The Next Baby Boom

Are more middle-class parents deciding to raise their kids in the city?

Originally published in The Urbanite
By Fern Shen
Published April 2006

In some ways, the scene at Birches Restaurant in Canton was just what you’d expect at any funky eatery in one of Baltimore’s booming downtown neighborhoods. On a recent night, patrons were hoisting drinks, rocking out to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and noshing on sweet potato fries.

Looking closer, it’s apparent that many of the smaller revelers were wearing diapers. And the bigger ones were pulling sunflower seeds and carrot sticks out of their backpacks. “Let me look at your wines by the glass. And he will have a cranberry juice,” says Michelle Tracy, whipping out a plastic sippy cup. The juice went to her 22-month-old son, Jackson. Her musician husband, Mike Otto, ordered a Resurrection Ale and Tracy, a project manager at T. Rowe Price, went with the pinot noir.

Pretty soon they were joined by about ten other couples with infants or toddlers. Parking their strollers near the bar, they headed for the restaurant’s upstairs room. Most had come from homes they own a few blocks away.

While giggling kids ran around in a cleared-out play area, their parents chatted about each others’ writing projects and rowhouse renovation travails and the latest doings at the new Patterson Park Public Charter School that some of them helped organize, one of two nearby public charter schools where many plan to send their kids.

Welcome to Birches’ once-a-month “Family Night”—a weird sight, in a part of town better known as an adult playground, a venue for rooftop deck parties and beer bashes. But there they were: neighborhood kids with middle-class parents vowing to stay in the city and send their kids to public school.

Toddlers are turning up in all the city neighborhoods where real estate values are soaring: Canton, Federal Hill, Locust Point, Upper Fells Point, Butcher’s Hill, and Mount Vernon. And the fact that their parents are even talking about sending them to public schools is enough to make some people’s hearts skip a beat.

Laurie Feinberg, the city planner assigned to neighborhoods in Southeast Baltimore, says something is definitely happening. “Years ago, everyone who came to meetings was 50-plus,” she says of the regular community gatherings. “Now it’s people in their 30s, or empty nesters. And at one meeting recently, we even had a couple of questions about schools. We may be right at the very edge of something.”

That something may be a population shift. Since World War II, the migratory habits of young, middle-class Baltimoreans have been considered axiomatic, as hardwired in them as they are in salmon. Members of the species meet and mingle in the big, bad city (or deep ocean, in the case of the sockeye or chinook). But when it’s time for mating and parenthood, they head for the safety of the suburbs (freshwater streams, in the case of our analogous, anadromous fish).

Everyone knows how that pattern has shrunk this city, and many others in the Northeast, while fattening the surrounding suburbs. Baltimore has lost population every decade since the Eisenhower era, topping out in 1950 at 949,708 and standing at 641,943, according to the July 2004 census estimate.

As with other cities in the same boat, Baltimore has pinned its hopes for revival on a rehabbed downtown—with condos and lofts, art galleries and white-collar tech jobs, hip restaurants, clubs, wine bars, and microbrew-pubs—meant to appeal to young singles and moneyed empty nesters.

It worked. The strategy seems to have stopped the demographic bleeding, creating a hot real estate market and pockets of wealth, especially in places like Federal Hill and Canton. There are now 3,145 households within a one-mile radius of downtown earning more than $75,000, making Baltimore’s downtown the eighth wealthiest in the nation, according to a recent study by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

But nobody ever expected the new urbanites to raise children downtown. Another axiom about this bunch—dubbed “the creative class” in Richard Florida’s famous 2002 book—is that they are downtown to have lattes, not little ones. Social theorists like Joel Kotkin (an enthusiastic burb-booster, sort of the yang to Florida’s yin) dismiss downtown living as no more than a niche lifestyle, “preferred mostly by the young, the childless, and the rich.”

But, wonder of wonders, there appears to be a sizable group in Baltimore determined to prove him wrong. Census data show that the toddler population has grown in Baltimore’s gentrifying neighborhoods. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of children under age 4 living in Federal Hill grew by 13.7%, according to the Baltimore City Data Collaborative. (During this time, the neighborhood’s overall growth was just 7%.) The growth was similar in Canton, while Midtown saw a whopping 21.7% increase in toddlers.

Baltimore is not the only American city where a hot downtown residential real estate market and a renewed interest in urban living are bringing more kids to town. In Manhattan, between 2000 and 2004, there was a 26% increase in children under 5, at a time when the borough’s overall population grew only slightly. (Demographers can’t say for sure that the spike stems from new affluent urban-dwellers there, but condo developers think it does—for the past couple of years they’ve found a ready market for family-friendly features like pools, extra bedrooms, playrooms, and eat-in kitchens.) In booming San Diego—where waterfront development initially attracted only young professionals and affluent seniors—the demographic shift has been striking. “We’re starting to see families with kids. They’re forming playgroups and pushing for change in the schools. They’re a real force,” says Jason Luker, communications specialist for Centre City Development Corporation in San Diego.

Is the creative class growing up and having kids in the city?

In Baltimore, stroller-pushing parents seem to be everywhere these days, flocking to Patterson Park and Belvedere Square for outdoor summer concerts, or rolling in a once-a-week convoy at the Maryland Science Center, where a popular stroller-exercise class meets during the winter.

You see them in java joints, like Spoons in Federal Hill, the new Starbucks in Canton, Common Ground in Hampden, and Red Canoe, the Northeast Baltimore kids’ bookstore and cafe.

They pack tourist attractions like Port Discovery, the National Aquarium, the Science Center, and the B&O Railroad Museum. They turn out in droves for the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s interactive nursery rhyme sessions, which have seen attendance more than double in the past two years.

And they’re a can-do crew, these parents. In Federal Hill, for instance, they’ve organized trick-or-treating and an annual Fourth of July parade. Three Federal Hill moms started a kid-stuff consignment store called Ladybugs & Fireflies, so that now—across the street from shops selling designer jewelry and Cole Haan shoes—you can buy a used snowsuit or Wiggles action figures.

Prodded by parents, several restaurants started family nights, like the one at Birches. Simon’s of Butchers Hill had one recently where they showed SpongeBob videos.

And in Mount Vernon, there will soon be a children’s playground, with special features like a water play area and a hedge maze, thanks to a fundraising drive by the neighborhood’s new crop of parents.

“Our two kids may not know how to catch a frog, but they can catch the No. 3 bus to the Inner Harbor,” cracks Paul Warren, vice president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association. Since he and his wife moved to the neighborhood from Washington, D.C., seven years ago, they’ve seen a huge change. “We’ve really had an explosion: On our block alone there are three new families with kids in preschool or elementary school,” says Susan Warren, co-chair of the Children’s Park Committee.

These new city parents have created virtual meeting places, including a couple of vast listservs, where they trade tips on good pediatricians, new baby yoga classes, or child-care co-ops. And of course, they network the old-fashioned way, in school playgrounds or at the library.

“It’s like a cross between a dorm and Melrose Place,” says Trisha Coy, of Locust Point. “It’s fun here. It’s different from anything I ever experienced—there are people knocking on your door, saying ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ There are alley parties! We go to the aquarium, and we ride the water taxi.”

Coy and her 2-year-old son (and about thirty other adults with kids) crowded the floor-space at the Light Street branch of the Pratt for the weekly infant and toddler singing and handclapping session known as “Mother Goose on the Loose.” Nearby, two women were discussing a medical article one of them was writing. Others had their planners out and were setting up playdates.

The scene is pretty much the same when Mother Goose sessions are held at the main downtown Pratt library and at the Canton branch, where librarian Gloria Bartas works. “It’s amazing to me, the turnout we get in here now,” observes Bartas, who grew up in nearby Highlandtown. “I see a definite trend, like it was when I grew up in the ’60s, where the moms stay home and raise their children. Either their husbands work full-time, or they have flexible jobs or freelance careers. Most like living in this tight-knit community of rowhouses where they can walk to the library, grocery store, church, and park.”

Coy had worked in information technology in Oregon before she and her husband moved to Baltimore about a year ago. In the Portland suburbs, the transition to stay-at-home mother had been depressing. Now, her husband is at sportswear-maker Under Armour in Locust Point, which is walking distance from their home, and Coy has discovered that being a parent in South Baltimore is anything but lonely.

Okay, alley parties are fine, but ask Coy the morning-after question: “Will you leave for the county the minute it’s time to enroll your son in kindergarten?” Her answer: “Maybe, maybe not.” She plans to check out the local public school, though she’s worried about how good it is. And she worries about crime: “If it’s not safe, well, that’s a concern.”

So the big question becomes: Can Baltimore hold onto people like Trisha Coy, who are lingering a bit longer in the city than their parents’ generation did?

So far, the new-kids-on-the-block phenomenon is still just a demographic glimmer. The latest census data show the city is continuing to lose population (though much less dramatically, of late). Responding to shrinking enrollment, city school officials are in the process of consolidating students and closing some school buildings.

It seems, though, as if the legions of city-loving parents present an opportunity. One of them, Carrie Grochowski, made that point pretty dramatically in February when she stood up before more than six hundred businesspeople at a morning meeting where the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore unveiled its annual report, showing continued growth in jobs, housing, and retail, driven mostly by the young.

“I told them, I’m one of those 25-to-34-yearolds, and that I’m a new mother living in Patterson Park,” says Grochowski, an office manager at a downtown dental office. That announcement alone was enough to elicit hearty applause. “I asked, What are you going to do to make somebody like me stay around?”

She and her husband, who works for the Living Classrooms Foundation, came in 2002, became parents in 2004, and are thinking they’ll send their daughter to Patterson Park Public Charter. “But that takes her only through elementary school. What happens after that? We don’t have the income to send her to private school,” says Grochowski, who worries that city middle and high schools will continue to struggle with academic and discipline problems.

Many of her city friends, she says, are thinking about leaving as soon as they get pregnant. But Grochowski, a singer-songwriter who grew up in rural-suburban Salisbury and learned to love the city when she attended the Peabody Institute, doesn’t want to give it up. “What if over the next five or ten years,” she says, “all the people who moved in move out?”

One way school officials are trying to allay these fears is by phasing out large middle schools and converting to neighborhood K–8 schools. Seeing education as the make-or-break issue, many of these new families have gotten active in their local city schools or helped form charter schools, among them City Neighbors in Cedmont, KIPP Ujima Village Academy on Greenspring Avenue, Midtown Academy in Bolton Hill, and Southwest Baltimore Charter School on Schroeder Street. And these are just four of the twelve charter schools in the city, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

Rebecca Gershenson Smith of Upper Fells Point became a member of the board of directors of the Patterson Park Public Charter School. A graduate student in literature and the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, Smith came to Baltimore almost two years ago from Ann Arbor with her husband, a Johns Hopkins surgical resident. Initially, they looked at houses around the city and in Baltimore’s northern suburbs in particular, but Smith worried that if they moved there she would “just be sitting inside all day in the air conditioning watching cable TV.”

In Baltimore, Smith says, they found themselves meeting “teachers, community activists, photographers, architects, people in film.” Their new neighborhood had all the features they expected—“vibrancy, activity, proximity to shops, restaurants and events, the ability to walk everywhere”—but one aspect really took them by surprise. “Lots of people had little kids,” she says, marveling at the support network created by these young city parents. “When somebody has a new baby, neighborhood parents bring them meals,” she says. “There’s a mom’s book club. We do Moms’ Night Out.”

The couple had originally thought they’d “stick it out” in the city just a couple of years. “We thought we might eventually want the whole white-picket-fence thing,” she says, “but now we have no plans to leave.”

She understands the things that can make city life less-than-charming for parents, like tiny rowhouses and yards or having to park on the street, sometimes blocks from your door. “To get your child and all their paraphernalia and your groceries into the house can be rough,” says Smith. “If I need to dash out to the market at 7:30 at night, I don’t dare do it—I’ll lose my spot,” she says.

Still, despite these obstacles, city living is worth it, says Smith, who chairs the beautification committee of her neighborhood association and helps moderate the SEBaltCityKidsListserv. “It enriches my life and my daughter’s.”

Meanwhile, city school officials are hungrily eyeing new parents like these. “The growth in several pockets in the city, the northeast and southeast in particular, is fantastic,” says Eric T. Letsinger, chief operating officer for Baltimore City Public Schools. “As our quality improves, we’re optimistic that more of the parents that represent that growth will send their children to city schools.”

Matthew Hornbeck, principal of Hampstead Hill Academy in Canton, can look out his window and see this target market. “Houses right out there are being rehabbed and sold for $350,000,” Hornbeck says one recent morning, looking toward a street of brick rowhouses, just south of Patterson Park.

Sometimes, when Hornbeck sees parents with toddlers using the school’s newly renovated playground, he zips out to give them his pitch. He’ll tell them about the school’s improving reading scores, its diversity (58% white, 22% African American, 10% Latino), and how Johns Hopkins doctors and Baltimore Symphony musicians send their kids to his school, which recently turned charter. “Here is where Old Canton and New Canton come together.”

The larger issue of maintaining diversity, as these neighborhoods gentrify, is a wrenching one for some of the families coming in, who are, by and large, white and more affluent. “I see it as more of a class issue,” says Stephanie Simms, a founder of the Patterson Park Public Charter School. “People are being displaced, no question, and you are very sorry to see them go,” she says, noting that the school, at least, is one place where long-time residents and newcomers still coexist.

Advocates for the poor worry that, amid our enthusiasm over Baltimore’s newer families, we are forgetting the older ones: less-affluent families forced to leave because of rising property values or to stick it out in less-than-optimal circumstances. “Sure, some people are having a pretty nice existence with their fancy strollers and their brass handrails and their exposed brick and good restaurants, but there are other people who are really struggling,” says Ralph E. Moore Jr., director of the St. Frances Academy Community Center, in the Johnston Square neighborhood, which links low-income people with job resources and computer training.

Neighborhood activists acknowledge that the revival has only touched portions of the city and that closing the growing gap between rich and poor here is a paramount issue.

“There was a tidal wave of disinvestment sweeping north-to-south in this city and we stopped it,” says Ed Rutkowski, executive director of the nonprofit Patterson Park Community Development Corporation, which has been purchasing and rehabbing homes near the park since 1996. “You can’t move ahead and solve the housing problem for anyone until you deal with streets owned by drug dealers and houses all boarded up.”

So how does Rutkowski’s group entice today’s families to move into city rowhouses, and stop that wave?

“We listen to what the people who have kids tell us they want,” says Dahlia Kaminsky, deputy director, sales and marketing for the PPCDC. “Singles want fancy whirlpools in the bathrooms, but now we’ve got mothers who have to give kids a bath and want a plain ol’ five-foot enamel tub.”

One thing they’ve been doing is knocking out the wall between two homes and turning them into large, three- or four-bedroom, 2,000 square-foot homes.

To Grant Heslin and his wife, Charlene, one of these architect-designed “double-wides,” just off the north side of Patterson Park, looked pretty spacious after their sixth-floor walk-up on Manhattan’s upper west side. The double-wide they bought for around $200,000 and moved into in August 2004 also seems to them like a bargain, now that comparable houses in the area are selling for twice that.

“It’s really got a great layout for kids,” says Heslin, as 2-year-old Ruby carries her book across the shiny hardwood floor and 6-month-old June bounces in a bouncy chair dangling from an exposed beam. An environmental engineer, Heslin commutes by car to his office at the Inner Harbor. His wife, an educational consultant, has been involved in the nearby Patterson Park charter school.

But while the park provides nearby green space, their back patio is pretty much just cement, so Heslin and his neighbors are working to make their yards and alleys greener and safer. Along with painting the cement walls a sea-blue and installing planters, they have, with City permission, installed locked metal gates at all the alley’s entrances.

“The object is to turn the alley to more of a usable space, where kids can run around,” says Heslin.

It’s all a work in progress. A neighbor was robbed at gunpoint. Heslin once saw a boy walking through the neighborhood with a very large handgun peeping out of his jacket. They got hit hard on their latest tax re-assessment.

But inside his cheery home, where the girls’ rooms are decorated in a funky flower pattern and picture books and toys are everywhere, urban troubles seem remote. “I think we’re going to be sticking around for a while,” Heslin says.