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City needs to clean up its act or families will be forced to leave

'Would you live in inner-city Dublin?" was a question asked in an online poll conducted by the Irish Architecture Foundation recently. Yes, was the answer from the majority -- but not if they had kids.

Reading the comments of the discussion that followed, I wondered if I was being a selfish, irresponsible parent by choosing to rear my children in the city. If I was putting their lives and their futures at risk by exposing them to the rough and tumble of life in town -- full of junkies, dealers and petty criminals -- where feral youths break car windows for fun, and buggy pushing 'young wans' insist on wearing floral pajamas in the street, come sun or snow?

Neither of my two 'young wans' (aged 10 and seven) have lived anywhere but Dublin's north inner city in their short lives so far. The Royal Canal is a stone's throw from our garden, as is Croke Park. The walk to the GPO is but 15 minutes -- if the seven-year-old resists his habitual urge to stop at the Gardiner Street playground for a 'go' on the swings. The Gate theatre and Savoy cinemas even closer. In the other direction we have the playgrounds and games pitches of Fairview Park and the beautiful promenade along Clontarf, leading to the Bull Wall and Dollymount Strand -- a walk we often take together during the long summer evenings. We have wonderful neighbours within a very close-knit and friendly community.

My kids thoroughly enjoy city living, but then again they've nothing to compare it to, they haven't been given a choice, and for all the wonderful amenities, there is a dark side to living in the inner city.

The online poll mentioned above, held to coincide with the publication of Redrawing Dublin by Paul Kearns and Motti Ruimy, revealed that 75 per cent of people questioned said that they would like to live in Dublin's inner city -- but, not surprisingly, many said it was not suitable for families. The authors of Redrawing Dublin argue that "there is an inherent conflict between those 'indigenous' inner-city dwellers and those who are considered temporary residents".

I know exactly what they mean. My own childhood was spent in an area that -- while not 'between the canals' -- would certainly qualify as a place full of 'inner-city dwellers' and those who were considered 'temporary residents', or 'blow-ins' as we called them in Ringsend.

'Blow-ins', of course, being any family who couldn't trace their roots back to the arrival of Oliver Cromwell into Ringsend port. The river Liffey was our playground, the Guinness ships our personal friends, and it was with great regret that my family said goodbye to the advantages of near-city living and headed to the suburbs when I was about 12 years old.

I remember the move from Ringsend to the suburbs of Blackrock as if it were yesterday; the culture shock was so profound. The look of amazement on the faces of the kids in our new quiet, pretty cul-de-sac when we told them where we had grown up. Perhaps they thought we were going to nick their bikes and beat them up for their bus money. I thought they were West-Brit snobs and they thought I was ... well, God knows what they thought, but they had the manners not to say it to my face.

Within a year, I had learned to modulate my accent to a soft, south county Dublin drawl and refer to 'town' as 'the city'. I quickly acclimatised, and enjoyed my teenage years, safe and content in Dublin's suburbia -- but I always vowed to get back near my beloved Liffey and inner city as soon as I could.

When child number one was born, we lived within spitting distance of the river, in a small apartment on Jervis Street beside the beautiful new Millennium Bridge. Since the early Nineties I had watched the gentrification of Dublin city centre, despairing sometimes at the size and quality of many of the new developments along the quays and inner-city areas, but happy that new life was being brought back into my town.

When child number two was on the way, we were forced to move to 'a proper house' -- because Irish town planners and developers seem to think apartment living is only for couples or singletons. Not for Dublin, Cork or Galway the beautiful developments found all over Europe, where large, spacious family apartments are built around playgrounds, schools, creches and local shops.

So we moved to a tiny starter house, moving on to a bigger family home when the kids needed more space -- both in the north inner city.

The pluses are many, but we're beginning to realise what the minuses are, as our kids grow more independent and inquiring about their surroundings. Reading the discussion blog which is attached to the "Would you live in Dublin's inner city" poll, many of the commentators say that they loved city life but left as soon as they had children.

One particularly disgruntled writer said: "We currently live in the city centre and it will be a breath of fresh air to leave in 2-3 weeks. The city is dying on its feet; the lack of civic pride is astounding ... I will miss the proximity of the shops, cinemas and parks but I will be glad to wave goodbye to the drug dealers, the anti-social behaviour in our parks and streets and the thuggish mentality of so many."

In some ways I know how he feels. In the past few years we've had drug-related gun crimes nearby and we've had many a local guard call to the house to ask if we'd noticed anything that could help them with the latest break-in/robbery/shooting/murder.

My kids have seen me mugged, in broad daylight, not three minutes from our front door. There are junkies and drug dealers everywhere. The week before Christmas, five cars on our quiet residential road had their windows smashed in. Whatever happened to 'zero-tolerance'?

When we decided to rear our children in the inner city, the downturn had not yet occurred. There was great hope that the regeneration of the Dublin Docklands would bring prosperity and 'gentrification' to areas like North Strand and Summerhill.

Locals and 'blow-ins' alike were optimistic that the Government and DCC would realise that a vibrant inner-city area is essential for the image of Dublin as a prosperous European capital. A safe, prosperous inner city is a plus for all -- not just those who live in it.

Yet there seems to be little political will to tackle basic problems like antisocial behaviour and drug-related crime. It's as if keeping such activity between the canals is somehow acceptable to those who live, and vote, outside it.

Since the downturn, we have seen ventures like the necessary rejuvenation of Croke Park villas abandoned, to the despair of the entire community. We've had to fight hard just to keep the local swimming pool open. The local park my son loved so much is full of junkies and drunks. Many local businesses have closed down.

In two years, my daughter will be the same age I was when my parents -- very reluctantly -- moved their family to the suburbs for what they believed would be a better, safer life. Will we be forced to do the same? I sincerely hope not. But I'm not making any promises.

Sunday Independent