Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Where to Rest Your Head?

Having had plenty of conversations with people from out of town recently, the subject of place has arisen repeatedly. It's an especially relevant conversation given the fact that many of my friends and I are now well into our thirties, and the domestic life is starting to assert itself with force. With careers and thoughts of family starting to intrude in our collective consciousness, it's natural that establishing long-term homes would be a priority within our social cirlcle. When I got married and started to look at houses, I had to take a methodical approach to analyzing the factors involved. I had established roots in Western Pennsylvania, and I had no intentions of leaving for "greener pastures".

Price was an obvious concern. The amount I felt comfortable spending substantially narrowed my options. I looked closely at the public school districts in the areas that I was considering. This variable meant I was going to have to look outside the city proper, as the condition of the Pittsburgh schools isn't ideal. There is a quality magnet program, but admissions are limited and I did not want to risk getting stuck in substandard neighborhood schools. I also wanted to be close to my friends and the places where I enjoy spending time when I'm not at home. I have no desire to give up the active urban life that I've become accustomed to, nor the many amenities that the city provides. That led me to concentrate my search on the immediate ring around the center of the city. Finally, I considered the location's relative proximity to my workplace. Since I have to travel northwards to work, I was attracted to communities immediately north of Pittsburgh. I found a house that met my standards, immediately across the Allegheny River from a thriving section of the city.

The working-class community I live in has 3500 people. While the cost of living is 17% lower here than the nation's mean, it's in a school district that spends $2000 more per student than the US average. If I have kids they will go to one of the strongest systems of schools in Western PA. The other communities within the district are considerably more affluent. Despite its modest average house value, property appreciation has increased 5% during the last year. The crime rate is well below the US average. There is a business district with a "small town" flavor, and close proximity to decent restaurants, shopping and night life. The main downside is it's near proximity to the river- the year we moved in the western side of the community experienced flooding. I have been told this happens once every fifty years or so. Fortunately we made it through without a drop of moisture indoors.

In many ways our house is located in an area that is almost criminally overlooked. It's quite easy to find a 4 or 5-bedroom, 100-year old house (in decent shape- y'know... late 18th century and early nineteenth century industrial era homes jam-packed with idiosyncratic character) for less than $100K. It's a 5-10 minute drive to downtown, on the Port Athority bus routes, and within walking distance of the city limits. It's clean, safe and not congested. It's got a couple fine dining restaurants, a neighborhood butcher, a thrift store, and plenty of "shot-and-a-beer" corner bars. If you happen to know what parts of the community don't fall victim to the extremely rare flooding, then you really can't go wrong.

Yet even with its many assets, there are still things I hope for its future. It would be nice to have a neighborhood coffeeshop to which I could walk for a decent espresso. I'd like to see more folks in my particular demographic strolling about town. The place is run by a provincial clan of oldsters that seem resistant to change or enlightened self-interest. It's got plenty of charms... but has lost some of its flavor- like most enclaves in post-industrial America, all the corner grocery stores are gone and have been replaced by generic convenience stores. The town leadership is woefully incompetent at marketing its considerable advantages. And for all its traditional Italian-American ethnic make-up, it's a shame that you can't get a really good slice of pizza.

When I consider the sum total of my community, I feel like I made a great choice. The Pittsburgh region has had its difficulties over the last half-century, but it is rapidly becoming a smart place to hang your hat. There is plenty of access to culture and history, yet it avoids the overpopulation of the Northeastern Corridor. And if you decide to come here, let me know... I know an extra special secret spot to nest in. But don't expect me to post the location all over the World Wide Web.


Blogger Lee said...

Hmmmm...homeschooling or private schools. Are either of those possibilities? I couldn't homeschool if my life depended on it, but it seems a good option for some.

I'm unfamiliar with all this planning. Somewhere around 19, my womb started screaming, "WE MUST HAVE BABIES...NOW DAMMIT!" So I searched out an appropriate sperm donor, and by the time I was 25, I had 2 kids and was on my second mortgage too. In my late 30s now, I've secured a divorce, an almost 13 year old and an 11 year old. Gee whiz...time flies!

Happy New Year!

12:35 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Who wants to spend $5-10 K on each kid/year when there are some very good public schools out there? I value the concept of public education so much that I'd feel like a hypocrite if I didn't send my kids to one. It's one of the few things in out society that ensures the existence of a middle class.

Home schooling? One would have to be married to someone very wealthy to do that. And even then. I always saw the urge to home school as a certain form of hubris on a parent's part. As if someone without training is as good as a whole squad of trained teachers. Home schooled kids often tend to become maladjusted little freaks.

Hey... maybe you didn't "plan" so much, but your kids will be moved out in a decade, and I'll just be gathering steam as a parent. You'll have a lot of freedom as a middle-aged woman!

7:27 PM  
Blogger Susan Constanse said...

Hey, if you feel that strongly about your neighborhood, maybe you should get involved on one of the committees or run for office. Sometimes all a community needs are a couple folks who are willing to help out. Look at the job Braddock's mayor has taken on.

I've worked with homeschool populations. The group I worked with was probably an exception: after all, they were bringing their kids to an organized, weekly arts class. One woman struck me, though, as very unusual. Like you, she wanted to stay within the city limits. But her husband could not afford an expensive private school and she thought that the Pittsburgh public schools were too conservative. So she chose to homeschool. She took her kid to protest rallies, bolstered her own lacks with free community classes in a number of subjects. Her kid is/was wonderfully intelligent and inquisitive. Definitely the exception to the rule.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Yeah, a friend and I have meant to start attending the community council meetings. But you know how it is, who can find the time?

It's good to know that all home-schoolers aren't wingnuts (though every experience I've had with them...)

7:03 AM  
Blogger Lee said...

Yeah, I'm lucky to live in a place with decent public schools. I went to a parochial school and it was a nightmare. I agree that homeschooling can be a social death sentence...I just thought it could be a way to stay in what sounds like a delightful neighborhood.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Actually Lee,

Maybe I wasn't too clear in the post?

The public schools where I live are great, actually.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Rob Park said...

I hope that public school could do more than maiintain an economic middle-class bent on materialism and consumerism. Ergo an unsustanable culture doomed for collapse.

Wouldn't it be nice to also have a public school system that could support a growing intellectual/artistic class in society.

12:32 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Yes Rob, definitely. But in order to start on that path we need to jettison the entire "No Child Left Behind" program. Standards tests do not foster intellectualism nor creativity.

Actually I have a hard time seeing the American middle class even valuing intellectualism or creativity. Since education is largely under localized control, it all depends on the community. (That is... assuming that we can stop federal government interference).

9:14 PM  

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