What are your family-style, urban living life hacks?
May 20, 2013 6:11 AM   Subscribe

Mrs. Quizicalcoatl and I are finally moving to the Boston area with our 9- and 7-year old. What do we need to know?

Here are some things that might impact what we need to know:

1) We've signed the lease on a small apartment in north Brookline, and we'll be moving in July/August.
2) We'll be within walking distance of the T and will be downsizing to 1 car, which Mrs. Quizicalcoatl will be using to commute to work.
3) The kiddos will be going to public school.
4) I'll be a full time dad for at least the first 6 months to 1 year and, although I may do some part time work after we're settled in, we're thinking that my main occupation will be that of a primary caregiver.
5) There's a laundry room down the hall in our building and a playground across the street.
6) Although we've been taking day trips to Boston for years, we're lifelong suburbanites/ruralites/small-towners.

So, how do we access the best parts of this lifestyle and location and how do we avoid the worst parts? What are the indispensable accoutrements, tips and tricks, and life hacks for the great, big city? If you live in an urban area, what item could you not live without? What pieces of information are you most glad to know? What practical shortcut keeps you safe, healthy, happy, etc.?
posted by Quizicalcoatl to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a bicycle? Get one! (I know a guy...)
posted by kpht at 6:29 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The answers to all those questions are super particular to the people involved, the part of the city, and all the rest. For me, with a young kid, a transit pass and a good rubber-tired stroller have been critical. When I was younger/single, honestly, just the transit pass and a good bookbag/briefcase (in which to keep a tiny umbrella, magazine or book, hairbrush, a few bus schedules, phone/iPod, etc.) -- this means that when you're out and about, you're unlikely to be caught off-guard by weather, wind, or unexpected delays; if you're the working stiff, then it also serves as a "back-up brain" (where you stick things to go to work tomorrow, or home tonight, etc. so they don't get forgotten). These days you can get something so light and comfortable that it's easy to have everything with you all the time with no particular burden.

Recently, I've also taken to keeping with me one of those grocery bags that rolls into a tiny ball, as it comes in handy for unplanned farmer's market purchases, stuff that comes home from my kid's school when I pick her up, my jacket when the temperature goes up 30 degrees in the course of the day, etc. On the whole, city living isn't that much different from anywhere else, except that you're out on foot for much more of your time, so that kind of preparation is good.

Otherwise, don't worry about having all your resources and information available the day you parachute in -- a big part of the fun of moving into a big city is slowly taking ownership of it. Sometimes that means discovering the tiny corner market three blocks down with the outragious salami; sometimes it means finding your favorite way to get from Here to There; sometime it means finding out that you can "hide out" at a wonderful coffee shop/bookstore/wine bar and just feel like you have a secret luxury all your own.

Honestly, sometimes the choice of dry cleaner comes down to which one you walk past on the way to the subway, even if it isn't the closest or "best," so nobody can really tell you that level of secret. If you're the at-home guy, then it's up to you to start the exploration -- walk some direction every day and see what you find! (A little notebook is great at the beginning before you have a stable mental map, as it can be hard to recall which new find was on which corner.) Take the T to various stops and see which are worth a family outing (esp. those that don't have obvious sights). Maybe do some web-surfing to find parks or other outdoor spaces that you might not have visited as a tourist but might love as a resident. Or just take your time and see what you find by going where you already need to go and getting to know the things along the way. You'll be amazed how fast you feel like you Live There!
posted by acm at 6:30 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Make sure everyone has quality, comfortable walking shoes. Doubly important for the winter, where quality, comfortable, water- and snow-proof walking shoes are needed. It's one thing to have "the boots you can shovel the driveway in"; it's another to have "the boots you can wear with work clothing that you can walk a mile from the T in crossing some combination of liquid water, ice, and two feet of snow".

The thing about Boston is that it's not really all that big. You can walk through quite a bit of it in just one day. However, when I lived in Beacon Hill, while there were a few things I made a concerted effort to get to -- the SoWa Sunday markets, events on the Common, Red Sox games, etc -- I mostly stuck around my own neighborhood. So even within a not-really-giant city, I stuck to my little square mile of it probably 90% of the time. That's not necessarily a bad thing; even as a renter, in the same neighborhood for 5 years, i got to know the other dog owners, the clerks at a number of local stores and businesses, became a regular (with associated local discount!) at a few of the restaurants, etc. I'm sure with kids you'll find other families to befriend fairly quickly. But if you really want to experience Life In The Big City, you'll have to make an effort. You may be all over it the first three months you're here, especially since it'll be over the summer and there is SO MUCH TO DO! but then you'll be busy, the weather wil be more crap, you're tired and especially with tired kids as well you just want to go down to your usual brunch place on the corner rather than walk to that new one in Kenmore you read about in the Globe...

Yelp is usually pretty helpful around the city, particularly for services like dry cleaning, alterations, shoe repair, etc.

Learn about all the food trucks. The food trucks are awesome! Find where some congregate on nice weekend or summer days and hike over to them.

The best thing about living in the city is never having to drive home after a night out. Learn about Uber. Make use of it when you need something a little fancier than the T or a cab.

Enjoy Boston!
posted by olinerd at 6:32 AM on May 20, 2013

how do we avoid the worst parts?

To be honest, I don't know that you're going to need to worry about this so much in Brookline. It's all very pleasant and walkable.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:36 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Of course, even in Brookline, there are a range of possible lives, based on the neighborhood you're in. Brookline Village? Coolidge Corner? Washington Square? If you're comfortable sharing the area, we might -- like acm suggest -- be better able to offer hyperspecificity in recommendations.

Irrespective of where you are in town, make lesson #1 about discovering the easiest way to get to Brookline Booksmith.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:40 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh wait, you did share the neighborhood -- North Brookline. Sorry!
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:43 AM on May 20, 2013

nonane and I live in North Brookline (Coolidge Corner - James St). Memail us, we should hang out.
posted by dmd at 6:47 AM on May 20, 2013

Best answer: For kids your age, I'd consider getting some local travel-type books, or assemble relevant website links, and each weekend/non-school week, have one of them plan an outing for under $X - where to go, how you'll get there via public transit, where to eat, etc. This gets the kids involved in their new city right away, is an excellent problem-solving exercising, and also orients them to the transit system (good in case they ever find themselves needing to use it alone).

Tote bags, rain boots, and a cache of medium-priced umbrellas are key. [Not so cheap the umbrella breaks immediately, but not so expensive that you're crestfallen when you inevitably leave it in a cab.]
posted by melissasaurus at 6:47 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know anything about Boston, but I do know it can be easy to fall into a routine in a big city where you travel the same way to the same couple of places, and you do the same kinds of things when you get there, and as a result the place starts to seem very small and cramped. You start noticing all of the disadvantages of big city life (too many cranky people, too little open space, too much trash/graffiti/whatever, etc) without seeing any of the advantages, and that can wear you down.

So try to avoid falling into this trap. Look around for interesting things that are going on in the city: concerts, photo exhibits, cool museums, events for kids, farmers' markets, flea markets, random parades. That stuff is all out there, but you've got to do some work sometimes to find it. Start reading the local newspaper and listening to the local radio stations; they're still pretty good sources for things to do in the city. It's not that you have to be doing something exciting All The Time. But if you find yourself getting annoyed with city-living, I think the best antidote is to simply go out and do something interesting that you couldn't do in your old suburb or small town.
posted by colfax at 6:49 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I strongly second acm's suggestion of carrying a reusable grocery bag so hard. I keep one of these Baggus balled up in my purse or pocket at all times. They're SO sturdy and durable, hold a TON, are very light, and collapse into practically nothing when you don't need it. I find that one of the things new city livers have the hardest time adapting to is not having the "crash pad" of a car. You can't just toss your groceries/coat/umbrella/kid's toy in the backseat while you're out and about (though at least with a stroller you'll have a cup holder, right?), so you need to be prepared to have enough hands for this stuff.
posted by telegraph at 6:49 AM on May 20, 2013

Best answer: I've lived in Boston for 9 years now. I'm at work and I unfortunately don't have time to give you a really detailed answer, but I have a few thoughts.

I don't know about you, but I'm not actually a city person. My first year at college here in the city, I couldn't fall asleep without listening to a recording of natural sounds (crickets, water, etc.). After my first year of college I finally found my way an off-campus living situation, and I literally cried when I saw the beautiful tree-lined streets that are just off MIT's campus. I missed the natural world terribly, and with every passing year, I miss it more.

That said, there are some wonderful things about living in this city. So my suggestions are about enjoying the great parts of city living while dealing with the downsides.

1. Walk everywhere you possibly can. I think this is the best part of living in any city, and Boston (and Cambridgeport where I live, and Brookline, etc.) is extremely walkable. Do your grocery shopping on foot (buy a cart or use a hiking pack), take walks around your neighborhood, explore all the local parks.

2. Boston is overflowing with music and art of every kind. See as much of it as you can. If you'll be a stay-at-home parent, you will probably be able to take advantage of the great free days that usually occur mid-week at various institutions. Don't forget the museums - the Children's museum, Museum of Science, MFA... For me, this is another huge benefit of living in the city.

3. Go running or walking on the Esplanade or along the Charles, especially on Sundays in the summer when Memorial Drive is closed off. It's a great community feeling.

4. Every time there's a city/neighborhood festival, with all kinds of booths, food and live music -- you should go.

5. Don't wait until you have guests to check out the historical sites. If you can afford it, get a tour -SO much more interesting than just standing around and reading a few plaques. It's incredibly easy to ignore 95% of the city and just keep hanging out in the 5% you know well - avoid this!

6. Learn to love winter. I'm serious. I know I'm probably in the minority, but I actually enjoy winter and it's a hell of a lot more pleasant living in Boston if you enjoy cold weather, snow, and even the occasional miserable slush day. Make SURE everybody has waterproof boots. I think you could get by with a terrible coat by wearing layers if you had to, but you NEED waterproof boots if you plan on leaving your house between December and March. Play in the snow when you can. Get bundled up and go for walks by the river when the weather is really bad - it's exciting. Don't let winter get you down. (You are allowed to be sick of it by the time spring rolls around. People in Boston really appreciate spring, and it's because we're all sick of winter. And the spring in the city is beautiful!)

7. You might consider joining a meetup group related to your interets. One major benefit of living in a city is having a critical mass of people to have cool groups related to ... pretty much anything you can imagine. If you have some sort of hobby that you've previously done by yourself, maybe that can change.

8. Take full advantage of the park systems in the city. Visit them as often as you possibly can.

9. Get out of the city when you can. You have a car - that's great! You can go to so many beautiful places. There are dozens of great hikes in the Blue Hills. Crane's Beach in Ipswich has one of the most amazing dune systems I've ever seen (I don't get tired of it after more than 20 years of visits!). Basically, check out the DCR websites and try to visit all the parks. A huge amount of careful work has gone in to making Massachusetts' park system informative and beautiful and you should totally enjoy it.

10. If you can, make your bedrooms DARK and QUIET. One of the hardest things for me to get used to when I moved to the city was the fact that it is never truly quiet or dark.
posted by Cygnet at 6:53 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Native NYer who's lived in Boston for over 30 years:

If you're a Yankees fan, that can be your dirty little secret.

My well-intentioned mom once sent my (at the time) 3-yo son a Yankees t-shirt that he wore to preschool and even his teachers razzed him for being a traitor.
posted by kinetic at 7:40 AM on May 20, 2013

Boston is a great place to be a kid, or an adult in charge of a kid.

The public libraries have a ton of free events for kids: stories, arts & crafts, day trips. You can also get free or discounted tickets to all the major museums in the area at the libraries. The major ones are not to be missed - Children's Museum, Science Museum, MFA - but there are also smaller gems. The Peabody museum at Harvard has lots of weird old skeletons and creatures and the gorgeous glass flowers, and usually there's some kind of interactive visit going on (petting a live snake, say). I believe the Peabody is free on Wednesdays (double check). MIT also has a museum that might be of interest to children of a nerdier bent (lots of holograms and mechanical sculptures.) There are also tons of excellent playgrounds scattered throughout the city, some of which can take time and energy to discover. I'd been a nanny for a year before I discovered that a park walking distance from our house came alive with full-on fountains and wading pools in the summer. I imagine there is a list of them online somewhere and exploring a new one every day might be a good way to get to know your area. I also think that having so many schools nearby is a boon for kids and parents: lots of young people means lots of relatively inexpensive babysitters, and I bet most of the schools have a babysitting service, so you can be sure they've already been vetted. Definitely walk the Freedom Trail. They re-enact the Tea Part at the Courthouse every year; that could be fun for the older oen.

That's all I can think of at the moment. Have fun!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:41 AM on May 20, 2013

Agree with those who say to carry a bag! Life is indeed different when you can't dump stuff in the car.

Also I would say get used to going outside when the weather is bad. For me that means having a good rain jacket and appropriate shoes for rain, cool comfy clothes and an insulated iced-coffee cup for the hot, and layers for winter. When you're dependent on walking (or just waiting outside for the T or bus) for getting around, you can feel trapped if you hate going out in bad weather.
posted by mskyle at 9:27 AM on May 20, 2013

Definitely get the entire family outfitted with waterproof and very warm coats. I somehow thought I could survive with a light down jacket all winter - my thinking was that it had down filling, ergo must be warm. Hahaha. No. It was more like a warm sweater. My entire outlook on winter changed when I got a proper (super warm, fairly expensive) coat and waterproof, warm boots. LL Bean has great options and they usually have very good sales. Wait until the fall so you can buy the right size for your kids, or look now, and buy a size or two bigger. They have some options that have an outer raincoat and super warm lining that can be zipped together into one coat.

Buy one million pairs of smartwool socks. In the damp, slushy, cold winter, they will change your life.
posted by barnone at 9:28 AM on May 20, 2013

Actually, when winter arrives (temporarily repressed in my head, I guess), I recommend having at least one ski mask-style item that covers the head and neck really thoroughly (while letting you breathe) because there will be a handful of days in Jan/Feb when you think your face will freeze off on the way to the T or wherever you can't avoid going out. They make great ones in fleece that are cheap and magical, and I recall that LLBean had them even in toddler sizes. And I second barnone about serious coats, preferably that come down to thigh length -- just picture standing to wait for a bus in January and you'll understand.

Depending on where you live and how badly the storm sewers operate, you might want duck boots or some other serious water-conquering footgear. There are times when you just can't avoid intersection puddles, and dry feet improve your whole day. Sometimes you can make do with leather hiking boots, which can be waterproofed to water-scoffing levels and do double duty in winter snowdrifts. (Yes, cities continue to function even in blizzards.)
posted by acm at 9:37 AM on May 20, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions! Fortunately, coming from New Hampshire, we're pretty used to the cold of winter, but it makes sense that, when we are relying more on public transit/walking, we'll need to be more cognizant of dressing for more than just the trip out to the car. I also love the suggestion of keeping a bag with me as it's not something I would've thought of myself. I'm particularly excited about all the new turf to explore and I'll definitely make use of the suggestion to get the kiddos some travel books and have them plan outings!

I think that I'm mostly looking for these sorts of generalized ideas as opposed to recommendations for specific restaurants, banks, etc. although I'm certainly open to trying out institutions that come highly recommended.

posted by Quizicalcoatl at 10:47 AM on May 20, 2013

Do you know about Boston Events Insider? It's a quirky, home-grown website with updated event listings in the general area. Upcoming listings include Horn Pond Memorial Lantern Walk and Discovery Day in Lexington, among dozens of other family-friendly events. It skews towards quirky and locally-based (as opposed to more corporate listings). Definitely get on their mailing list for lots of weekend and summer activities.

Your kids might be into the Einstein's Workshop, a kind of makerspace for kids. It's kinda far away but might be fun for a day activity in the freezing cold or pouring rain.

You might want to look into a coworking space for you once or twice a week. It's so easy to fall into the homebody routine when you are in a new city without specific responsibilities outside the home. Then you realize it's February and you haven't spoken to an adult other than the pharmacist, your partner or the UPS guy in several weeks. Try to figure out your own social needs before it gets to that kind of level of despair.
posted by barnone at 11:20 AM on May 20, 2013

It may be too early, but you should start to think about how old do you think your kids should be before you allow them to .... walk to the corner store, take the T by themselves, go to the park, etc. And would it make a difference if they both go together?

As you get to know other parents, maybe these questions come up as to what they allow for their kids and you can use that as a guide. As your kids get older, they'll start asking you if they can do X and you should be prepared with an answer, not caught off guard.
posted by CathyG at 1:00 PM on May 20, 2013

A few people have already mentioned this in passing, but I'll emphasize: look for the free stuff! Boston in particular, with so many colleges and universities and libraries, often has tons of free events. The BPL has big-name authors come give talks, and almost all Famous Person university lectures are open to the public, too. While university lectures may be less kid-friendly, there are newsletters focused on free kids' activities. Boston.com has a pretty good general free stuff calendar.

And kind of along those lines, museum memberships often pay for themselves with a family. I always thought that only fancy people got museum memberships, until a friend pointed out that for her, if they go just two times a year, the family membership pays for itself, and any additional trips are a bonus.

I also find that out-of-towners never wear comfortable-enough shoes. Expect to just be on your feet most of the day, every day, taking constant ten to twenty minute walks. This might be less of a problem for dudes, but even your fancy shoes should be comfortable. (Don't get me started on my family members who wear heels even when I tell them not to, because we'll be walking to the subway and back. I love you, but stop with the high heels.)
posted by lillygog at 3:35 PM on May 20, 2013

Best answer: There will likely be times you'll need a second car. Consider joining a car sharing service, like Enterprise Car Share, Zipcar, RelayRides, or Hertz on Demand. One or more of them should have a good number of cars near you. My wife and I live in JP and haven been a single car family since 2008. :)

The Museum of Science is great; make sure you go!

There are tons of great parks around. There's a cool puppet theater in the Harvard Sq in Brookline. Don't know if your kids are too old though.
posted by reddot at 3:38 PM on May 20, 2013

You'll be near the Coolidge Corner Theatre, which is great. Or at least it was back when I worked there, last century. At the time -- and OK, I admit things could have changed -- it had the biggest screen in Boston, the only silver screen, interesting programming, and the best popcorn (topped with real butter).
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:59 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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