Raised beds and garages are overrated. Herewith, a love letter to city living. In this photo, Boston, pictured on Aug. 27, 2009. (Michael Ivins/AP)

For the past 25 years we have lived in the middle of Boston — just enough time to reflect on what it means to be a city dweller.

Though our street is tree lined, we have no patch of green to call our own. The roof of our house offers an expanse of sky with views across the river to Cambridge, but its rubber membrane is not conducive to bare feet, barbecues or badminton. Sharing party walls with neighbors whose houses abut ours, both back and side, guarantees that, on occasion, we hear their plumbing and their conversations.

When our son, Oliver, was about 4-years-old, he bemoaned the fact that we didn’t live in a “real” house.

“What do you mean?” my husband and I asked in disbelief.

“We don’t have a back door,” he explained, “and without a back door you can’t have a yard. And without a yard, you can’t have a house.”

Not only have I grown accustomed to the challenges of city living, I have come to embrace them.

Then, after a particularly frolicking afternoon spent on the swing set and jungle gym at my sister’s house in the suburbs, our daughter, Fanny, was heard to remark, “I hope my mom’s going to buy me a back yard soon.”

Even my father, usually one of my biggest supporters, suggested that we move to Lexington.

“Think about it: You could have your morning coffee in a little garden,” he reminded me every time he came to visit.

With so many red brick buildings lining the narrow streets of our densely populated neighborhood, parking can be difficult. To avoid the problem of circling the block a half dozen times — especially between the peak hours of 5 and 7 p.m. — we pay dearly for a spot in a garage a few blocks away. I rationalize this costly decision by convincing myself that the hike up the hill to our house is good for my health, until it is pouring rain and I am weighed down with bags of groceries.

When our friend Rich comes to visit, he considers the obligatory parking ticket he finds affixed to his windshield — due to an expired meter or the lack of a resident sticker — a friend tax.

Not only have I grown accustomed to the challenges of city living, I have come to embrace them. But recently my love for urban dwelling was called into question. It started a few minutes after I realized that I would not be able to see Don Draper brood. Our cable was not working.

I phoned Comcast. Walking me through each step of the procedure, a polite technician patiently instructed me on how to refresh my connection. (This solution sounded hopeful — my aesthetician refreshes my skin, my husband refreshes my drink.) When this failed, she connected me to Laura, her supervisor.

Laura’s office was located somewhere in the middle of Texas — I know this because, as with my dentist, car mechanic, lawyer and hair stylist, I make nervous small talk before any procedure is about to begin. And pursuant to the hour-long conversation that followed, I also know that Laura’s office must be surrounded by open space for as far as the eye could see.

View of a flowering Pear tree from the author's house on Beacon Hill. (Courtesy)

View of a flowering pear tree from the author’s house on Beacon Hill. (Courtesy)

Laura was able to confirm, after running numerous tests of the system, that the problem was located somewhere outside the confines of our house, at the point where the cable enters. What ensued — Laura’s attempt to pinpoint the location of the problem, to ascertain “where that darn cable connection could be” — involved a cross-examination of my house’s physical attributes. Laura’s line of questioning stayed obsessively on point, centering on the house’s relationship to the yard, until the recognition of my problem became palpable even over a phone line.

“You mean,” she said incredulously, in her slow Texas drawl, “like, the houses are pasted together?”

“Well, sort of,” I said.

“Eww, I would hate that,” she replied.

But if I were the list-making sort, Laura would see that the positives of city living far outweigh the small inconveniences.

Within two blocks of our house I can find most of life’s necessities: a cup of coffee, freshly laundered shirts, a tube of toothpaste, a bunch of flowers, a new pair of running shoes and, most recently, a chocolate chip ice cream cone with sprinkles. And the procurement of these items often leads to a chance meeting with a neighbor I haven’t seen in a while or to a little free advice.

At the pharmacy, Herman offers the best remedy for a toothache or a pulled muscle. At the hardware store, Jack’s crew has taught me how to install a window shade, break into my own house when locked out and successfully keep out unwanted insects.

Within two blocks of our house I can find most of life’s necessities…

Recently we had house guests for the weekend. Wanting to give them a sense of the city, we showed them City Hall, traversed the North End, covered a good portion of the Harbor Walk and then traipsed back through Beacon Hill, before crossing over the Charles River to Cambridge, where by 2 o’clock we were eating sandwiches at a café in the heart of that city’s burgeoning technology hub.

When I am in need of inspiration, I visit the MFA, the Gardner or the artist studios in SOWA. I never want for movie theaters or food trucks. Or miss the chance to cheer on marathon runners and gay-rights advocates.

Even our kids are converts to city living, taking full advantage of the Hubway and the subway to get them where they want to go. Back yards aren’t on their radar now.

As for the cable connection, thanks to a savvy Comcast technician we flagged down when his truck passed our house, I’m all caught up on “Mad Men.” As for Laura in Texas — she’s the one in need of refreshing. She doesn’t know what she’s missing.

Do You Live In A City? Hmm. Let’s Find Out (click to enlarge)

(Source: The Brookings Institution,,, Department of Housing and Urban Development,, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Credit: Nelson Hsu, Natalie Jones, Melanie Taube, Tanya Ballard Brown / NPR)

(Source: The Brookings Institution,,, Department of Housing and Urban Development,, Federal Bureau of Investigation,
Credit: Nelson Hsu, Natalie Jones, Melanie Taube, Tanya Ballard Brown / NPR)

Tags: Boston

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  • Judy BF

    A perfect, crisp picture of urban dwelling. I dream of the day I leave the suburbs and move into where the city is literally at my door step. Thank you for encapsulating the joys and, yes, advantages, of urban life.

  • Jordan

    I got my first taste of city-living when I studied abroad in college and I haven’t settled for anything less since; great picture of the blessings and frustrations of a city-dweller!

  • jefe68

    Ah yes the joys of city living. If you’re well off enough to live in a decent neighborhood and can afford to go out to eat or join the MFA, this all sounds great. By the way, the MFA is now charging $25 for one admission.

    • J__o__h__n

      The MFA has several free days, there are discount passes from the library, Wed after 4:00 is by voluntary contribution, and yearly membership is a reasonable $75.

  • gossipy

    My thoughts exactly, Jefe68. As appealing as city life seems to be, I would miss my back porch overlooking the back yard and woods, the bird calls, seeing the stars at night, the quiet., falling asleep to the sound of rain on the roof, driving into my attached garage on a rainy day, need I go on? Plenty of inspiration here.

  • kevin

    what a great read cheryl katz- and there are certainly pros and cons to both lifestyles- but I am a city boy. I remember watching the beginning of the tv show Green Acres as a small child and even at that young age I was completely frustrated that Ava Gabor gave up Park Avenue for Eddie Arnold’s Green Acres! Truth be told, even at the young age I was not only an aspiring urbanite, but also a young feminist!

  • mfh

    Laughed out loud. Laura the phone rep is making connections and so is the author, cheryl katz. Like the city neighborhood, this piece is densely and delightfully packed.

  • dj

    …lived in Manhattan in late 70’s with no $, SF’s Mission district w/less then more $, Sonoma county w/big back yard and now quaint Mill Valley CA, just north of Golden Gate Bridge.

    Each change of location has me understanding another layer of myself and my relationship to society. I cherish the extremes.

    I’m longing to live in the city again and not only because this week, the moths are eating our oak trees…thank you CK.

  • Guest

    So if there is only one starbucks within walking distance you probably dont live in a city?

  • guest

    Lived in SF in the middle Richmond for decades before moving to the Sierra Nevada Mtns, after retirement. Love both but being retired in a perfectly Natural Area with NO noise or ambient light is PRICELESS.

  • Leah Klein

    I so relate to this! My husband wanted to move to the ‘burbs. but now I think he gets city living. We drive to Lexington for ballet but then gladly return to Cambridge. When I mention in the waiting area that we love in Cambridge I’m always met with dreamy sighs. Nostalgic, ‘oh!’s. and everyone telling me what street they lived on and how much they miss it!

  • MonicaB

    A wonderful perspective from someone with the BEST view of the Boston Pops that I have ever seen!

  • Library Lil

    Although I have lived happily in the suburbs for over 20 years, I totally understand the attraction of city life that Cheryl so lovingly embraces. The pulse of city living is exciting and invigorating. However I have to say I do so love falling asleep at night to the sounds of crickets and frogs that live in the pond in my backyard.

  • KR

    When I was a child my family would take a Sunday drive from Weymouth to Buttrick’s Ice Cream in Arlington for a treat. As we cruised along Memorial Drive I would look across the river to the brownstones lining the Boston side of the Charles. Who lives there I would wonder. I wanted so much to live in the city. Reading this piece by Cheryl Katz brought back the memory of the beginning of my love affair with Boston that began nearly 50 years ago.
    The conversation with Laura, the Comcast customer service rep made me laugh out loud.

  • Pls

    I just returned from the middle of Texas where nothing is “pasted together” perhaps near the Comcast Supervisor. I lived in a gated condo community with a pool and all the trappings. This article reminded me that it’s much more about the neighbors and an active neighborhood than the square footage of grass. Glad to be back in the city!

  • Paul

    One thing to acknowledge is that the joys of living in a city rely heavily on the city and one’s location in it. Beacon Hill is a beautiful neighborhood with many wonderful shops very conveniently located for it’s residences. This is not the case in many neighborhoods in Boston and other cities. That being said, I love city living. Proximity, not necessarily to shops but to everything, and a sense of community have been the things I enjoy most. These things were what was described in this wonderful article… just with a bigger budget than my own.

  • Futo Buddy

    he seems to have left out the terrible traffic