Karen is taking a break. This column from January 2012 still has relevance three years later. New mayor, but same problem, and a new school in the North End and an expanded school in the North End is not enough for downtown families.
Mayor Menino has once again focused on the schools, and we hope he is more successful this year than in the past. Transforming Madison Park into an effective technical and vocational high school with adult education at night is inspired. Reducing busing and creating new improved neighborhood schools is necessary. And it’s obvious that many schools are actually improving.
But the mayor is still missing a cohort of kids whose lives would be better if they had a school and appropriate housing. The city has so far hardly noticed downtown Boston’s kids, a growing population compared to the rest of the city.
The 2010 census shows the state of affairs. As a whole, Boston lost children in the past decade. In 2000, 116,559 children under 18 years of age lived in the city. In 2010, the number of children under 18 totaled 103,710, or 13,000 fewer kids.
But downtown Boston goes against the trend. Here, in all but three neighborhoods, the number of children is rising. Go figure.
The Back Bay, Bay Village, Beacon Hill, Downtown, Leather District, North End/Waterfront, and the South End have seen increases in the under 18 population from about 14 percent in the North End to 700 percent in the Leather District, which admittedly had only 6 kids living there in 2000. In raw numbers, the increase has been as disparate as 10 more kids in Bay Village to 399 more in the South End.
Curiously, Charlestown, a family-oriented neighborhood with slightly more affordable housing and the appealing Warren-Prescott elementary school, lost 139 kids. Chinatown and the West End also had reduced numbers of children. Alvaro Lima, director of research at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, can’t explain why these neighborhoods have fewer kids, and neither can their residents. In fact, Laura Carroll, a Charlestown Mothers’ Association board member, believes the numbers are wrong, since her group has seen an explosion of mothers seeking membership to CMA.
Despite disputed figures, it’s clear the downtown is attracting families with children. Almost 10 percent of the nearly 100,000 people in downtown Boston are under 18.
Lima doesn’t yet have an explanation for the decline of the numbers of children in the whole city or the downtown’s increase. He said he expects the decline is partly due to the economic crisis, the cost of living in Boston, and the trend for families to have fewer children. Perhaps the downtown increase has to do with the growing awareness in general of the convenience of cities.
Given such growth in the number of kids in one part of the city, one would expect the school department to be thinking of how to educate them. Given the attractions of downtown Boston for families, one would expect the city to be encouraging construction of family-size housing.
But it’s no on both counts. Downtown parents have clamored for more downtown schools for almost a decade. But no new downtown schools are planned, said Matt Wilder, BPS spokesman, although the Eliot in the North End is bursting at the seams, and there may be ways to increase its size. [Since this column was written, BPS has designated the old Romney for President building in the North End as a future public school.] Both the Eliot and the Quincy in Chinatown are good schools, but they have waiting lists. The few available spots plus the uncertainly of school assignments in general discourage parents from even registering for the Boston Public Schools. Private schools then become an attractive option for families who want to stay downtown.
But private schools don’t solve every problem. Lacking parking and adequate, affordable family housing, many families in downtown Boston leave for Brookline and Newton, municipalities with cheaper housing and excellent, easy to figure out schools, when the kids get to be school age.
The mayor and the BRA see increased family housing as a goal, according to Randi Lathrop, deputy directory of planning at the BRA. [Lathrop is no longer with the BRA.] But it’s hard to see progress on that front. New building projects have difficulty accommodating families because of downtown’s smaller sites and the greater need families have for storage, Lathrop said. But New York developers, who surely face similar challenges, routinely build multi-bedroom units. Just look at the New York Times magazine’s advertisements each Sunday.
So far the BRA has mostly let developers off the hook. One example is at The Victor, a residential building going up in the Bulfinch Triangle with a completion date in 2013. The Victor has no units with more than two bedrooms on a site that surely could accommodate more. This is a missed opportunity.
At least one project—Hayward Place—will feature 54 three-bedroom units, or about 20 percent of the total, when it is completed on Washington Street across from the new Ritz in 2013. It is the exception.
Fighting for schools and housing, it’s the one percent who stay downtown. They are the only ones who can afford the pricey digs and private school tuition.
Why is this bad? A uniformity of income makes a boring community. Having to provide for children in retail shops, restaurants, parks and schools makes neighborhoods more livable for everyone. Seeing children on the street makes most people happier. Few downtown residents want to live in what could, without action on the city’s part, become an old folks’ home. The Boston Public Schools will be better for having parents in all neighborhoods in the city engaged.
Mayor Menino, tweaking school busing and building skills in the trades for youth and adults at Madison Park will help alleviate some of the city’s problems. Meanwhile, set your mind to helping the growing number of kids and their families who need good schooling and good housing in the downtown.