By Karen Cord Taylor
It’s a familiar story. Twenty-somethings enjoy living downtown. Then they have kids. After a couple of years they depart for the suburbs. They have good reasons. The schools are often better. The housing is cheaper. There is more space.
Common practices and policies make it hard for families to stay in downtown Boston. Few new condominiums have more than two bedrooms, and those are pricey. When these buildings were built, the idea was that singles and couples would be most interested. But this is circular reasoning. If you don’t build three- and four-bedroom units, families can’t be interested.
The same kind of reasoning afflicts the school department. Officials have been reluctant to create new downtown schools, claiming too many downtown kids go to private schools. But without enough spaces in the downtown schools, parents who want to stay have no other choice.
The numbers show the situation. Boston as a whole had 13,000 fewer kids in 2010 than it did in 2000, but downtown was different. The number of children in most neighborhoods increased slightly, said BPDA spokesperson Bonnie McGilpin in an email. But the kid population is still only four to six percent. In Chinatown and Charlestown, children comprised 11 and 16 percent of the population respectively, but that was a decline from the year 2000. Whether the trends hold seven years later is unclear, McGilpin said, since the interim estimates have a large margin of error when the numbers are small.
No matter what the numbers, those who have raised children in the city believe they have benefitted and so have their kids, who have enjoyed experiences and gained skills rare in their suburban counterparts.
Most city parents work downtown as well as live here, so they don’t face long commutes that keep them away from their families. That’s the first benefit.
City kids are independent and self-confident. All the parents said that. Children learn early to stop at the curb and not go into the street. They walk to friends’ houses. They know how to get to the shops, find the parks and ride the T alone at an early age. They don’t have to depend on grownups to drive them. Many downtown neighborhoods have village-like atmospheres in which children are safe.
Terry told a story. “Once when I was up on a ladder, fixing something electric, I sent seven-year-old Eve to the hardware store for a part.
“She did it, but was distinctly inconvenienced. Reportedly she said to the owner, ‘My mom drives me crazy.’ He leaned over the counter and agreed, ‘Yes, she drives me crazy too.’ ”
All the downtown neighborhoods have good parks and playgrounds and many of those parks have lawns, mowed by other people, said Katharine. Remarkably, in those parks you’ll find children of every color, even though downtown residents are thought to be mostly white.
The mix is a benefit of downtown child-raising that Bob cited. On the T, on the sidewalks, in the parks—everywhere there are people unlike yourself. Living among diversity becomes familiar, not scary, as we have unfortunately learned it is in some places.
It’s easy to go on child-friendly outings, with museums, the TD Garden and Fenway Park an easy walk or T ride.
The paucity of downtown public schools and the fear about the enrollment process continue to push parents out of the city. But Bruce, whose kids are in the public schools, said the Eliot in the North End, the Quincy in Chinatown and the Warren Prescott in Charlestown, all with good reputations, attract more downtown residents than they used to. He said a parents group will offer public panel discussions about the schools soon, although a date has not been set.
Nick, who was raised in the North End, raised his five children there also. While prices downtown are high now, they were also high many years ago in comparison with outlying places. So he got creative. He bought an old warehouse and converted it into apartments, installing his family in the largest one.
We did something similar. We bought a tenement building and lived on two floors, three floors and four floors as our children grew. Our tenants helped pay our mortgage. Now we’re back to three floors. Examples like these show you don’t have to wait for a single family house or a developer’s condominium to solve your problem.
Nick reiterated what other parents have said—that his kids learned to navigate Boston to take advantage of the rich experiences Boston offers, richer than these parents believe they would encounter in the suburbs.
Proof came from his children’s suburban friends. “When school friends visited they gushed over how much fun it was living in Boston,” he said.
A bonus for our family was that our daughters’ suburban friends spent most weekend nights with us. They were on the safe subway instead of cruising around the drunk drivers on Rte. 128.
If you’re considering staying in the city with your children, you’ll have lots of support. Some parents I interviewed said they’d be happy to talk with readers who want to do so, but are still wary. Email me at [email protected] and I’ll set you up with them.