute walk from our apartment. His preschool? 10 minutes. My job was about 15 minutes. Everything we needed to live was close by. And for the stuff that wasn’t? Buses passed by our place every few minutes.
Not that it was always easy. If you’ve ever had to pull a stroller on and off a bus, several times a day, you know it can be exhausting. But we were still relatively young, and excited about living someplace different. The whole thing felt like an adventure, even after we’d lived in Philadelphia several years. Some people love the freedom of travel that a car brings them. I loved the freedom of not having a car payment, or insurance payments, or filling up the gas tank.
There were other challenges. Even without a car payment, Philadelphia was an expensive place to live. The one-party city government, when it wasn’t outrageously corrupt, was sclerotic at best and a Kafkaesque nightmare at worst.
The first year we paid city taxes, we got a bill for previous years’ back taxes – even though we had been living in Kansas at the time. Another year, we were notified the city was taking us to court for nonpayment of taxes; we had to provide a copy of the canceled check to prove the problem was on their end, not ours. A neighborhood businessman got in trouble with the city because he cleaned a trashy vacant lot he didn’t own.
I started to sympathize with libertarians a little bit. It was all exhausting.
But there was always the little French cafe.
WE BOUGHT a new car last month. We’ve been back in Kansas awhile now – a decision to be near our parents as they get older, and to live more cheaply while I pursue a freelance writing career. Our rent here is nearly $1,000 a month cheaper than what we paid for our Philadelphia apartment, and we have a lawn to boot.
I still hate car payments. I miss having a bus run past the house every few minutes.
And I miss the old city neighborhood. We’ve lived in our mid-sized college town a few years now, and we know one next-door neighbor, but we don’t know and encounter folks in the broader neighborhood like we did back in Philadelphia. When everybody is walking the same streets and taking the bus together, a certain amount of socializing happens – sometimes as soon as you step out your front door. When everybody is in their car? Not so much.
When I was sick in Philadelphia, our neighborhood butcher brought a pot of spaghetti so my wife could get a break from cooking. When we left town, he took us to a farewell meal. How do you put a price on that?
It’s not that we made the wrong decision by coming back. For us and our family, living in Kansas has been the right thing to do at the right time. And certainly, we have great relationships here – the folks at my coffee shop surprised me for a recent birthday. You make connections and community wherever you go, if you’re lucky.
It’s not an either-or thing. We love our Kansas town. We loved living in the city. I miss it still.
Joel Mathis is a writer based in Lawrence, Kansas.