Education & Family

This Must Be the Place

Despite all the hurdles, why do some families choose to settle down in the city?

I recently realized that my husband never saw where I grew up. So, together, we drove up to White Hall, taking the scenic route up York Road, and once Sparks was in our rearview mirror, he began to marvel at the rolling hills and beautiful farmhouses. We turned right onto Monkton Road, and then northeast onto Big Falls, and Rob wondered aloud how long the commute must have been to my high school in Towson. Still 10 minutes out, the lines in the road disappeared (along with our service), and he started to panic: “Megan, did the state government even know where you lived?”

Sure, we were far out, but my father wanted to fulfill his lifelong goal of owning a farm. Not one that we farmed, mind you, but a farm nonetheless. It was magical and fun and approximately three light years away from my academic and social lives. Growing up, my seven siblings and I spent our time moderately unsupervised, roaming the land by foot and four-wheeler. We’d hike through the woods, hide in the corn fields, and shoot each other with paintballs. Afternoons were spent helping our dad build bonfires so high they required us to stand on the hutch of a pickup truck for the final tier, and we screamed in delight when it was finally lit, exploding into the night with the help of a little gasoline.

I remember being duct-taped into a white suit and sent up in a cherry picker alongside a beekeeper to assist her in removing hives from the eaves of our house, and I spent many nights sleeping on the soft rubber cover to our pool, treating it like a hillbilly waterbed. It was a wonderful, sometimes dangerous, absolutely unique way to grow up. It was also, I would come to find, not for me.

My disdain for country life began late in high school, when I started keeping a bag of essentials in my car for weeknight sleepovers at friends’ houses. Yes, the country was idyllic, but I wanted very much to just be closer to civilization, and not have to factor a 50-minute commute into my schedule. Towson gave me a taste of city life, where I got see a glimpse of the hustle and bustle and create an exciting social life—and I craved more.

As a result, I’m the odd city mouse (or black sheep, if you’d prefer a rural metaphor) of my family, who almost exclusively continue to live far from the city limits. As it turns out, I’m not alone. As people my age continue to turn away from these comforts and rear their children downtown, it raises the question: Why do people some people yearn for city life? Is the desire to live in the city encoded in our DNA, or do we pick it up as we go along?

Yes, the country life was idyllic, but I wanted very much to be closer to civilization.

As much as I’m a champion for Baltimore, let’s get some hard truths out of the way. According to recent census figures, Baltimore City lost 7,346 people, or 1.2 percent of its population, from July 2017-July 2018. That decline is the biggest the city has experienced since 2001 and also marks the fourth year in a row in which its population has fallen.

If these numbers are enough to make you run for the Baltimore County hills, consider the fact that there are still many millennials and empty-nesters opting for city life. And of these millennials, some of us—gasp—are even choosing to stay once our kids are born.

“We say residents have an ‘urban gene’,” says Annie Milli, the executive director of Live Baltimore, who cites an American Community Survey that found from 2010-2017, nearly 14,000 people between 25-34, and just over 10,000 between 65-74, became residents of Baltimore City. “Maybe they feel tougher, or less phased, by the imperfections of the city. For others, it’s rooted in a connection to arts and culture, or a desire to tap into their open-mindedness in a diverse setting.”

That’s all well and good—and very true, of course—but when you have a young family, moving out of the city has some real practical benefits that you just can’t ignore. Of course, one of the biggest motivating factors is the breadth of education options in the surrounding counties. Not to mention, cheaper property taxes, easy and free parking, a private lawn, and less noise and congestion.

So why do some of us remain stubborn and work around these hurdles to settle in a busy metropolis? As it turns out, this craving for city life can be explained on an even deeper level. Sociologically, homo sapiens have become conditioned to an urban lifestyle.

“Humans evolved to live optimally in large groups of 30 to 60 people,” says Daniel Swann, a visiting associate professor in Goucher College’s Sociology and Anthropology Department. “That is about the number of people an individual can look out for and care about, and so you see tighter-knit communities in small city neighborhoods over sprawling suburban ones.”

That mindset is what brought Magda Mydlo-Garcia and Raul Garcia Leal to Mt. Vernon. Mydlo-Garcia grew up in a city in northeast Poland, and her husband was raised in Monterrey, Mexico, a city with more than 1.2 million residents. After stints around the world and birth of their son, Axel, the family moved here for her work. They were initially in a bit of a geographical Goldilocks situation (Fells Point was too loud; Harford County too homogenized). But they found that Mt. Vernon, so far, is just right.

“After moving to the U.S., we settled in the suburbs, which was very different from any experience we had previously,” Mydlo-Garcia says. “We quickly realized that we couldn’t move without a car, the cultural scene is basically non-existent, and architecturally there were cookie-cutter houses everywhere. For us, it was a real culture shock. Moving to the city brought us back to the lifestyle that we missed and enjoyed so much.”

The same goes for Kate Diehn, a physician who works in Hunt Valley but chooses to live in Wyman Park with her husband, James, and son, Henry. She points out that, while many of her friends have fled to the suburbs, she feels like her family has the best of both worlds with green spaces, walkability, and a smaller townhouse that’s great for meeting new people. “Living in a rowhome gives you the opportunity to get to know so many of your neighbors,” Diehn says. “Plus, we’re able to walk to The Avenue, The Rotunda, Hopkins’ campus, and Charles Village. It’s nice being a two-block walk home from dinner when toddler-mania sets in.”

“Moving to the city brought us back to the lifestyle that we enjoyed so much.”

Diehn does mention noise and crime as obvious drawbacks to city living, and Mydlo-Garcia wishes their son had more space closer to ride his bike or play. But the diversity and access to great restaurants, cultural institutions, and close proximity to Axel’s school win out. And as you may have guessed, I’m with her. My annoying high-school commute certainly contributed to my draw to civilization. But I also love that my toddlers walk almost everywhere they go, seeing neighbors, shop owners, and friends along the way. I’m proud that my son can point out which building I work in, and I think it’s so cool that our typical weekend wandering our neighborhood exposes our kids to art, international food, and ethnic diversity.

“We are so fortunate to have very warm neighbors of all different ages and backgrounds that say hi to Henry as he walks by,” Diehn says. “He is in such an important development stage during which we are trying to expose him to as many different experiences as possible.”

Though most of my family is confused by my unnatural love for city life, I was surprised to find out that my brother Robby is now giving it a whirl. He and his fiancée, Julia Elliot, shocked and delighted me when they bought a home just over the city line in Lake Walker.

Their home was initially meant to be lived in just long enough to update it into an income property, but the city, as it turns out, was able to sink its claws into more than one Isennock sibling. Undoing everything I thought I knew, on a recent phone call, he chatted happily about where he lives, and how they just got back from enjoying a glass of wine with some neighbors a few doors down. “We’ve made really good friends here, and everything is so close,” he said. This, coming from the man who used to double-park his pickup truck outside my house because my neighborhood “made him claustrophobic” and he needed to know he could leave when he wanted.

That neighborly bond my brother and his wife have experienced is a common reason for people to stay put in the city for a little longer, if not forever—especially in one like Baltimore. “Baltimore is a city of small, idiosyncratic neighborhoods,” Swann says. “And while you won’t know everyone in the entire city, you’re likely to know most people in your neighborhood.”

Though it will surprise you to learn I don’t have “PhD” after my name like Professor Swann, as a 13-year city veteran, I concur. One of the best things about our life here is the people. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say, the proximity to people. Many close friends live within blocks of us, and our social circle has continued to grow more diverse and meaningful. Just last week, another mom with a toddler walked by my front door as I was walking in, and within minutes we’d exchanged numbers and made plans.

This urban life we’ve created is a choice we’ve been lucky enough to make, and one I hope our kids appreciate. While they won’t grow up off the grid (given the taxes we pay, I’m pretty sure the government is well aware of our existence) with bonfires and corn fields, they’ll have Afghan food and world-class museums and an inclusive community—
all right outside our front door.