Raising kids urban in a suburban world

“Where do you shop?”

That’s the most popular question we hear when telling people we live on Prospect Hill, a historic district in Mt. Auburn.

“Where will your kids go to school?” is nearly as frequent a question that comes our way.

As the parents of two quickly growing children, Silas who is 2 ½ and 14 month old Maya, we are beginning to feel the pressure to address that question more specifically, but for now, we explain a virtual classroom is at our doorstep thanks to the fact we live in a creative downtown.

In 2000, before we were parents, we moved into an apartment on a hill in Kentucky. The place was tiny and didn’t have much but it did have an amazing view of the Cincinnati skyline. Every night, we sat together on our small balcony and dreamt of owning a house in the city. Melissa worked near Eden Park and Damon’s first violin shop sat a few blocks north of Music Hall. The house we fell in love with was on the same hill we drove each day to work. Much like the instruments Damon handles daily, the house maintained the integrity of its 150 some odd years without much change – and as an added bonus for us, it was right on the edge of downtown.

Although we had yet to have children of our own, we were pleasantly surprised to see many of our neighbors entering parenthood along the same time we were considering the leap. We also learned that a number of the true urban pioneers had already raised their children in our new neighborhood.

Having children for us was intentional – very intentional as Silas and Maya are both adopted from Guatemala. One of the many challenges we faced during the adoption process was convincing a less than progressive social worker that our urban environment was not just satisfactory for adopting international children, but in many ways a preferred way of life. She, however, was not easily convinced. Mapping out access to green spaces, demonstrating other healthy, well-adjusted children resided in our area, and showing that nearby schools were, in fact, operational was among the information we were asked to supply. We were happy to do this if it meant bringing our children home, but wondered if our social worker asked parents living outside the city center to do the same.

Residents in Prospect Hill are extremely supportive and welcoming of families and our family is no exception. When we asked our friends across the street to write a letter of recommendation for our second adoption grant, they went beyond the call of duty by secretly orchestrating a full blown silent auction at our local watering hole, Milton’s Prospect Hill Tavern. An overwhelming collection of art, goods and services were donated by residents, some of whom we didn’t even know, all without our knowledge. The neighborhood literally banded together to help bring our daughter home from Guatemala. The sense of community in this hillside neighborhood has been strong from the time we moved here and continues to this day.

And we try to do our part to give right back to the community that welcomed us so openly through helping to organize a fundraiser for a children’s play set in the park, planning “parent parties,” organizing the annual block party and trick-or-treat extravaganza, as well as a multitude of other activities for all of our kids.

We understand that it may not be for everyone, but for us, this multi-generational, multi-racial, art-soaked neighborhood is exactly where we want to raise our family.

So, what are some of the other benefits we brag about among our curious friends? To name a few, Milton Street Park, Eden Park (and its lesser known swimming pool), Sawyer Point Park, Newport on the Levee, the Museum Center, the Cincinnati Main Public Library, Findlay Market – all of which are within walking distance. While our existence is very similar to our friends living in distant neighborhoods, one main difference is we spend much less time (and money) in an overpriced box with four wheels. Our shopping is actually closer in most cases and free from traffic or the monotony of predictable retail.

Silas is at the age where he names every place he recognizes in the vicinity of our home. 

“That’s Music Hall… Eric works there.” 

“That’s the coffee shop. I get a muffin?”

“We go to library now?” 

“That’s the Museum Center. We see Dinosaurs!”
“We go Findlay Market…they have playground.”

These slices of recognition make us smile knowing the beauty and the history of this city is becoming ingrained as a part of who he is and who he will become. He is experiencing his home town in ways others who have lived here much longer than he maybe never will. We hear him speak and we know that as his vocabulary and curiosity grows, these will be the subjects of our future conversations with our children. We also smile because we think he’s incredibly cute as he does this.

As a stay at home dad for Maya and Silas, Damon has the ability to dig up different and exciting activities to occupy our kids on a daily basis. Following the end of her workday, Melissa takes over parent duty allowing Damon, a violin maker by trade, to retreat through the back garden to his workshop to repair and build violins, violas, and cellos for local musicians. Damon’s shop is close by and has an old world feel, sitting on a quaint alley with a fantastic view of the Cincinnati skyline. It’s just down the hill from the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music as well as a few turns from Music Hall, and most importantly, close to everything he needs including our kids who often hang out and explore the tools of their father’s craft.

Music is a huge part of our lives, and further fuels our need to be near the heart of the city. Having met as viola and cello performance majors at CCM, we still stay involved in Cincinnati’s music culture as performers and audience members. Silas knows what instruments we play, who we play with, and what a “gig” is. Living where we live, we have an endless opportunities to explore and introduce our children to a variety of musical styles. During the summer months especially, our family is out most nights of the week taking in one of the many outdoor music venues downtown.

We are thrilled to see the renaissance and revival taking hold on Vine Street right now. Hip restaurants and stores are popping up in beautifully renovated storefronts. City Roots, Park + Vine, MetroNation, Mica, and Lavomatic are all just north of the Ensemble Theater. Grammer’s on Liberty re-opened not long ago and on a recent trip we discovered it to be incredibly kid friendly with waiters producing vintage red leatherette booster chairs before we even asked. And the popcorn kept coming as well.

Findlay Market is another unique resource for food, culture, and community. Damon is passionate about food. From humble barbecue to exotic international dishes, he likes to at least attempt to duplicate every great meal we have ever had. Even if it weren’t down the street from us, Findlay is the place to find high quality food items at competitive prices. Developing personal relationships with vendors you see week after week guarantees you get what you want every time, and sometimes things you didn’t even know you wanted.

What do we want our kids to glean from living downtown? The same things that we love about the area: diversity in culture, economic status, and race, as well as an appreciation for urban living. We are a family made up of different cultures and want their upbringing to be equally diverse.

Damon and Melissa Gray have been married for 13 years and met as music majors at the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music. After studying violin making in Utah, they moved back to Cincinnati to set up a violin shop in historic Prospect Hill. Melissa is a free-lance musician, and works at a local architecture firm.

Photography by Scott Beseler