There are many good reasons why people opt to live in major cities. Most commonly, people are drawn to the hustle and bustle, appreciate the variety of nearby and diverse culinary and cultural activities, value a walk-able community and cherish the short commute that city-life affords them.
I counted these (and many others) among the reasons why I chose to live in San Francisco. But ultimately, my husband’s career drew him South and he began commuting a great distance to work each day. And after the birth of our two children we were faced with the toughest question that all urban parents will face: Where will they go to school? And finally there was the combination of having a relatively small home (no storage or play room) and the cold weather (makes park-going less pleasant) that finally pushed us out of the city.
But even though I knew our move to the suburbs would have many wonderful advantages (great public schools, no commute, warmer weather, and more space inside and out!), I still had major reservations. So if you’re considering a move to the Peninsula but you still have reservations, here is my honest take on reservations vs. reality:
Even if you don’t care to label yourself as a foodie, chances are after living in San Francisco for any period of time, you’ve become a little spoiled by easy access to the seemingly endless supply of creative, high quality food. And walking away from that can prove very challenging. Well, I do consider myself a foodie so I’m not going to sugarcoat this: the food on the Peninsula is not as good as the food in San Francisco. This assertion will likely make me about as popular with my neighbors as restaurant critic Michael Bauer, but I'm sorry - it’s true. Yet I also contend that it’s not as bad as you fear. There are, what I like to call “adequate substitutes.” Which is to say, they may not be quite as good as the SF original, but they’ll certainly do. Such as:
Little Star Pizza
Thick Crust Pizza
These substitutes, plus the undeniable trend of San Francisco restaurants opening more and more Peninsula outposts (Delfina, Pacific Catch, Blue Bottle, to name but a few), should alleviate most of your “culinary wasteland” concerns.
Having spent most of my childhood and the last 10 years of adulthood in San Francisco, this was a big hurdle for me. I was very attached to the idea of limited car dependence, for both environmental and quality of life reasons. I loved being able to walk just about anywhere I needed to go: post office, café, park, grocery store – you name it. I feared that moving to the suburbs would mean putting an end to all of that glorious convenience and communing with neighbors and nature. And I was right (exceptions noted in next section).
But there is some hope. There are fundamental cultural shifts in the US that will ultimately make suburbs more pedestrian/bike-friendly and less car-centric. These shifts are being led by Millennials (Gen-Y) and Gen-Xers, and they are described as the end of car culture and the urbanization of the suburbs. So the good news is, even though we will likely remain tethered to our cars for the foreseeable future, at least there is hope that our children won’t have to be.
Plus, if moving to the ‘burbs means at least one member of your family will no longer be commuting 2+hours/day, total household time spent in the car per day will absolutely decrease. Because even though you will get in your car to go just about everywhere, it will never add up to 2 hours/day, I promise.
Whether you’re concerned about a dominance of chain stores, the prevalence of strip malls, or just a general lack of cultural diversity, this can be one of the most daunting reservations city-dwellers have about leaving. And yes, there is some truth to this concern.
There are certainly more chain restaurants/stores than there are in notoriously anti-chain San Francisco, but that can be quite convenient at times. For example, I left The City before Target had a presence there and frequently had to drive to Colma after having children. Let’s face it – for families with young children, access to certain chain stores is rather helpful if not altogether necessary.
And yes, strip malls still dominate the landscape along El Camino (for the uninitiated, that's the main drag that runs the length of the Peninsula), but there are many charming “Main Streets” in Peninsula towns that provide the same Mom & Pop-owned stores, restaurants and services as your SF neighborhood. My favorite Peninsula “Main Streets” are: Burlingame Ave in Burlingame, Laurel Street in San Carlos, Broadway in Redwood City, Santa Cruz Ave in Menlo Park, University Ave in Palo Alto, Main & State Streets in Los Altos, and Castro Street in Mountain View. And a major bonus: if you can get a house walking distance to one of these streets, you can absolutely maintain your pedestrian-friendly lifestyle.
Last but not least, I have been pleasantly surprised with the cultural diversity that exists on the Peninsula. Many of the children that my kids go to preschool with speak another language at home and their families regularly share their cultural history and traditions at school. The fact that there is only one Liam (my son's name, which was the US’s 3rd most searched boy's name in 2013) and two Armaans in the pre-K class, tickles me. This is not the whitewashed suburbs I feared.
There is however, one form of cultural homogenization that I did not anticipate. And that is, regardless of our ethnic, national, religious, etc. backgrounds, or even our age, we are all (what my child-free friends would affectionately refer to as) breeders. That is to say, we are all unified by parenthood, whether we are new parents, have school-aged children, are recent empty-nesters or are looking forward to the birth of our great-grandchildren. Which is both bad and good. On the one hand, I’d prefer my children to be exposed to other ways of life. Not everyone decides to have children. Not everyone decides to get married. Not everyone has a 9-5 job. And I want them to see that first-hand and know that it’s OK. But on the other hand, when I’m in public and my children are acting up, I’m far more likely to get a look of “oh yeah, I’ve been there” than the “good lord, woman – you have children – what are you doing in public?” look I’d get in SF (even in family-oriented Noe Valley). So in general I find myself much more relaxed because I'm constantly surrounded by fellow parents and there’s this sense that we’re all in this together. Which is pretty nice.
That's it in a (pretty big) nutshell. I could also go on and on about all of the benefits of suburban life (have you seen my vegetable garden?), but you've already heard those arguments from your suburban dwelling friends and I don't want this to be a hard-sell. This is the unvarnished truth as I see it and I hope it helps you make the best decision for you and your family.