Boston Has Become a City Without Children
Of course, giving up the urban dream isn’t easy for those who once considered themselves city people. At first, many former urbanites refer to their retreat to the suburbs with embarrassment—We wanted to make it work, but, you know, it was just so hard. You’ll find no better proof than Buffalo Tom frontman Bill Janovitz, famed for dominating alt-rock radio in the ’90s, who now spends his days selling real estate (in addition to occasionally selling out concert venues for reunion shows). “If you’d told me we’d be buying in Lexington,” says the rocker turned Realtor, “I would’ve said you’re crazy…. I came out here kicking and screaming.”
When pressed further, however, many exiles express relief, and not just a little pride, that they landed outside of the city. “People are just being pragmatic about schools and space,” Janovitz says of fellow transplants buying in his new hometown. “My friends think they’re going to stay in the city, find a park, schlep downstairs…but they eventually come out here.” Parents are hungry for time and space, as well as safety, community, and good schools. We used to get all of that in Boston. Now many of us don’t.
Maybe it’s because they’re closer to it, but the exiles are more attuned to this shift. While Boston’s disappearing-child act seems to have gone largely unnoticed, these parents can see between the widening cracks. “In the suburbs, you drive by Little League games and families are playing sports,” Freedman says. “Here in the city, it’s co-ed adults playing softball versus families watching their kids. I guess if there are no Little League kids, you gotta fill those fields with something.”
There was a time when our city was overflowing with children. In the first half of the 20th century, kids were part of the urban fabric, like trolleys and towers. Families lived in the city, died in the city, and did everything in between. Actor Leonard Nimoy, for instance, grew up in the immigrant-filled West End before the Boston Redevelopment Authority leveled the neighborhood between 1958 and 1960. In a 2011 interview, Nimoy described his life as a boy: wandering around his neighborhood and stumbling into acting opportunities, learning photography from a kid down the street, and selling newspapers to raise money for his hobbies. “I’d rather go hang out with the guys on the street, and look for something exciting or interesting to talk about or do,” he said.
Children were once such a part of urban life that their absence was worthy of documentation. In 1939, in anticipation of German aerial bombing, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain ordered more than half a million of London’s children to evacuate into the countryside. The day after they left, journalist Storm Jameson walked around the city chronicling the spooky quiet of a childless metropolis. “On Wednesday, September 6, London looked as it would look if some fantastic death pinched off the heads under fifteen,” he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly. “The silence was deafening.”
After World War II, that started to change, as cities were gripped by a frenzy of urban renewal that razed shabby-but-thriving neighborhoods to make way for shiny new development. As a rebuttal, journalist Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961. She used her observations of Boston’s North End—as well as Greenwich Village, SoHo, and Harlem—to make the argument that, yes, American cities may appear disorganized to the men building highways and clearing slums, but in fact, just like life, they are organic and messy, and not necessarily dysfunctional. Each block is an ad hoc village teeming with life, Jacobs argued, and any attempt to “clean up” would destroy the social fabric that supported the urban economy. Her book served as a rallying cry, encouraging activists to save the parts of the city we now cherish. And not a moment too soon: After tearing down the West End, the BRA turned its sights on the North End. Thank Jacobs that that neighborhood wasn’t demolished, too.
During this same postwar period, however, reformers argued that urban living was dangerous, and Boston families began to flee. Suddenly, new-housing incentives pushed people—the upper middle class, in particular—to the ’burbs, and developers rushed to keep up with demand. The movement created a clear delineation between the families who could afford to move out, and those left behind to deal with the devastating effects of busing and highway building. Boston became an economically and racially segregated city—designed for white day workers and poorer minority resident families, but with little interest in appealing to the vast middle, which had all but vanished.
By the early ’90s, however, people began thinking of urban living differently. Boston property had become so cheap that you could buy an enormous South End townhouse for short money. If you were willing to live in a slightly marginalized neighborhood, you could swoop up a lot of real estate, including once-grand homes desperate for a rehab. Prices in Boston climbed as more people with money arrived looking for fixer-uppers. Then came the flippers, ready to turn a quick profit with little up-front cash by dividing larger properties into small, neat apartments.
While cities were becoming cool again, Boston began attracting more college students, drawn to the convenience and high-octane buzz of urban living. The city’s college and grad school population skyrocketed from about 127,000 in 1990 to a peak of 152,000 in 2010. The working-class families living in the blue-collar neighborhoods surrounding colleges—Davis Square, Lower Allston, and South Boston among them—now competed with legions of students for the chance to occupy triple-deckers. “An adequate supply of large homes exists,” Governing magazine noted in a 2015 article about Boston’s shrinking affordable-housing stock, “but these homes are not housing families with children. Instead, because there’s a shortage of studio and one-bedroom apartments, groups of singles are pooling their resources and outbidding families for desirable larger units.” Widening the gap, the city is currently hell-bent on catering to recently graduated young professionals who have income to spare. Throughout the city, expensive buildings (mostly one- or two-bedrooms) packed with luxury amenities are going up at record speed. The result: Boston’s families are getting shut out even more.
Not all cities are losing kids. More suburbanized, less expensive cities, such as Madison, Wisconsin; Columbia, South Carolina; and Austin, Texas, are exploding with families. Should Boston care that it’s on a very different trajectory? I’d argue, emphatically, yes. Losing kids is an incredibly destructive trend for a city, starting with the fact that along with the children, there go the parents—people ages 35 to 60—a critical demographic for city-building. Here’s what happens when they leave.
Traffic gets even worse. Most of those parents escaping to the suburbs still work in the city, so they’re re-creating the problem many of their own parents faced: long, stressful commutes. Funny that anyone would want to repeat this cycle. While a parental exodus may unburden the ailing MBTA, it also disproportionately affects the local roads of the cities closest to Boston—Cambridge, Brookline, Somerville, and Watertown—because our freeways were designed to service the towns farther out. If you wonder why you’re stuck a few blocks from your house at rush hour, look to your right and to your left—those are the people who once walked home. Now they’re driving a mile or two out, clogging up the streets. Trust me, they don’t want to be there any more than you want them there. But that’s the price they’re willing to pay for being able to let their kids play unsupervised in the backyard.
Rush-hour traffic is, of course, a soul-sucking nuisance, but moving farther out can lead to problems of a more profound nature—such as exacerbating gender inequality in Boston. Over the years, Massachusetts has been named one of the worst states for women in terms of equal pay and executive opportunities. The best way for women to overcome the trend, despite the equal-pay bill signed this summer, is to stay in the game and demand more. But when parents of young children choose to move to the suburbs, it gets more challenging for both parents to commute into the city for full-time jobs. Many women end up embracing their roles as freelancers or part-time workers so that they can stay closer to their kids, reduce daycare costs, and be available for early pickups, doctor’s appointments, and play dates.