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.
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.
The current exodus is also undermining Boston’s education system. Many of the families who move out of the city are exactly the kinds of engaged people that schools need to advocate for them. They care deeply about education, and have both the drive and the means to uproot their lives in order to relocate to a different school district. Not that BPS parents aren’t already engaged—but imagine if the parents we’re losing stayed in the city and poured their resources and energy into schools here. Study after study has shown that engaged parents produce better students, and better students make for better schools.
Let’s shift over to culture for a minute. What makes Boston, or any place, unique? Values, dialects, attitudes, and tastes—all of these things get passed down from generation to generation and imbue a place with its identity. Boston’s milieu has certainly shifted over time, from America’s Athens to Irish Catholic populist enclave to technology and innovation hub. Each of these periods has left an indelible mark on the city’s architectural fabric. Protestant Boston is most pronounced in Bulfinch’s State House and the elegant Public Garden; Storrow Drive and the Prudential Center are remnants of an egalitarian period. As populations move in and out, what is uniquely Boston becomes harder to define—and you can read that vagueness in our skyline. The city’s builders have struggled in recent years to decide what a modern Boston tower should look like, reflecting our own ambiguity. Are we young and itinerant, just passing through? Or are we mature, fresh from the ’burbs, looking to be entertained? Either way, we’re no longer a population that can define itself through culture, or even neighborhoods—the foundation of former Mayor Tom Menino’s appeal.
The lack of retail diversity; the fickleness of restaurant-, museum-, and concert-goers; and the loss of cultural icons are all symptoms of a city that has lost its most valuable demographic: families. The area’s latest likely casualty: the quirky Curious George store in Harvard Square, which is potentially slated to be replaced by a stairwell being built by a New York developer eager to take advantage, he says, of the building’s below-market rents about to expire.
More insidiously, the urban diaspora only further fractures our already-fraught political climate. Cities were always more progressive than their suburban and rural counterparts, presumably due to the diversity of their populations. That we could see the issues—poverty, immigration, race, ageism—firsthand, just by walking around, made us collectively somehow more compassionate. “Now people are voting with feet,” says Phillip Clay, a professor of urban planning at MIT. They’re moving to communities that reflect their values, rather than sticking around to work with others.
During my interviews, I noted how moving to the suburbs accentuates this polarization. People I spoke with were comforted by the fact that they’d moved to communities where they found kindred spirits both in age and in politics. Their social circles rally around kid-centric, hyper-local issues such as schools, roads, and parks, while tuning out the larger political circus. Arlington mom (and urban exile) Heidi Rosenberg confides that this concentration of like-minded people worries her: “It’s really disconcerting to me to think that because of the decisions we made—where we ended up, in contrast to where we started from—my son doesn’t have a lot of exposure to different cultures. It’s a huge loss.”
Meanwhile, Boston is losing a huge, activated voting block of our most engaged citizens. When people become parents, they tend to get more demanding and expect more of their local municipality. It happens the first day you drop off your kindergartner: That’s the moment of reckoning for a lot of us, when we start to look around and realize that we have to pay attention to something bigger than ourselves. Concern for the next generation drives us to engage.
Without that civically minded population, Boston’s leaders have fewer constituents to answer to. Those committed to the city long-term tend to build for the next generation, or two, or three—as our predecessors did when they constructed the T (our country’s first subway), the Emerald Necklace, the Esplanade, and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. They buy property with their children in mind—maybe someday their kids will take over this house, this neighborhood, this school, even this whole damn town.
What does the new, child-free City Hall focus on? Short-term, easy-to-execute projects such as office buildings, late-night T service, and liquor licenses. As Boston shifts from a family-centered collection of neighborhoods to a more homogenous adult playground, the city will become more amenity-driven. Its goal will be to attract a young, itinerant population that acts more like a group of tourists than stakeholders. If you want to see how that plays out, look no further than the South Boston waterfront, where faceless condos are anchored by bland, big-box restaurants, bars, and a smattering of commerce—not exactly a playground for parents or their kids.
Lacking a concerned, empowered constituency, the city isn’t forced to provide as many services—like schools, parks, and thoughtful urban design—in this new “neighborhood.” After all, the young singletons will come in droves anyway. Sure, once they have kids they’ll head for the ’burbs. But Boston seems perfectly fine with it.
If you’re one of the lonely families still stuck in or clinging to the city, hope is not lost: There are a few things Boston could do to get the kids and parents back, if we wanted them. The planners I spoke with, including Andres Sevtsuk, of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, talked a lot about safe streets. Sevtsuk says that when you build a city for the most vulnerable populations—kids and the elderly—it works better for everyone. That’s a great place to start.
We could look to cities such as Amsterdam, where kids and parents walk and bike everywhere together, eliminating the financial burden of owning a car or two. Such enlightened cities as Copenhagen and Vancouver throw enormous resources into supporting their families—in the ’90s, those cities’ planners laid out tons of multi-bedroom housing in the city centers, which has now borne fruit. They also created a network of parks, schools, museums, and bike lanes to ensure equal access to amenities citywide.
Perhaps more than anything, Boston needs to focus on housing—not quantity but quality. What kinds of housing work best for families? What do parents need? The high-rise, mid-density units that the city has been advocating are actually the most expensive housing to build. According to a Chapman University study on changing urban demographics, a high-rise of more than five stories costs nearly three times as much per square foot to build as a mid-rise apartment. “What the strictest pro-density policies—known as ‘pack and stack’ among opponents—do effectively, however, is undermine the aspirations of young, middle-income families with children,” the study asserts. Mayor Walsh says that high-rise density will bring down costs, but it will likely have the opposite effect. So here’s a thought: How about zoning neighborhoods for low-rise (three-story) courtyard blocks where the interiors are equipped with shared green space and playground equipment?
Speaking of zoning, how about shifting planning away from height to use, ensuring that basic services—a grocery store, a dry cleaner, a coffee shop, a hardware store—are within a few blocks of every home? After all, it works for New York City, which—although it has some of the most excruciatingly high real estate costs in the country—is also seeing a steady uptick in families after a decline in 2010.
The funny thing is that when you start designing for families, you find yourself designing for human beings. Safe streets benefit young and old alike. Walkable communities, beginning at the block level, create excellent neighborhoods where we can age in place. We wouldn’t have to do so much moving around. And someday, maybe it will be safe for children to walk or bike to school instead of sitting on buses for hours.
This all takes much more sophisticated, integrated planning than anything currently in the works. But if we continue down this same path, Boston could easily become a city where only a very slim demographic is welcome. At that point, it will no longer be up for debate: You’ll have to check your stroller at the door.
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