The Corner

Culture

Our Cities Are Growing Childless. . . and Quite a Few Urbanites Prefer It That Way

(Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Derek Thompson’s essay in The Atlantic, “The Future of the City Is Childless,” is really good, and spotlights the currents underneath some of our big political and cultural divisions:

In high-density cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., no group is growing faster than rich college-educated whites without children, according to Census analysis by the economist Jed Kolko. By contrast, families with children older than 6 are in outright decline in these places. In the biggest picture, it turns out that America’s urban rebirth is missing a key element: births.

Some of this reflects larger trends that are not so city-focused: couples getting married later, having children later and smaller families, and so on. But it’s hard to believe this trend has no tie to the ideas of Richard Florida and like-minded urban planners and their recommendations in the 2000s, contending that a thriving city had to cater to the “creative class” with art galleries, hip restaurants, luxury condominiums, and so on. (By 2012, Richard Florida backtracked somewhat, saying he hadn’t foreseen how bringing super-affluent creative tech workers into cities would make neighborhoods unaffordable for blue-collar workers.)

Ask a parent what kind of community they want, and they’ll probably start with three traits: to be able to afford to live there, to be safe, and for the community to have good schools.

All of those hip coffeeshops, gluten-free bakeries, and bike paths are nice to have in a city, but they’re catering to the tastes and disposable income of single people and DINKS – “double-income, no-kids” couples. Parents may like the art galleries, hip restaurants, and all of that, but they need good public schools. They also suddenly have new expenses like a crib and diapers and baby clothes and baby food, so all of a sudden, they examine the cost of living in their neighborhood much closer. They probably would prefer an extra bedroom to turn into a nursery. And as the kids get bigger, the idea of having a front yard or backyard or both starts to look really appealing. Young parents might want to stay in a city, but the cities are unaffordable. . . and some cities don’t seem all that sad to see parents go.

It’s not that there are no good public schools in America’s big cities. It’s just that you’re less certain to get a good elementary school, a good middle school, and a good high school based upon where you live. Those of us who have house-shopped in northern Virginia know that real estate prices are often directly connected to which side of the school district lines it is on. If you find a home that has good schools for your child from ages 5 to 18, you’ve hit the lottery. . . or you may need to hit the lottery to live there.

America’s big cities cater to two groups: non-parents and wealthy parents, who can opt out of the gamble of the city’s public schools by sending their kids to private school. Many big city mayors talk a good game about supporting public education and touting the quality of their city’s public schools. . . and then they send their kids to private school. Rahm Emanuel’s children attended the private University of Chicago Lab School — the same school president Barack Obama’s daughters attended before their move to Washington. (The head of Chicago Public Schools sent his child to a private school, as well.) In Washington D.C., Adrian Fenty sent his children to private school.

(You know which mayor actually had his child attend a public school? Bill de Blasio, whose son Dante went to Brooklyn Technical High School — one of the best public schools in the city. Words you have never seen in National Review before and may never see again: “Good for you, Bill de Blasio.”)

Many mayors either don’t have children, have children that too young to attend school yet, or have children that are now adults. For a lot of elected city officials, the problem of subpar city public schools is a theoretical problem that doesn’t touch them personally.

Parents and non-parents shouldn’t see each other as foes, but in today’s era, contempt is contagious:

No issue is too small to be inflated into a clash between identity groups. There’s a Facebook page for my old neighborhood, and recently a post announced that the local day care would be expanding. A couple of residents were furious and lamented the gradual departure of most local retail establishments. (Some who had previously owned businesses on that retail row blamed the high rents, low foot traffic, and limited parking.) But it didn’t take long for the Facebook thread to turn snotty comments about how the neighborhood had been taken over by “breeders.” Somehow a small but vocal group of non-parents had concluded that the families in the neighborhood were some sort of sinister, conquering force. This isn’t mere incivility, it’s contempt, and they’re proud of their contempt.

Thompson concludes, “America’s rich cities specialize in the young, rich, and childless; America’s suburbs specialize in parents.” As long as you have that split, you’re going to have at minimum tension and at worst a furious culture war between those groups.

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