There were many good reasons why I lived in San Francisco: the hustle and bustle, the variety of culinary and cultural activities, and the walkable community nearby. 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 confronts urban parents: Where will they go to school? And finally there was the combination of 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.
So if you’re considering a move to the Peninsula for the great public schools, short commute, warm weather and S P A C E, but you still have reservations, here is my honest take on reservations vs. reality:
A Culinary Wasteland?
After living in San Francisco, you’ve probably become spoiled by the endless supply of creative, high quality food. I know I was. So I’m not going to sugarcoat this: the food on the Peninsula isn’t as good as the food in San Francisco. But it’s not a culinary apocalypse, either. First, there are adequate substitutes for many of your old favorites — maybe not quite as awesome as the SF original, but they certainly won't disappoint. And you don't have to circle the block for thirty minutes looking for parking either.
Little Star Pizza
Thick Crust Pizza
Even more encouraging is the fact that as more and more former San Franciscans move down here, top restaurants are following. And Silicon-Valley-born gems are starting to attract the attention of culinary institutions like James Beard (Manresa, Los Gatos) and Michelin (Plumed Horse in Saratoga, Chez
TJ in Mountain View, The Village Pub in Woodside).
Car Dependent Lifestyle?
Having spent most of my life in San Francisco, one of the biggest reservations I had about moving to the suburbs was becoming car-dependent. Living in a walkable community was very appealing to me for both environmental and quality of life reasons. I loved being able to walk just about anywhere I needed to go and feared that moving to the suburbs would mean putting an end to all of that glorious convenience and communing with neighbors and nature. And for the most part, I was right (exceptions noted in full article).
But there is some hope. There are fundamental changes in attitudes towards automobiles, primarily being led by Millennials (Gen-Y) and Gen-Xers. As a NYTimes.com article pointed out last year, "recent studies suggest that Americans are buying fewer cars, driving less and getting fewer licenses as each year goes by." Clearly these younger generations value public transportation and walkability more than preceding generations. And thankfully, suburban communities are starting to reflect that. For example, in 2013 the city of Mountain View appointed a Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee and was one of five Bay Area cities to take place in a pilot Bike Share Program.
So the good news is, even though we will likely remain dependent on our cars for the foreseeable future, there is momentum in the right direction and hope that our children won’t have to be. Plus, if you're like me and a move 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, I promise it will never add up to 2 hours/day.
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 the suburbs. And yes, there is some truth to this concern.
There are certainly more chain restaurants/stores in the suburbs than there are in notoriously anti-chain San Francisco. But that can actually be quite useful. For example, I left the City before Target had a presence there and frequently had to drive to Colma to get reasonably priced necessities like diapers, wipes and paper towels. Let’s face it, access to certain chain stores is rather helpful if not altogether necessary for people with young children.
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 live within 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. 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. 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.
For more honest, straightforward advice about various communities on the Peninsula, please feel free to contact me. It would be my pleasure to be your guide.