Boston Has Become a City Without Children
Boston’s Stroller Wars started early in 2010. They began as an online grumble over the T—To hell with your damn strollers and lazy, semi-ambulant kids—and quickly escalated into op-eds, TV spots, and open-meeting rants directed at then-MBTA general manager Richard Davey. They reached a fever pitch in the spring of 2011, when rumors swirled that the T was considering a pram ban during peak hours, prompting mothers to give stroller-folding demonstrations to MBTA board members while frustrated commuters unleashed a litany of insults about parents’ apparent solipsism.
“In terms of the train during peak hours: no one likes strollers,” blogger Joe Renken fumed on the site Oh That MBTA. “No matter where these families park their strollers on the train, it’s going to be in the way. This is how I specifically approach strollers on the train: NO. If your child is too young to not be able to walk yet, please leave them at home, or on the sidewalk, either one is acceptable. If they are old enough to walk, don’t bring a stroller, that lazy fuck can walk his or herself.”
The MBTA did not issue a pram ban that spring, and the baby-buggy brouhaha blew over like a New England storm. But the lack of sympathy for breeders had been made clear: The new, 21st-century Boston—our shining city on the hill—is a place for young singles and working urbanites, not sniveling children and their indulgent parents. After all, why should the go-getters who take the T to their prestigious universities and high-powered jobs have to deal with a bunch of sticky, noisy kids gumming up the works?
The fact is, they rarely do. In recent years, Boston has become a virtually child-free metropolis, with people under 18 making up 17 percent of the population—well below the national average of 23 percent. Moreover, in the decade between the 2000 and 2010 U.S. censuses, Boston’s population grew by 4.8 percent, but the number of families with children under 18 fell by 5 percent, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Studying the population map of Greater Boston, childlessness looks like a virus that spawned in the city center and spread out as far as Waltham, Medford, and Quincy. In kids’ stead, empty-nesters, young professionals, and students have flocked to the city like never before, sucking up all the attention and soaking in the emergent trappings of a world-class city.
Turns out, few people have paid much attention to this wild demographic shift, even though the signs are becoming too obvious to ignore. Just ask the administrators at Boston Public Schools, which is currently fighting for survival. Fewer children means more school closings, a decades-long downward trend that only serves to exacerbate the exodus to the suburbs. At BPS’s peak, in 1932, 133,339 kids were enrolled in city schools. By 2015, that number had dropped by 58 percent, to 56,000. At this point, the trend is acute enough to raise the questions: What happens when children are no longer part of city life? Is it possible to build legacies and empires in a place that drives families away?
These days, the Walsh administration pays occasional lip service to the loss of ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity in the city. When City Hall talks about the loss of families, it’s often in the abstract—we claim to want families in Boston because we have some sense that age diversity is good, but also because children are the canary in the affordability coal mine. But the truth is that they’re already gone. And it’s hurting the city in ways we’ve barely even begun to comprehend.
The vanishing child population is not isolated to Boston. It’s also happening in Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and other so-called hot cities that rank among the nation’s most expensive places to live. Yet despite its reaching epidemic status, the shrinking-kid phenomenon has remained largely ignored. When reporting this story, I had trouble finding anyone who’d given Boston’s loss of children much thought. Instead, everyone wanted to talk about why some people are coming to the city and why others are leaving. Well, that’s easy.
Young people move to Boston for multiple reasons: colleges, jobs, or the desire to ditch the insular suburban scene for a shot at everything the city has to offer. They come here for the party, and many stay for a while. Ask those same people why they abandon Boston once their kids get waist-high, and you’ll get the same answers: The school system is a mess; multi-bedroom units with room for a growing family are rare and pricey; carrying groceries and a toddler up a four-story South End walkup is like marathon training; and the lack of parking and brutal traffic turn basic errands into the stuff of nightmares when there’s a screaming infant in the back seat.
Chris Grimley, a South End resident with two kids, ages two and four, knows the daily travails of parenting in the city firsthand. During the blizzards of 2015, he says, the streets were a “shit show—people didn’t clean their sidewalks, and the corners were impassable with any kind of stroller. It became tremendously difficult.” The frustrations of being a Boston dad, he says, are year round: “You’re waiting to cross the street, and I’ve had people just blow through, or yell at me about how to properly use a stroller.” Some people are understanding, he says, “and then there are ones that just can’t believe that you had the audacity to bring your children outside…. There’s a clear lack of empathy from various people that just don’t understand the complexities of raising kids in the city.”
Among all of the recent exiles I spoke to, their trajectories from carefree single to pram-pusher followed exactly the same path out of the city. Brian Freedman, a market analyst in Charlestown, embodies the trend: He graduated from college, got a job in Boston, and lived with three other guys in an Allston flat. When he and his roommates decided to “class it up a bit,” Freedman says, they moved into a South End townhouse, paying $850 a month each for a “super-rundown, huge space.” At some point, they came to the same realization: “It was time to grow up.” So Freedman bought a one-bedroom Brookline apartment in 2008 at the bottom of the market, and his girlfriend (now his wife) moved in the following year. When she became pregnant, they sold his Brookline pad for a huge profit and bought a place in Charlestown. And “when our daughter is ready to go to school, we’ll move to the ’burbs,” says Freedman, who’s unwilling to even consider Boston Public Schools.