Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Diversity, An Urban Reality

It is my goal to dispel the biggest myths or misunderstandings about city life immediately, and thus in my initial January 1st post I promised to address transportation, shopping, and outdoor spaces. This week I will temporarily divert from the plan to discuss another aspect of city life – diversity – in honor of the Martin Luther King holiday this week.

Diversity did not play a role in our decision to stay in the city, or did it?

When my husband and I decided to marry and start a family, we never considered leaving the city. We attended a FREE City of Boston Home Buying 101 class (another urban perk) that I recommend for any novice home buyers. The only housing options we discussed were those downtown walking distance to his office.

 BRA Measuring Diversity ReportI was familiar with the up-and-coming Fort Point/Seaport area. I watched the building of the ICA and the silver line and as the market bottomed out, I thought the area would be a strong real estate investment. Through no intention or design on our part it happens that residents in our building represent a socioeconomic and employment spectrum housing artists, masters students, professionals and successful entrepreneurs. Moreover we are walking distance both to Louisburg Square in Beacon Hill and residential projects in South Boston; respectively housing some of the city’s wealthiest and poorest residents.

The socioeconomic spectrum represents only one type of diversity. The City of Boston, and in particular the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), strive to measure and foster diversity in Boston neighborhoods across the following lines; racial and ethnic, age, educational, language, and region of birth. See report above left for more information. Our neighborhood reflects neither the best nor the worst diversity along any of these metrics.

Coincidentally though, the partnership between my husband and I reflects many of these types of diversity (i.e., he is from Asia, I am from North America). Furthermore, our personal backgrounds have been richly diverse. My husband's home country has a recent history of violent, ethnically-driven conflict. Growing up, he attended a public school serving a district including both its city’s wealthiest and poorest citizens. Additionally this high performing school was open to others in the city who academically qualified, somewhat like Boston Latin (his pathway there). Following his graduation, he immigrated to the U.S. for higher education, as universities were closed in his country due to the ongoing conflict.

I grew up the daughter of one Jewish (ethnically Russian, Polish, Austrian-Hungarian, Iraqi, Iranian, Lithuanian) parent and another Catholic (ethnically Irish, English, French Canadian) parent. Though I was ironically raised in a largely homogenous Boston suburb, I attended a more economically and ethnically diverse private high school. Additionally, I studied abroad at a young age both in The Bahamas and Thailand; two invaluable experiences in countries socioeconomically and culturally different from the U.S. and each other.

For both of us, diversity is not something we strive to attain. My husband is actually put-off by the concept of embracing multiculturalism. Our diversity is just naturally part of who we are – our family, our friends and our life. I find it unsurprising that without even thinking about it, we would live somewhere diverse.

Is there a benefit to urban diversity? 

I recently read a 2012 article from Time Magazine Do the Suburbs Make you Selfish? The argument in the article stems from the paper of a Harvard researcher and suggests that government driven home ownership and mortgage policies encourage wealthier people to self-segregate from poorer people and live in “affluent suburbs” that have homogenous populations compared to the city. Wealthier people subsequently have less empathy for hardships faced by others due to their literal distance from such hardships. Do the suburbs indeed make people more selfish than the city? I am not convinced of the validity of this assertion and even if it is true, of course it would be a stereotype and only applicable on an individual level. However, the decisions we make about where we live do impact who we come in contact with and thus the type of people with whom we are likely to form relationships.

I would like to believe that my family’s own lack of thought to diversity yet inherently diverse existence is reflective of MLK’s dream coming true. His legacy in Boston is rich having received his PhD at Boston University (his wife Coretta was at the New England Conservatory). Unfortunately anyone who has driven down Martin Luther King Blvd in Roxbury can tell you segregation is still very real and alive across Boston neighborhoods. So can we say diversity a benefit of urban life? I met my husband and started this life with a man very different from me, because we both lived in the same Boston building. For me, in spite of Boston's problems with segregation, the answer is easily yes.

How does exposure to diversity in the city impact our child(ren)*?

BRA Children 2013
What about for our daughter though? The Boston Redevelopment Authority's report just published in December 2013 (link via picture at right) identifies our daughter's peers as being somewhat different from the children with whom she regularly interacts: Boston's children ages 0-5 are overall more ethnically and linguistically diverse, more are from single parent households, and more are living in poverty.

In spite of this, our little one is exposed to a variety of different people in our daily life. Through toddler classes and events, playgroups, neighbors, our friends and family, and her daycare/nursery school program, she is regularly engaged with people who vary from infancy to elderly. She has peers and acquaintances of all different ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds. One of her best friends received early intervention classes as he was slower to speak, another is a veritable verbal genius. Part of this is a function of the personal lives of her parents and part of it is the who attends a toddler music or gym class in the city as compared to in a more "homogenous" suburb.

This is the only reality she or I know, so it is hard for me to speculate as to how this impacts her or how it will in the future. The literature on teaching diversity and the benefits of diversity in education is rich. For now, it is simply a benefit that we do not need to seek enrichment opportunities as pertain to diversity, but rather that they just happen organically in her life.

*At two days old, I am not yet so sure how this all is impacting our son. We are now officially a family of four!

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