My 4 year old son lives in an apartment. A unit. Or if you want to use the pejorative, “a flat”. On the third floor, up six small flights of stairs, far away from a lush green backyard. He has no cricket pitch, no cubby house, and no place to make mud pies.
We live in a beautiful old corner building built in the 1920s. It has high ceilings, polished floors, atmosphere to burn. But it is on a busy road, opposite a train station, above the shops. Not a place where kids would’ve lived a generation ago. No patch of lawn with sheets flapping on the hills hoist or a jacaranda tree dropping its blossoms. Our outside world is concrete and bitumen, with a couple of trees planted along the old-fashioned shopping strip. Our only backyard – a small, dank shared courtyard. Just the other day my husband spied some of the local wildlife lurking. A dead rat – he said as he snapped on the rubber gloves to get rid of it – “as big as a cat”. Kid friendly? Not so much.
Before you snort, what a pack of w*nkers, pretending to live in New York when you live in Oz, I admit that in Australia, apartment dwelling can seem weird in a country with such great weather. But aside from the joy of not having a soul-crushing mortgage, at the moment, I take a perverse pleasure our small family unit living in a unit. Because not that long ago that they were thought as rather immoral. In 1920, when Australian poet Kenneth Slessor was a young man, he rented a flat. And In Slessor’s words, his mother believed that was “only one step away from announcing that he was going to shack up with a prostitute, because flats in those days were looked upon as evil, something really evil.”
Although that view seems old fashioned today, there’s still a view that apartment living isn’t suitable for children. And if you don’t live near to a good local park, green spaces or something like a skate park across the road, which is our lucky situation, it can definitely be tough. But the reality is that with housing affordability at record low levels, apartment dwelling kids are a much more common group of children in Australian cities. It’s happened fast, in less than a generation. When I went to put my little boy’s name down at the local school, there was a problem. “Your building doesn’t appear on our map” said the woman at the front office. Yes, because in the 1950s when the local area maps were drawn up for schools in NSW, no children lived in apartments, or above the shops. Now, there are 9 kids in our building, most under school age.
For my husband and I, because we live in a city where property prices are crazy, we could only afford a house if we moved ‘further out’ – to far suburbia. But to lose the luxury of being able to walk everywhere – to the supermarket, the fruit shop, the local primary school – and to the train to take us to the city – at the moment, for us that’s too much of a trade off. For us, the thought of hours spent commuting each day would drain a lot of the colour from life. And it would be hours. Houses are so expensive where we live, could start looking at around 20 kilometres from our suburb to find something we could afford. So right now we’re choosing what the planners call “walkability” over more space. But we have asked ourselves the question many times about our flat dwelling life. Is it worth it – and are we short-changing our little guy?
Without being able to retort ‘just go outside!’ to “I’m bored!”, the reality is that daily trawl to the local park takes a lot of effort. And like most kids, my son has the energy of a small freight train. So there’s been many late afternoons with our 3 year old neighbour at the ‘witching hour’ with 2 boys clambering in and out of his bedroom window (an interior window!) and leaping up and down under a tent made of sheets. Because I just can’t be bothered to drag him to that damn park.* A poor substitute for climbing a tree or doing cartwheels in the grass, right? Probably.
But the great part of living where we do is that our little boy is a part of something. Because we can walk everywhere, all the shop owners know him. He’s showered with free bread rolls, gifts of apples, and the lovely woman who runs the cafe in our building rushes out with a tiny teddy whenever he walks past with me. Sometimes it can even feel too much. As my mother described it when she visits from Queensland – “he’s like the local rock star!” But aside from all the attention and smiles, he is getting a behind the scenes tutorial on life.
He understands that the Saturday supplements arrive on Friday and pile up outside the newsagent. He sees the left over bones being collected from the butcher by a gothic looking, open truck full of bones – enough bones to inspire lifelong vegetarianism. He watches the wood man stacking up the fuel for the wood-fired pizza oven at the pizza restaurants. He the council workers fixing the power lines, and the unwanted stuff piling up outside Vinnies. We spend a lot of time walking around the village doing our errands. We know our neighbours, and we are friends with some of them – and their children. On the best days it’s like a larger version of Sesame Street.
But even in our urban life things can feel claustrophobic. If my little guy chooses to have a tantrum in the middle of the footpath, people remember it months later. “Remember when he had a huge meltdown right in front of the gift shop?” Oooh yes, I do. I was there, dragging him up the street where everyone knows us, stifling a primal scream of ‘stop looking at us! Haven’t you ever seen a 4 year old lose it before?’
Sometimes I wish for him a childhood like mine, with an empty block next door to roam in, and hours and hours of outside time, riding our bikes with gangs of neighbourhood children with no sense of time and no parents hovering. If we got hungry we’d go home for food, or as Mum described it – ‘you just came home when it got dark’. The suburban freedom of a 1970s childhood was a glorious thing in many ways. But unless you live in the country, that sort of life is over for many of our kids. It’s car-ferrying all the way, to and from school and activities, at least while they’re young.
His childhood is already quite different. Crafting is big. Jimmy Giggle is also big. We love our neighbours, and we leave the door ajar so the boys can run in and out between our places across the hall. But rainy days can feel interminable, and like being stuck in a large-sized box with the energiser bunny. Sometimes the dream of a fibro house on a battleaxe block does seem a better alternative. But at the moment, we’re up for this life.
Because kids all over the world grow up in apartments and turn out fine. And these days a lot of people in Australia are working with less space for their families – and bringing them up without the luxury of having extra bedrooms, or a media room, or a pool. If you want to buy a house, or an apartment, you have to work within your means. And sometimes that means smaller than you’d like.
*(and of course we do take him to the park. He rides his bike.)
Nicola Harrison is a Sydney based radio producer for the ABC.
What do you think? Are apartments for children? Did you grow up in one?