High-class problem to solve

It had been almost two months since I had seen a Bentley.  When we lived in Los Angeles, I saw them almost every day on the streets of my neighborhood.  The Bentley thing made me crazy; people driving around in $200,000 cars while the local public school shoved 35 kids into a classroom because the schools had been forced to do another round of layoffs.  I was never able to articulate just why I hated L.A. so much, but the Bentleys became a handy symbol.  Everyone in L.A. has something to prove: if you aren’t the wealthiest then you are the crunchiest or the prettiest or the famousest or the best connected or the bosomyest.

Having little left to prove myself in the way of crunchy or bosomy and figuring I had lost the best connected race before it even started, I found L.A. didn’t have so much to offer me, other than fabulous produce year-round.  So, we found an escape and this way or that ended up in New Jersey, my husband in a slightly less insane job and our family in a small town less than an hour from New York.  In the winter, the town maintains the ice on the lake, plowing paths between all the coves and so that people can skate through a WinterWonderland.  In the summer, there is canoeing and swimming at the lake and hiking on the trails.

It’s a fucking Norman Rockwell painting, except with more money.  Because maintaining a town like that in this day and age, so close to New York, takes a wealthy clientele.  People are rather comfortable here, except for the rather sizable group who has felt the recession.  But, those poor souls can no longer afford to live here, so they are selling their houses for rock-bottom prices before slinking out of town.

Hence, the lovely house we found that we can actually afford.  The housing market has tanked, and – despite losing money on our house in L.A. – we are able to get pretty much the house of our dreams.  Down the street from a fantastic elementary school with only sixteen kids in the largest kindergarten class.  The cars outside that school, mornings and afternoons, are Honda Odysseys and Volvos and – OK, I’ll admit it – the occasional Escalade.  Nice cars, but not Bentleys.  These are people who have chosen to live in a town with absurdly high taxes, 70% of which are earmarked for the schools.  Of course, the town is so small that plenty of people walk to school, not so much for the environment as for the fact that they are living in a Norman Rockwell painting and feel obliged to play the part.

But, all those people driving their somewhat-less-pretentious cars and wearing their considerably-less-obnoxious clothing and walking their wonderfully-kind-children?

They are all white.

Really.  All of them.  Well, OK, I have seen one Asian mother.  But everyone else is white.  And straight.  And financially comfortable.  And most of the moms stay home.  The town is 10% Jewish, but most of the Jews I have met are married to Christians, so even that slight smudge of religious diversity gets scrubbed away.

I am living in the Whitest Town in New Jersey.  Shit, we are the diversity in town.  That tells you something.

Now, these are very, very nice white, straight, well-to-do, Christian people, don’t get me wrong.  They have shown no tendency towards exclusivity or prejudice in the short time we have been here.  Our neighbor has offered us use of the swingset in her back yard.  There are babysitters in every third house.  The kids don’t tease Zachary, despite the fact that he looks like a Lilliputian next to them in the morning Kindergarten line.  It is a throwback to a simpler time, when people were neighborly and you didn’t have to buy shit all the time just to prove your very existence.

That simpler time, however, was also deeply segregated.

We’re thinking of withdrawing our offer on that dream home.  We’re thinking of buying ourselves a little more time to see if this is really the place for us.

There is another town – closer in to New York – that is renowned for its diversity.  It is filled with My People – the crunchy, the intellectual, the neurotic.  It is also filled with Other Kinds of People, which of course is just why My People want to live there.  It has little shops and restaurants, and although we don’t buy much or eat out all that often, it is nice to know I can walk to an independent bookstore.  Because My People support independent bookstores.  Since there are Other Kinds of People in that town, we can afford a dream house there, too.  Other Kinds of People tend to lower property values, after all.  Well, not the Gay Other People, but all the Other Other Kinds of People.

But.

And you know what’s coming next, don’t you?

The schools aren’t as good.  They aren’t bad, per se, they just aren’t the phenomenal, almost-private, low class size, corridors are paved with gold schools here in Rockwelland .  Their test scores are lower, which makes sense, because diversity not only means different races and sexual orientations and socio-economic brackets and religions, but also different languages and families and time to spend pushing the kids to do their homework.  The class sizes are larger, too, although only by about four kids once you start looking at second and third grade classes.  These are not bad schools.  They are pretty good schools.  They just aren’t outstanding schools.

And so, we have a choice.  We can close our eyes and jump into a very white, very comfortable pond, buying a house right down the street from the dream school in Rockwelland.  Or we can wait.  At the end of the school year, when the end of our lease is in sight, we can think about buying in DiverseTown, where the population appears to be attempting to recreate Brooklyn in New Jersey.

We visited DiverseTown today.  We had lunch and got the boys new sneakers and drove around.  We had planned on going to a playground, but it was so cold that Benjamin thought he had wet his pants every time we stepped outside.  It is charming, it is interesting, and it is everything we are used to.  In a sense, it is the more comfortable choice for us, because we know it from our past lives.  The cars were shiny SUVs and old station wagons and dented sedans and a not-insignificant number of Priuses.  We felt instantly At Home.

We left, taking the boys to a nearby mall so they could stretch their legs someplace with heat.  J and I wondering if we were getting cold feet because Rockwelland is unfamiliar, someplace we will have to learn to love.  Or if part of a good education is exposing our kids to all kinds of people. Or whether we prefer to maintain the innocence fostered by growing up in a small town or to encourage the sophistication that comes with a larger, more diverse community.  Or whether I prefer to live among nice people with whom I cannot identify or My People whose pretentions and anxieties sometimes exhaust me.

As we strolled through the mall, I saw it.  Surrounded by ribbon, shining right in the middle of the corridor.  A red Bentley.

And I have no fucking idea what it symbolizes.

24 responses to “High-class problem to solve

  1. I hope when I say this, it doesn’t come across as me being an asshole…because you know I’m not one.

    Sometimes, we have to look at life through a different lens. Diversity is the ability to teach and to learn and to embrace differences. It is also the ability say, this neighborhood is good, the people are nice and yes…they are white. But living here doesn’t make me a bigot. Living here doesn’t make these people bigots.

    Diversity may come from the unexpected artist hiding in that sweet little Christian lady down the street, or the recovered drug addict who has turned his life around, living in the corner house.

    Because you are going to be the kick ass, organic cooking, diversity teaching, value instilling parent no matter what neighborhood you choose.

    I just want you happy.

  2. Yeah, that’s kind of the other side. To move just because everyone is white — well, that seems to be saying that people can’t be good and interesting if they choose an all-white community. And that’s not right, either.

  3. This is such a big decision. I’d hate it to be rushed because of the dream house. Surely there would be other dream houses if you waited a bit to decide?

    In the non-Rockwell place does it feel just as safe? Is there as much opportunity and space for enjoying the outdoors? What about the high schools–just as good? Commuting difference? Family closeness? Friends? Activities for the children?

    If it were me, I’d do the safest/best education thing. That’s actually why we moved ourselves.

  4. She Started It

    I would visit the schools, and really spend time (if you can) talking to the principal and the teachers and observe a class. Test scores and class size matter only so much. If you feel that the school provides the opportunity for your child to succeed and be challenged, I’d go with the diverse area.

    Of course, my kids go to a school with 70 percent brown kids, and mostly non-Christians. The diversity, in and of itself, has taught them far more than I could ever teach them in a non-diverse town.

  5. I say either decision would be a good one. The foundation of teaching your children to respect diversity is just teaching them to value and love people. If you decide to stay in Normal Rockwelland, I have no doubt you will still teach your children to respect diversity and give them chances to experience it. You will also teach them that folks who are very different from you in religion and world view (read white, Christian, conservatives) are just as valuable as humans as those who are different from you in race and sexual orientation over in Diverse Town. I guess what I am saying is that no decision is the absolutely wrong one because your children will have to learn these values, no matter where you live. Heck, I had to learn them growing up in rural, white Appalachia. People are different and hard to love, even when they look very much alike.

  6. Harrumph! DiverseTown is not trying to recreate Brooklyn. It was that way back before Brooklyn became cool again in the 1990s.

  7. I like what Flutter said. And i also think that it is wonderful to have the choice. Either way, be happy.

  8. progressivescholar

    “As we strolled through the mall, I saw it. Surrounded by ribbon, shining right in the middle of the corridor. A red Bentley.

    And I have no fucking idea what it symbolizes.”

    Maybe it symbolizes that you can still have all the things you appreciate about Rockwelland in DiverseTown, plus much more?

    This was a really interesting post. I hope you’ll keep us updated on where you choose to move!

  9. Maybe it’s just too soon to decide? I would find the dream house highly tempting, I’ll admit it. But it also seems like it might be a good idea to spend a few months in New Jersey and get a feel for the place. Come about March or so you should know if Rockwelland is slowly suffocating you, or growing on you.

    Not that you needed my opinion, of course, but I always think that giving yourself more time to make up your mind is better than LESS time.

  10. It’s interesting, this whole thing, and it is certainly a big part of our school discussions. While this doesn’t solve your problem, I learned recently that cities in the upper midwest and northeast are actually growing increasingly segregated — while cities in the southeast are actually the least segregated in the country and growing more so. Sort of the opposite of what folks normally think, yes? I don’t have any thoughts or theories on it as I’m still digesting it myself, but your spot-on talk about the issue reminded me of it.

  11. Hmmm. I agree, I think, with the commenter who said that either choice could work out. Reading your post, I was pulling for Diverse Town, but Rockwell-land has a lot of benefits as well, and I think that you will be able to supplement the weaker areas of whichever you choose– provide enrichment activities to compensate for less-than-ideal schools, or lots of family discussion and experiences with more diverse settings if you choose to live in the less-diverse town. Maybe time would help, if you think the housing opportunities don’t require rushing.

  12. As a friend, I feel like I should respond to this post with some sort of helpful advice, but as a reader, I have to start off by saying: this is a fantastic post. It’s one of my favorite in recent memory. I always like your writing, but I think it I like it most of all when you let us watch you grapple with an issue, rather than waiting to post until you’ve reached a conclusion.

    Anyway,something I learned from my own childhood is that diversity is not always about race. As J. can no doubt tell you, I went to a private school with privileged and powerful children of all races and creeds. Lauren went to a public school, where her classmates came from a narrower geographic area but a wider variety of socioeconomic strata. I probably got a better academic education; Lauren probably got a better view of how society actually works.

    And we both ended up at the same university– and despite my early academic advantage, Lauren graduated with higher grades than I did.

    Have you read ‘Outliers”? As always with Malcolm Gladwell, parts of it are brilliant and parts are maddeningly oversimplified. But one particularly fascinating fact I took away: above a certain level, IQ is entirely uncorrelated with success in life. That is, as long as your IQ is _high enough_, it doesn’t really matter how high it is.

    I think much of life is like that. I think as long as you give your kids a _good enough_ childhood, you don’t have to optimize it to be the best possible childhood imaginable. And either of your choices sound easily good enough. That doesn’t necessarily make this an easy choice, but I do think it’s one with no wrong answer.

  13. ha. i do love that this is part of your discussion. That you are thinking these things through.

    there are pros and cons to each, of course. You will decide which list looks better for you, and then you will make your decision be the best one.

  14. We moved away from a diverse town to a 98% white town 5 years ago because of the better commute. Consider a right triangle where the sides are 50 to 60 miles. We lived on the 90 degree corner and each drove to a separate corner. Now we live in the middle-ish of the hypotenus. So. Much less driving. Up and coming school system. Slightly more diversity in the school than I expected.

    I have no friends here. I’m a white non Christian married straight mother of two. I should be able to find friends here, but I can’t crack the system. At 32 with a 4 year old and a 4 month old, I’m an older mom. I also have a law degree and that seems intimidating, or something. I admit at this point I only try a little. I put more effort into my friendships in law school town. But I used to literally chase women with strollers down in the street to strike up a conversation.

    This is the kind of place (rural burbs) that my huz grew up, so he is comfortable but he also has no friends here.

    I’m thumb typing on my phone so I’ll try to wrap this up. 2 weeks ago the preschool teacher called to ask what winter holidays we were celebrating and whether it was true Henry was the only child in the class without an Xmas tree. I think it was CYA because the December curriculum was 100% Christmas. If there was a blonde haired blue eyed Jew in the class then there needed to be a discussion of other winter holidays post haste. Can you believe a public school teacher called to essentially ask our religion. Yes we were doing Hanukkah, no we are not Jewish but we have Jewish family, no we don’t have a tree, but it’s mostly due to allergies and cheapness, yes we’ll be doing Xmas too. Unbelievable.

    So. After 5 years here I am itching to leave. I intend to go back to work in the same town my huz works in, then I will lobby very hard for a move.

  15. I grew up in a predominantly white community, although minorities were represented. But my parents’ circle was exclusively white. Both my grandmothers openly made inappropriate racial comments while growing up. My uncle and even my brother (both work in construction) STILL make inappropriate comments. Yet I know they would help a good person, regardless of race. I think I turned out open and accepting of many people. Hey, I married outside my culture and faith, right? I left my medium town and went to the big city to the big university, right?

    I think you can grow up in white-bread-town, and still value what all other people have to offer. What is important is to find where you feel most comfortable — while a community can make you comfy, so can a great education for you children. It’s a conundrum. But I know what you mean about people “whose pretentions and anxieties sometimes exhaust me.” And there is something timeless about Rockwell-land.

  16. You know those cars they have in the mall are all for suckers, right? They just want your information entered into a drawing so they can sell a mailing list to the highest bidder.

    Did that help at all? (-;

    I know where you’re coming from though. We left a fabulous, diverse area with great schools just outside of DC. And we live in a diverse area now. But my kids will be in private school because the schools suck. And that’s a hard one for me. It goes against every gut feeling I have about public schools and the importance of involved parents. So I understand a bit of the dilemma.

  17. Why the rush? Can’t you rent for another year and then make up your mind?

  18. Delurking for only the second time to suggest you read an article in Newsweek called “See Baby Discriminate.” There’s some evidence to suggest that kids in diverse schools often don’t make friends with kids from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds, and instead pick up various stereotypes about their classmates. Not that there aren’t other reasons to support diverse neighbourhoods and schools, but it’s an interesting read.

  19. Pretty sure I know which town you’re talking about. What about buyin in town number 2 and using saved money for private school? A huge compromise of a different kind, but could that be an option?

  20. So tough. Having dragged my poor children through four school systems I can speak from experience and say absolutely that a good school is so very, very important. HOWEVER, just what makes that school good isn’t quite so easy. I think it’s possible to tour a school and really get a feel for the energy and culture there. We left an absolutely wonderful school in Alaska and came to the East Coast. I toured the kids’s new school and wanted to turn and run – and I should have. Teach-to-test, lack of community support, apathetic parents, disintegrating facilities – this place had it all and I hated sending my kids there every single day.

    Just a small part of a major decision I know, but if you’re unsure of both communities then definitely wait until you find a place where everything feels like home, including the school!

  21. I agree with everybody who has said that these both sound like good options. If DiverseTown had bad schools, it would be different, but I don’t think that the difference between “good enough” schools and “the best” schools should be a deciding factor. Nor do I think that there is a moral obligation to live in a place with a particular racial profile. If you’re leaning towards DiverseTown out of a sense of guilt, that would be one thing, but if you’re leaning towards it because it feels more like home, then go for it.

  22. Another thing – in my part of the world, the place to go for cultural diversity is Toronto. And that is also a place that feels like a foreign country to me because of all the Escalades, and granite countertops, and taken-for-granted luxuries. I live in Rockwelland, but it’s a place that feels like a refuge to me from the consumerism you find nearer Toronto. I realized yesterday that my house is smaller than that of every single person I know who lives outside of my town, but it’s also larger than all my friends here in town. This town is a haven for small, independently owned businesses and it allows for a very different kind of work-life balance than my husband could find, as a lawyer, in a larger centre. All that may or may not apply to your situation at all, but my point is that there is no perfect correlation between racial diversity and the socio-economic culture of a place.

  23. Wow, it sounds like you have two really good options. I love the ending of this post – I had not expected it. And I’m sure you didn’t as well!

  24. I’m sorry if this offends you and I love (as others do) that you’re working this out in public but to be honest this post annoyed me.

    It felt like you were being very judgemental about the rockwell folks. It’s a facet of living among the crunchy organic peeps that turns me right off.

    Like you say I don’t need a zip code to prove my politics but in some ways it really seems to be that you’re lumping everyone else together with a pretty broad brush. Who’s to say that you won’t find “your people” next door or down the street?

    I live in a pretty white neighbourhood, it wasn’t something we particularly looked at when we bought, we looked at the schools, the proximity to parks and nature, the house itself and then after we moved in we realised that most of our neighbours were white. There are some that aren’t but most are. I have no idea what religion they are or how they vote, I’ve never asked them and they haven’t asked me either.

    For the record I’m as liberal as you can get and have no religion at all. We probably stand out a little, we’re not from the US, we’re not married, our house is quite colourful, we smoke weed in the garden and our animals can be a little undisciplined but we are open minded and try to be as tolerant as we can.

    Our kids have friends from many ethnic backgrounds because we do, they don’t live next door so we drive across town or wherever to see them. They are also friends with the kids next door and down the street and in the park. I do worry sometimes that moving from the city to the burbs will deny them that cosmopolitan outlook but I hope that they get that from us. I grew up in a one race one religion country, in a small country town, it didn’t stop me from exploring as many people and places as I could, if anything it encouraged me.

    I’m sorry if I’m not expressing myself clearly, I don’t blog myself because writing is not a forte but something in your post irked me and I hope I have at least begun to articulate it.