Why do I love small row houses in the city?

It seems like just yesterday I Googled “row house” and only came up with random sites, most about businesses with row house in the name. Nothing I found spoke to me about the architecture and history of row houses and there was very little about the people who live in them, a group I was about to become a part of. Occasionally I tripped over a random article, lurking in cyberspace, but nothing really reflected row houses as a vibrant and vital component of urban life. So, I got the idea in my head to publish a web site that featured nothing but row houses, the people who live in them and how they live in them, and the places in which row houses are built. I didn’t aim for perfection but I did want to show a diversity I felt was sorely missing from what little I had found. Cheered on by friends and family, many of whom help out with photography and source material, I’ve been able to keep things going.

Part of being a good journalist is to be objective. As we’ve progressed, it certainly has become easier to step outside our house—a departure from one of the first articles I posted, in desperation to complete the issue, that was about my old apartment. But since this is an editorial, I thought it would be nice to knock down the wall for a moment and explain why I am such a strong advocate of the row house and urban living.

Although I think city living and row houses are fabulous, the lifestyle is not for everyone. And good thing, because not everyone can live in a row house since there aren’t enough, at present. I think row houses have gotten a bit of a bad reputation – perhaps some less than fabulous design choices in the fifties, perhaps because they are predominantly working class dwellings. In any case, I thought it was about time someone start to show row houses in a more positive light and along with the row house, also the lives of the people who live in row houses. People, who don’t live attached because they have no choice but who choose row houses on purpose. But why?

To start, you can read some of the articles we’ve written about residents in Ridgewood, Pennsport, Middle Village, or Olde City, with more on the way.

And, because we’re getting personal, below are my own reasons why I own a very small row house.

I didn’t want a house that took hours to clean. I’m not lazy but I have better things to do. My husband would like a little more space and a garage but even he will agree that our house is just the right size for us to manage with our very busy schedules. Additionally, I like to know where everything is which is paramount to keeping things running smoothly. Since I am absent-minded, the less space, the fewer things, the easier this is for me. If I had more space I would be hopefully disorganized and probably very miserable and inefficient. Besides, I really can’t be trusted and would probably shop too much which would be catastrophic for our budget.

As a first time homeowner, knowing that maintenance expenses can escalate quickly, I didn’t want more than we could handle. Likewise, our energy costs are lower. We use less because the other houses insulate ours. Typically we only have to heat or cool one room of the four as the others stay relatively constant. Even in the dead of winter, with no heat on at all, the house stays around 53 degrees. In the summer, with only the windows open, it rarely goes above 80 except on the top floor.

In the times ahead, American society as a whole, is going to have to rethink what necessity and luxury mean. I figure I might as well just start off being thrifty and space conscientious and save myself the trouble of having to adjust later on.

I fully admit that this is my own thinking. However, row houses come in all sizes, from tiny to huge, and all styles, from historic to contemporary. That’s why I love them and write about them. They work for just about everyone.

Although row houses are predominantly urban dwellings, not all row houses are in the city. But I think the best sort of row house living is in row houses in the city. The best way to explain why is to share my my typical day:

I wake up around 6 am, provoked by a cat who’s nearly as accurate as the electrical alarm clock. His method is to purr really loud and lick my face until I get out of bed. He’s relentless. Half asleep, I climb down the stairs, trying not to fall down them, tricky tiny colonial stairs that they are. On the way to the bathroom I tickle my daughter into semi-consciousness and deposit the still-purring cat on her bed. About an hour later, we’re finishing up our breakfast and getting ready to go. My husband drives to work. He doesn’t have to since public transportation is convenient for us. We don’t even need a car, a blessing in hard economic times. However, he’s a mechanic and driving makes him happy and because we only have one car, it’s a luxury we can afford, for now.

Around 7:20 am, my daughter and I begin our commute to school and work. People can’t believe we walk about two miles but it’s our special time together. It’s 40 minutes of chatting and watching the world change around us, interacting with life instead of watching it pass quickly through a car window. I’m not distracted by anything other than walking so I can pay almost complete attention to her, very valuable for a full-time working mom. If the weather’s bad, we take a 10 minute bus ride.

At the end of the day, I pick my daughter up — her school is three blocks from my office — and we either walk, or get a ride from my husband, typically on bad weather days or on days I go running. He starts dinner while I run for about an hour, which I do because it’s cheaper than the gym and if I don’t, I can’t eat dessert, which I love. As soon as I get home we eat, followed by clean up, wash up, and a little quality time before lights out.

On the weekend we have museums, parks, playgrounds, a farmer’s market, and antique shops to explore without having to use the car. Weekly housekeeping takes about two hours max which leaves plenty of time left over for fun. Occasionally there is some handyman work that needs to get done but nothing takes more than a day. Specific to Philadelphia, we find history is everywhere, which provides hands on learning for our daughter. Much of what’s available to do is free and with so many free things to do it’s easy to forget about not having extra money.

I think we enjoy a good quality of life with a nice balance of home, work, entertainment, and exercise and we’re able to do it within a reasonable budget. I’m aware that it’s not easy for all the pieces to fall into place and not everyone who lives in a row house is going to have an arrangement they love but it is possible. I do believe that there are things about urban row house neighborhoods that lend them to being able to best accommodate a well-rounded lifestyle, especially in tough times.

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