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Manhattan Mother Lode

The things that have made the city a tourist magnet -- safety, culture, 24-hour bistros -- have also made it the best place to raise kids again. Just ask anyone who's traded God's half-acre for a classic seven.


My children's first sitter left with excruciating exactness every day at five o'clock, and having quickly discerned that it was easier to entertain the troops abroad than at home, I routinely took to the streets with a double stroller that had all the maneuverability of an eighteen-wheeler, 2-year-old Matthew in the front, baby Karen in the back. Eighty-ninth Street was a must-do because of the high concentration of garages (Matthew's obsession); 87th because of a splendid long, tall ramp attached to an apartment building between Park and Lexington Avenues. We plied the waters (the fountains in front of the Metropolitan Museum) and watering holes (3 Guys, Jackson Hole) of the Upper East Side, stopping in at the local shoe store to gossip with the manager and cadge popcorn. Then it was on to the now defunct Canard & Company, where I had iced coffee and where, when it came to Matthew, the counterman showed a remarkably free hand with the smoked salmon. It was -- and is -- a fine life, not just because of my neighborhood but because of my town. This town. When I moved here from Michigan after college twenty years ago, it was love and it was for good. I certainly saw no reason to step out on the city when I got married and had children.

Not so long ago, the conception of a second child, sometimes even a first, was the signal to phone up Century 21 and start memorizing Metro-North schedules. Manhattan was too noisy, too dirty, too dangerous, too crowded, too complicated -- take your pick -- to provide the proper setting for bringing up baby.

But now we're staying here with two children, in some cases with three -- as long as we can find a place to nest. "The really desirable eight-room apartments are scarcer than ever, and they usually sell above the asking price," says Joanna Simon, a broker at Fox Residential Group. "The demand is just wild. I've yet to see one of them on the market for more than a week."

If the seventies were the me decade and the eighties the decade of Much Too Much, the nineties, in Manhattan at least, seem to have been the Mom decade, a time to stash on high shelves, away from small, sticky hands, the stuff we accumulated in the eighties (when we knew from disposable income). I have learned I've got lots of company in what has effectively become a metropolis of Maclarens. Many women -- whether on the Upper East or West Side, uptown or downtown, whether patronizing public or private schools -- believe, as I do, that to be a mother in Manhattan is to have located the mother lode.

What has made the city so attractive to tourists -- cleaner, safer streets -- is precisely what's making it so appealing to mothers. "The coincidence of my 11-year-old going into adolescence and having more independence when the crime rate is low is very reassuring," says an Upper West Side mother of three. Women also talk of convenience (food and diapers just a block or a phone call away day or night, child care readily available) and conveyances (no bundling snowsuit-clad kids into car seats and being in thrall to an SUV). They talk about community: "There are six people within a block radius who know my son by name," says Sara Nelson, editor-at-large at Self, who lives with her husband and 5-year-old son, Charley, in SoHo. "I could imagine if something happened and I had to go out for fifteen minutes, I could leave him with the dry cleaner. It's this unusual extended family." They talk about cultural opportunities: "Since he was six days old, he's been dragged to everything from Karen Finley to the Met," says West Village artist Barbara Pollack of her 11-year-old son, Max. And they talk about the cross-section of people: "I don't think you find the heterogeneous population in the suburbs in terms of ethnic groups, income, or family structure," says one Upper West Side mother. "Here we've got Heather who has two mommies -- as well as everything else."

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