Are the Suburbs Worth It?

The Facebook timelines of my city’s modest intelligentsia are abuzz with angry responses to a recent piece in n+1, titled, simply, “Hartford, Connecticut.” I could delve into the ways that the piece is right (Hartford is the logical consequence of voluntary suburban segregation, an island of brown poverty in a sea of white affluence) or wrong (“There is no burgeoning art scene or burgeoning anything”). But one well-crafted phrase struck me, and made me think about the financial choices that middle class people make: “The narcissism of parenting is getting to abandon any pretense of caring for places ‘when it’s for my kid.’” In other words, today’s middle class twenty- and thirty-somethings are marvelous cheerleaders for diversity and the new urbanism until they confront the prospect of their kid being the only one in the classroom with college-educated parents, or the only white one. Suddenly, people say “schools” and “crime” and without further deliberation, start applying mortgages pre-approval.

Before you trot out New York Times trend stories about the web developers who have converted Bushwick butcher shops to bohemian family lofts and are pouring their energies into local schools and PTAs, let me be clear. This is not New York or San Francisco or Austin or Charlotte. My city has 125,000 people and it is very very poor (fourth poorest in the nation, the n+1 piece helpfully points out!). There is no bourgeois enclave here that is big enough to insulate children from the city’s public schools, or from its poverty. Practically speaking, there is almost no gentrification. So when middle class folks in Hartford have kids, the first thing people ask is, “What are you going to do about the schools?” Most of the time, the answer is to move to the suburbs. But is it worth it? And more importantly, do new middle class parents give this the kind of careful deliberation that such a big decision deserves?

I cannot pretend to do a useful comparison of the relative costs of city renting and suburban home ownership. There are too many variables and too many personal preferences to offer any insight. (In my own highly idiosyncratic experience, renting has proved a better deal, but your mileage may vary.) But what about the schools? They are better, sure, but how much better? How much more should a monthly mortgage payment be than monthly rent to live in a neighborhood with less crime? And is something else lost when we sacrifice a communitarian investment in a place for individual advantage, and in the transaction raise our children with less exposure to economic and ethnic diversity?

I live in the middle of this question. When I got divorced two years ago, I moved from a relatively affluent neighborhood in the already affluent town of West Hartford (6th best place in the nation for families, according to Family Circle Magazine! 72nd best place to live in 2012, according to Money Magazine!) to Hartford, where nearly a third of residents live in poverty. My children split their time between the two households (which is to say, between two worlds), and they’re still in West Hartford public schools. My rent is $900 a month, compared to a monthly mortgage in West Hartford of about $2,100. Add in property taxes, and access to suburban schools costs an extra $2,000 a month.

As a lawyer, I’ve represented hundreds of kids who attended Hartford schools, in juvenile delinquency matters, special education cases, and school expulsions. I have been inside most of the schools in Hartford, and many of my friends are products of Hartford’s public schools. So I feel comfortable saying that West Hartford schools are totally, unarguably better than Hartford schools. But $24,000 a year better?

People point a lot to Hartford’s dismal testing numbers and high dropout rate. But I haven’t seen any statistics that control for household income, and that matters a ton. Through work, I have met a lot of kids who drop out of Hartford schools or are on the verge of dropping out, and pretty much all of them come from complicated, difficult homes.

These are kids whose parents haven’t graduated high school, or don’t read and write English, or are dealing with the stresses of unemployment, drug addiction, unstable housing, or abusive relationships. I don’t mean to say that they are necessarily bad parents, but they have a lot more stressors in their lives and it stands to reason that they can’t provide as much academic support to their kids as I can to mine.

I mean, I am a lawyer and my ex-wife is a college professor. We have comprehensive health and dental insurance and generous sick leave allowances. We have the resources and time to go to school conferences and open houses and all that other stuff. We read with our kids and take them to museums and cultural events and have the wherewithal to help them with their homework competently for many years (except maybe in math, which was hard 25 years ago and appears to have gotten harder since). So I think it is safe to say that many of the factors that lead teenagers to drop out of school in Hartford (i.e., poverty) are far less likely to affect my kids, no matter where they attend school.

I also know many people who graduated from the Hartford school system and went on to college, graduate school, and professional success in various endeavors. Most of them come from middle class families with professional parents — like my kids — and have achieved precisely the sort of success I would hope for and expect from my kids.

Is there any reason to think my two boys couldn’t graduate from Hartford High, go to a decent college, and have perfectly normal, bourgeois lives? Are West Hartford schools the crucial factor that will differentiate — for my kids — between Harvard and and the local community college (putting aside whether community college is even such a terrible fate)?

The other argument mustered in favor of moving to the suburbs when you have kids is safety. I started thinking about this over a year ago, after reading Noah Berlatsky’s piece in The Atlantic, “A Lesson From New Guinea: Your Kid Is Going To Be Fine,” in which he responds to Jared Diamond’s book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Berlatsky recounts how he let his nine-year-old walk alone to a neighbor’s house a few blocks away, inspired by Diamond’s story of how 10-year-olds in New Guinea are often allowed to leave home for months, more or less on their own initiative.

My experience has been similar: I let my nine-year-old and his seven-year-old brother circumnavigate our block in the summer and I do so without extraordinary worry: sure, we live in the second poorest neighborhood in one of the nation’s poorest cities, but most of the people who live here are families with kids, like us. On my block, the parents know each other and know whose kid is whose, and everyone looks out for everyone. We’ve never heard gunshots on our street, and most of the crime in the area is drug-related and involves adults who have met one another before.

Now, certain parents may feel that any exposure to crime — even just seeing evidence of the drug trade and its unhappy social results — is intolerably detrimental to their kids. But if we are talking about real danger, I think my poor urban neighborhood is plenty safe for a couple of sensible elementary school kids.

And aren’t there benefits to urban living, benefits that should be rationally considered before buying a house and a lawnmower? I don’t mean to disparage the suburbs or the country — they have their charms, and I understand that people love them, especially people who grew up in them. (Also, I have to admit that back yards are pretty great.) Still, there are a lot of people who love cities but leave them when they have kids. They should consider the benefits to their children of city living with the same seriousness that they pore over school district test scores and college acceptance rates.

My kids’ idea of normal is immensely more diverse than it would be in the suburbs. They are the only white kids among their many playmates in our building, and they live in a world where they are distinctly in the minority in terms of race and class. I don’t pretend that this will serve as remedy for the privilege that will inevitably accrue to them in their lives, but it will, at least, give them a perspective they wouldn’t get in the suburbs. I’ll admit that I wish that everyone could be neighborly enough not to say, “What the hell are all these fuckin’ white kids doing here,” as someone did today when my sons and a white schoolmate were playing in our building’s courtyard. But I’m not too worried about it. I think a lot of white people could stand to feel the sting of uncomfortable minority status from time to time, and middle class children would generally do well to spend formative time in intimate proximity to the poverty that still afflicts so many places in this country.

All of which is not to say that city living, whether in poor, benighted Hartford or some more up-and-coming locale, is for everyone. The fact that my kids seem to be having a good go of it in Hartford (as I did growing up in pre-hipster Brooklyn) is emphatically anecdotal and doesn’t prove my argument. I hope that growing income inequality and the tightening of credit won’t prove my argument either. But people considering leaving the city to have kids really should give it careful deliberation, for the sake of their own happiness, for their kids, and to help me and my friends prove that n+1 piece totally wrong.

 

Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.

Photos via Wikimedia Commons

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60 Comments / Post A Comment

thegirlieshow (#5,285)

I think you made a lot of great points here. I don’t have kids yet, but I plan to stay in the city for a long time and I’m hoping my friends will too! I really hate that reactionary ‘what about the schooools’ argument but it’s hard to counter it in a rational way.

Just an anecdote, but in my kindergarten class the teachers thought I was retarded. My parents put me in a private school, and suddenly I was an “independent thinker.” Impossible to say how things would have turned out if I ‘d stayed in that school, but I am glad my parents decided that the extra expense of private schooling was worth it!

@TrotskyHoldsMyiPod 1) Best username ever. 2) You put your finger on the problem here, which is a lack of hard data. There are probably lots of kids whose kindergarten teachers thought they were intellectually disabled (that’s what they call it now) whose parents didn’t have the scratch for private school. Most of them probably turned out OK, and some didn’t, but no one ever kept track, so we’re stuck with conjecture. Maybe someday, we’ll discover that the upside of having all of our phone conversations recorded by the government is that they can be mined years later for useful data on a host of interesting sociological questions!

@Josh Michtom@facebook 1)Thanks! 2)My cousin’s kid is going to the same school I did and he’s had difficulties. I can’t help but think that if my cousin could move him, a lot of them would disappear. I tutored him, but it’s hard to make up for all the time he should be learning in class in a couple hours a week. But only time will tell how he turns out. I’ll let you know in twenty years or so!

@TrotskyHoldsMyiPod I eagerly await your report.

EM (#1,012)

@TrotskyHoldsMyiPod Admittedly I am in Canada, so it might be very different here– but I have cousins with developmental disabilities, and an aunt who works exclusively as an educator in public schools with disabled kids, and there is a ton of support for them in public schools here. Most of them have one-to-one adult educators, so they can stay in regular classrooms as much as possible and progress along with their same-age peers, but they have individual tailored support. I’m sure private schools can provide even more kinds of specialized support, but it’s not like in all public schools the disabled are ostracised.

@EM The problem is, I don’t really have any major issues. I guess nowadays they would classify me as being somewhere in the autistic spectrum, but really, other than being in my own world and not being motivated to do things I don’t see the point of, I was an okay student. But the teachers were really fast to label me. It’s a little scary!

The same goes for my cousin’s kid- he may be slightly dyslexic and a little unfocused, but again, I don’t think there’s anything so wrong with him that some better teachers couldn’t fix. Having not been to public school, I can’t speak for all, but it seems the understanding of different learning styles is severely lacking, and then people get labels that can really impact their view of themselves. It was really shocking when I ran across the report from my kindergarten teacher saying I was retarded. Luckily, that happened in my teens, when I was doing well in a good school and I can laugh about it, but…

Rant over, the problem was not so much what support disabled students would get in public school; the problem was that my teachers didn’t bother to actually figure out what I needed and just didn’t want to deal with the problem.

diplostreetmix (#4,472)

The math on renting vs mortgage is a little more complex than people usually make it sound. In favor of buying, the interest paid on your mortgage is tax-deductible, and the ability to eventually sell your house really is a thing! In favor of renting, you get whatever return on the down payment that you are sacrificing as a homeowner, and you are also freed from a lot of maintenance expenses. (I think the maintenance stuff is a little bit of a wash; renters miss out on energy-efficiency upgrades that homeowners can make, and homeowners get to customize their dwelling to a much greater extent.) Personally, I think that yardwork is a complete loss for homeowners, even if they don’t live near a park. Overall, buying is probably a better financial avenue if you have the liquidity.

@diplostreetmix You’re right for sure, with a few caveats. Liquidity, which you mention, is foremost, and it’s the thing that so many homebuyers of late haven’t had. It’s no good that you can recoup your monthly mortgage payments at a remote date in the future if you can barely make them now. The other thing is fluctuations in the housing market: in my case, seven years of mortgage payments amounted to almost zero equity. That put me way ahead of all the folks who were underwater, but way behind where I’d been if I’d been renting cheaply all that time.

It’s also worth noting that suburban home ownership both provides more and costs more than what my quick analysis gets into. On the one hand, the house where my kids spend half their time is a lot bigger than my apartment, and has an actual yard with grass. The nights there are quieter, the streets are leafier and more tree-lined, and while I maintain that it’s not appreciably safer, you are a lot less likely to see at close proximity the unhappy details of poverty. On the other hand, you’re more likely to need a car or a second car in the ‘burbs, you’re more likely to drive more, which both costs money and affects your health (I base that on firsthand experience), you are periodically subject to significant maintenance costs (roof, paint, &c.), and you have to devote more time to upkeep. There’s probably another piece or three on the benefits and detriments of home ownership.

garli (#4,150)

@diplostreetmix This is a potentially really interesting discussion only because the pros and cons are SO specific to any individual’s circumstances.

Personally I think yardwork is a super win because it means I get to have a bunch of citrus trees in my yard as well as what ever else I feel like planting at the time. Not that you couldn’t find a rental with lime trees, but how many people are going to let you plant a tree? (No landlord I ever asked)

theballgirl (#1,546)

@Josh Michtom@facebook Yardwork RULES. OK yes, some people don’t think so. But I love it as do a lot of people I know. As for upkeep – if you have a (very) good home inspector, you should be able to determine when (approximately) you’ll need a new roof or water heater or whatever. That can help you budget over the longterm. “Things” tend to come up, but again, the larger items should be something you’re relatively prepared for.

edit: not trying to say you’re incorrect, just adding some perspective in regards to upkeep :]

garli (#4,150)

@theballgirl Word.

@theballgirl Of course. Some people straight up like the suburbs and everything that suburban living entails. That’s great, and they should move to the suburbs if they can afford it. I just meet a lot of people who don’t actually want to go to the suburbs but act as though they have no choice.

Olivia2.0 (#260)

“unemployment, drug addiction, unstable housing, or abusive relationships” – drug addiction and abusive relationships really aren’t an economic problem…

@Olivia2.0 I disagree. Sure it’s true that domestic violence and drug abuse exist across social classes, but poverty is definitely an aggravating factor in the frequency and impact of both problems. Poverty, for example, leads to housing insecurity, which can make it much harder for a woman (and her children) to leave an abusive household. The incidents of poverty (food insecurity, poor healthcare, substandard housing, &c.) are also stressors that increase the likelihood that a person will use violence on partner or children and that a person will succumb to addiction.

sea ermine (#122)

@Olivia2.0 True, but I’d imagine that economic problems could make it harder to leave an abusive relationship (for example, if you can’t afford to move out).

@Olivia2.0 additionally there are quite a few economic problems (I would use “externalities”, but just me) generated by systematic ignorance of addiction issues (or even completely idiotic drug war campaigns on addiction that are terrible economic decisions) or exacerbating abusive behaviors by not providing social services to marginalized or already destitute peoples that manifest in long-term issues and impact all kinds of other areas of the “economy” including labor, costs of service provisions and health care costs, so.

Olivia2.0 (#260)

@Josh Michtom@facebook All those points being said – it still remains that drug abuse and domestic violence are not only problems for those in poverty. Poverty can and does exacerbate these issues, but that still doesn’t mean that these are only issues for the poor. The domestic violence statistics actually are very similar – it’s just actually much harder to see in communities with wealth.

mikeyo (#6,203)

@Olivia2.0 This discussion reminds me of a debate I had during a sociology class in college. All the upper middle class kids at my private university thought that domestic abuse and other social pathologies were JUST as prevalent in their little corners of the world as in poorer more troubled areas of the country. Yes, Madison or Philippa or Taylor might have an abusive boyfriend and problems with drugs or a surprising degree of dysfunction in her home life growing up but she also has more resources and a more supportive environment around her should she decide to break out and get help. That IS economic and it IS class based.

mikeyo (#6,203)

@Olivia2.0 The other problem with your argument is that when you are in a higher socioeconomic class you at least have more of an awareness of what’s behaviorally expected of you. You may experience abuse and engage in destructive behaviors of your own but you’re much more likely to at least be AWARE that these are not healthy behaviors. The social and professional loss and isolation if you obtain a criminal record will also deter a lot of openly reckless behavior. Basically, people who behave most horribly in their personal lives in the long run will not remain in the upper middle classes. If you’re a high powered lawyer or doctor you know that if you’re caught hitting your spouse or your kids that you could have everything to lose, most especially the privilege of your socioeconomic status. That deterrent doesn’t exist in the same ways if you’re scraping by on 2 or 3 ephemeral service jobs. You’re more likely to be around others who live out bad life patterns and habits and it’s going to feel much more normal to you. There aren’t the same messages from other family, friends, peers, coworkers, even therapists that what you’re experiencing is even abuse and should be remedied. Instead of potentially being horrified by the negative behavior and looking to change it you’re too busy trying to get by day to day and survive. You’re not even going to believe that change IS possible.

@Olivia2.0 @mikeyo I think more than any particular predilection to commit bad acts on the part of the poor, the issue is that when bad things like domestic violence happen to people, they get knocked down a rung or two, but poor people are already at the bottom of the ladder. Just so with the life challenges that drive us to alcoholism or drug abuse. So I don’t know if it’s a lack of social shame and deterrent so much as an overall lack of resources and options.

theballgirl (#1,546)

Ahh! I lived this quandary about a year ago. With a 6 month old on my hip and a city-area condo that had accrued enough equity to make a sale worthwhile, my husband and I felt it was time to determine “what next”.

We looked to the plethora of data available on the schools in our area and ultimately the ones that matched up best with what we wanted were in wealthier suburbs. I am not thrilled my son and future child(ren) will grow up in a tony “white” enclave, but after watching childhood friends get swallowed up by my hometowns shitty school system, I wasn’t going to take chances. And yes, I recognize this is anecdotal, much like the authors experiences.

One addition: We’re also somewhat outdoorsy people, so we focused on a house that would offer a large backyard and conservation land nearby. We got both and it has truly been awesome for us and our now crazy toddler.

theballgirl (#1,546)

@theballgirl Also, one (final, I promise) thing to add. I believe that the ever rising cost of college may be a huge driving factor in the race to the burbs’

garli (#4,150)

@theballgirl How so? Better schools = scholarships or because the burbs are cheaper so you can save money for college?

@theballgirl Home equity loan for college costs?

theballgirl (#1,546)

@garli Yes exactly. The assumption is that better schooling = better grades and thus more opportunities for scholarships. Additionally, more athletic programs = more athletic scholarships. This is a huge discussion point amongst my group of ‘mom friends’ btw. EVERYONE is worried about college cost insofar that it dominates every discussion about education.

theballgirl (#1,546)

@Josh Michtom@facebook hah can you do that!? I may have to look into it… :]

@theballgirl It’s funny, I always supposed that the opposite strategy might work: if your kid is one of very few with supportive, educated, middle-class parents in a very poor district, wouldn’t it be that much easier for your kid to excel? And wouldn’t your kid benefit from colleges’ attempts to use geographic diversity and diversity of background as admissions factors? Of course, if you really want your kid to get a lot of scholarships, the best thing to do is start her in a relatively obscure collegiate sport so she has less competition and is more likely to become nationally ranked: Force your kid to become great at squash, and then she can get a full ride to Trinity and live in Hartford!

theballgirl (#1,546)

@Josh Michtom@facebook This is why we bought our 18 month old a curling kit for xmas!! On a more serious note, yes, your point is interesting. I never looked at it that way but I will be sure to ask my friends their thoughts.

And I recognize that it’s a lazy assumption to make that good schooling = more college scholarship opportunities. But I think, in the absence of other solid data, as you noted to another commenter, it’s the best we can do.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@theballgirl How much college money is there beyond athletic scholarships beyond what is need-based? Seriously asking. When I went to college 20 years ago, I got very little scholarship money because my family was middle class and could presumably afford it. (And yes, my parents paid for my tuition with the equity in their house.)

AitchBee (#3,001)

@Lily Rowan A lot–both from colleges/universities themselves in the form of merit scholarships, and from national and state programs for high-achieving students.

theballgirl (#1,546)

@Lily Rowan I can’t give you any numbers but based on personal experience/friends there are a decent amount of them. I think (?) they are typically smaller $$ though.

Obviously athletic + need based are the bulk though

garli (#4,150)

@Lily Rowan There’s not nearly as much athletic scholarship money as people there think there is. Which isn’t to say that most college coaches/ departments won’t pull some strings to get you non athletic scholarships while you’re on a team, but it’s not like you get good at a sport and scholarships grow on trees.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@theballgirl Oh, I’m sure I got up to $5K in merit scholarships, but even then that didn’t go very far toward my tuition.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@garli Fair enough — I have never been in that world!

And also thinking back, I did decline a significant merit scholarship from a school I didn’t want to go to. This is actually always my problem — I very strongly prefer the very expensive things! (See also, always living in northeastern cities….)

deepomega (#22)

@theballgirl I hesitate to throw this out there, but here you go:

I was in a very, very elite magnet program in middle school and then high school, in one of the wealthiest counties in the country. The magnet was great, gave me an EXCELLENT education, and then left me and my 99 classmates with the dawning realization our senior year that most elite schools have limits on how many people they can accept from a given high school. In fact, one of our classmates moved to a shittier school district so as to have an advantage. (I think he got into an Ivy.)

As a result, about 40% of us ended up in state schools. Note that over 60 of us were National Merit Semifinalists, so this is insane. I’m not sure there’s evidence that a fancy suburban education is necessarily gonna increase odds of getting into a “good college” or getting a scholarship.

theballgirl (#1,546)

@deepomega All good points and they make total sense. Our sons (future) school system sounds very similar to yours. However, in choosing this system, we were not doing so in the hopes it would help him get into an Ivy. I want him to get a good education so he can qualify for a wider variety of scholarships a bunch of colleges/univs. He also has significantly more athletic opportunities. Our state schools here are very good so I would be thrilled with that.

stinapag (#2,144)

@Josh Michtom@facebook In Texas, the top ten percent of every high school class gets in to UT or A&M. That was the compromise after the Hopwood decision to get race out of the selection criteria. There are advantages to doing well in a crappy school.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_House_Bill_588

Not backed up by a lot of hard data either but this article is GREAT and especially when thinking about how inequalities are playing out in large cities, like mine, Chicago, where entire pockets are systematically starved for resources–especially education. and this: “In other words, today’s middle class twenty- and thirty-somethings are marvelous cheerleaders for diversity and the new urbanism until they confront the prospect of their kid being the only one in the classroom with college-educated parents, or the only white one” really struck me. The myopia generated from these mentalities, where does it come from? Will your children be better off by being raised in contact zones? I’d like to think yes and that it won’t just be more young people like many people in my GRADUATE program who because they’ve never been out of their white, affluent comfort zone never can really see the explicitness off it or deal with it.

I didn’t do my adolescence in a gritty inner city, but I’ve absolutely had people tell me I was fortunate to have grown up in “diverse” environments, so there’s that, I guess.

@Carmen Aiken@facebook I tried to stay away from the question of how people let their subtle, unspoken and unacknowledged racism influence their housing choices. That’s not because I don’t think that’s an issue (I really really do) but because, in my experience, no one will hear you out when you lead with, “You’re a racist.”

garli (#4,150)

@Josh Michtom@facebook Are people subtle and unspoken? I’ve heard near strangers say bluntly racist things about my neighborhood.

@garli Sure. But even people who would never say bluntly racist things operate irrationally around questions of race and housing.

@Josh Michtom@facebook yeah, which then gets conflated with some sort of existentialist ideas about place, i.e. this or that ethnic or racial group has always lived in X under served area (uh, no) and “people like me live in places like this”.

deepomega (#22)

@Josh Michtom@facebook It’s funny how a neighborhood’s “safety” is always a synonym for “mostly has white people.”

Fig. 1 (#632)

Personally speaking, I think your parents’ educational attainment, drive, and socioeconomic status have more influence on your life than what school you attend. Unless you subscribe to the idea that your pre/elementary school determines what college or grad school your kids will end up at, therefore determining the entire trajectory of their lives. I wonder how much of this comes out of us feeling like we can control for adversity in our childrens’ lives, that a “good school” is a guarantee. I think we’ve seen from other stories on the Billfold that this isn’t always the case.

I went to a rural school but both my parents went to university, unlike the majority of my classmates’ parents. As a result, my siblings and I did. What we didn’t get from school we got from a house full of books and life on a farm. What I missed out on was a diverse schooling and the ability to function autonomously until I got my drivers’ license. I was pretty clueless and racist when I showed up at university, though I like to think I got better.

Fig. 1 (#632)

I should also say, our city allows kids from anywhere in the city proper to attend whatever school within the city they (or their parents) want. While it allows schools to specialize, it means a lot of hassle driving kids around (several children are injured or killed each year in school zones from frazzled parents) and we have half-empty schools and others bursting at the seams as less-progressive parents do not want to put their kids in a school with what they perceive to be under-performing poorer children whose parents can’t afford to drive them across town every day. Transit is a joke here (<4% of people take it) so it’s not an option unless 2 hr bus rides are better than alternative.

It’s a complex issue. I suppose if you looked at it on a macro basis, some people are going to want to stay in a city and help boost it up, and other people choose to put their efforts elsewhere and move to a city where it’s easier to live. I chose the former but I won’t lie, there are many times when I just want to give up and leave.

@Fig. 1 What is this city??

avii (#6,183)

Great article. I grew up right near Middletown, in Marlborough CT. It was the boonies when I was growing up there. Now the home prices have skyrocketed so high in Marlborough, I sure could never afford to live there. Everyone is moving farther and farther out of Hartford and the suburbs are just getting way too expensive. All my friends who still live in the area now live out in Coventry/Colchester area. CT is awful. Most people I know are trying to get out asap (my husband and I included, though we’re down near Bridgeport now, another struggling CT city). Housing is just ridiculously expensive. Not worth it.

@avii So here’s my question: are Connecticut’s cities beyond saving? Obviously, I think the answer is no. I actually really like living in Hartford, but I’m curious to get more opinions on whether Hartford and Bridgeport and similar little cities have any real hope of keeping their middle classes.

avii (#6,183)

@Josh Michtom@facebook The taxes in this area down in southern ct are just sky high. My family pays almost 8K for an acre in Stratford (that we bought for nothing from a family member). And the schools are not great. And Bridgeport property taxes are worse! If I’m going to pay that much to a town, the schools should be amazing. As it is, we are looking to leave for that reason, our son is three. We have time, but with the economy how it is, how hard it’s been for my husband and I to hang on to what we do have…we want to give him every opportunity we can. We may not be able to help with college, so making sure he’s in a good school system is some help at least.
I don’t see how anyone with a middle class salary can stay in CT. We are just being priced out. My husband and I make a combined income that is considered upper middle class…and we can barely afford it. No cable, etc. It’s just rough all around. We’re looking to move to New Hampshire or Maine. You just get more for your money out of this state. We do love the city life, lots of restaurants, etc. but it’s not worth what we are paying now.

Lily Rowan (#70)

I am more and more glad that I grew up in what feels like halfway between the city and the suburbs. My parents were sort of gentrifiers in a lower/middle class city (not quite gentrifiers, because they didn’t do much for the property, but they were better-educated than most of the neighbors), which is now definitely upper-middle class.

Eric18 (#4,486)

Regarding that n+1 article:

“Hartford’s failings aren’t the fault of it or its people or even its government.”

Um, anyone who has followed Hartford’s and the state’s politics would know that is BS. The state’s politicians and even its citizens bear some (but certainly not all) responsibility for the dire straits of the city. Heck, the author even cites a politician who was charming and fleecing the city before being jailed.

The mismanagement of money in the state is galling. Especially when it has one of the highest tax rates in the country (I know it ranks top 3 in the country). THAT is the fault of the people and the government.

@Eric18 I don’t know if your assessment is fair. Hartford is a uniquely difficult position (something the n+1 writer does touch on) because it provides a lot of tax-free or tax-discounted land to entities that provide *some* money and *some* jobs, but take a lot more out. This includes not just insurance companies but hospitals and other non-profits: Hartford can’t collect taxes on over 40% of its theoretically taxable land because it is occupied by hospitals and universities that provide a service to the whole region, including all the middle- and upper-class folks who move so that their tax dollars can go exclusively to educating their children. Because Hartford is small in terms of population (as all the Conn. cities are), it can’t really get redress for this in the state legislature, and there’s no motivation there to change school funding formulas to make things a bit fairer. So holding a very poor, numerically slight populace accountable for its structural and economic woes is a bit heavy-handed.

Also, the politician the writer is talking about is former mayor Eddie Perez, who was accused of getting free renovations done on his bathroom by a city contractor who never billed him for the work. I think the odds are good that he did something improper in that case (he definitely did something stupid), but he maintains his innocence, and his convictions were thrown out on appeal (which the n+1 doesn’t mention). I’m not trying to say that Hartford doesn’t suffer mightily from political corruption (as all of Connecticut does). But the n+1 piece paints a picture that is a bit too simplistic.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@Josh Michtom@facebook But it sounds like you are also being a little simplistic. Connecticut has a long history of political corruption. And as I said earlier, it’s mismanagement of the money it actually gets from taxes is appalling. “Corporations” have nothing to do with that.

You also can’t deny that it taxes it’s citizens at a far higher rate than most states. Where do you think all those people would go if their jobs moved out of state? Connecticut would lose out on alot of sales, property, and income tax if those residents left. Good governance is something the state and Hartford are lacking in. Sadly, that’s what often happens in a one-party state.

@Eric18 You’re absolutely right that fiscal mismanagement is rampant at every level of government, along with fiscal provincialism: every damn town is fighting to pay less and get more and keep local control, and the result is duplication of services and a lack of innovative thinking.

I think you go far afield when you attribute this to a one-party state. First (and now we’re really getting off topic, but that’s probably why God gave us comments sections, right?), Connecticut is not a one-party state. There are no legal or structural barriers to Republican success here. The Republicans are just bad at winning elections. (Linda McMahon had more money than God and lost badly because she never bothered to develop a coherent and appealing message.) Second, corruption in this state is deep in the culture and is a trough at which Republicans and Democrats have fed in equal measure. Remember Governor Rowland? The convicted federal felon?

That aside, you make a good point that Connecticut needs the business and people that its corporations bring. But the cities are already suffering from an exodus of jobs and an exodus of middle-class residents, and the way people live, the choices they make, and the way the government reinforces those choices, exacerbate the lousy situation for the cities.

Winter (#4,527)

We live in a city in a neighborhood we like very much. Our zoned school is terrible. I’m not sending my kid there. Especially because the kiddo is very much a follower. I think kids rise to the level of their peers. I know I did. I went to two completely different schools. One focused on academics and one very mediocre school. I was a much better kid at the good school, both in academics and behavior.

Oddly enough, we have excellent private schools in the city and we are going to send the kiddo to one of those. Financially, it’s all the same. We probably come out a little ahead staying in the city. If we move to the burbs we would pay higher taxes and have to take out a mortgage. These are way more expensive than the tuition.

dude (#5,879)

Ah, Hartford. Spent grades 5-9 living in E. Hartford, bartended/bounced in Hartford while attended college in New Britain, and married a girl from West Hartford whose parents we still visit there monthly. The n+1 article NAILED it, and your additional insights are spot-on, too. Sucks that a city that could seemingly have so much going for it is such a wasteland.

@dude See, I need to write something else about why Hartford actually ISN’T a wasteland, but it’s not finance-centered enough to be on this site or, well, interesting enough to be on any other. The fact is that Hartford has this marvelous art scene that is amazingly accessible. You go to cultural events and you can meet the artists, get involved, get connected to other people doing great stuff. Maybe most of it isn’t “world-class,” but it’s a ton of fun.

We moved to the area from another state and picked West Hartford just because of what we’d heard about the schools–and yeah, they’re amazing schools here in the burbs.

But this year I’ve had a chance to visit Hartford’s magnet schools: the two Jumoke schools and the CREC schools. I’ve gone into 8 middle schools (the wasteland of k-12 education). During my visits (3-5 visits per school, an hour or so each), I’ve seen that the CREC and Jumoke students are smart, eager to learn, and the teachers are involved and dedicated.

Anyway–my point: I would have had no problem sending my kids to those schools.

Hartford’s regular middle schools? Eh, I wasn’t as impressed. Then again, middle school.

Also–hi, Josh! Interesting article.

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