The Childless City: It’s hip, it’s entertaining—but where are the families?

What is a city for? Ever since cities first emerged thousands of years ago, they have been places where families could congregate and flourish. The family hearth formed the core of the ancient Greek and Roman city, observed the nineteenth-century French historian Fustel de Coulanges. Family was likewise the foundation of the great ancient cities of China and the Middle East. As for modern European cities, the historian Philippe Ariès argued that the contemporary “concept of the family” itself originated in the urbanizing northern Europe shown in Rembrandt’s paintings of bourgeois life. Another historian, Simon Schama, described the seventeenth-century Dutch city as “the Republic of Children.” European immigrants carried the institution of the family-oriented city across the Atlantic to America. In the American city until the 1950s, urbanist Sam Bass Warner observed, the “basic custom” was “commitment to familialism.” But more recently, we have embarked on an experiment to rid our cities of children.

In the 1960s, sociologist Herbert Gans identified a growing chasm between family-oriented suburbanites and people who favored city life—“the rich, the poor, the non-white as well as the unmarried and childless middle class.” Families abandoned cities for the suburbs, driven away by policies that failed to keep streets safe, allowed decent schools to decline, and made living spaces unaffordable. Even the partial rebirth of American cities since then hasn’t been enough to lure families back. The much-ballyhooed and self-celebrating “creative class”—a demographic group that includes not only single professionals but also well-heeled childless couples, empty nesters, and college students—occupies much of the urban space once filled by families. Increasingly, our great American cities, from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles and Seattle, are evolving into playgrounds for the rich, traps for the poor, and way stations for the ambitious young en route eventually to less congested places. The middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history. The development raises at least two important questions: Are cities without children sustainable? And are they desirable?

Best-selling urban booster Richard Florida, a pied piper for today’s city developers and planners, barely mentions families in his books, which focus instead on younger, primarily single populations. Eric Klinenberg, a New York University professor and author of the widely touted Going Solo, celebrates the fact that “cities create the conditions that make living alone a more social experience.” But perhaps the most cogent formulation of the post-family city comes from the sociologists Richard Lloyd and Terry Nichols Clark, who see the city, and particularly the urban core, as an “entertainment machine.” In their view, city residents “can experience their own urban location as if tourists, emphasizing aesthetic concerns.” Schools, churches, and neighborhood associations no longer form the city’s foundation. Instead, the city revolves around recreation, arts, culture, and restaurants—a system built for the newly liberated individual.

Demographic trends seem to bear out this vision. Over the past two decades, the percentage of families that have children has fallen in most of the country, but nowhere more dramatically than in our largest, densest urban areas. In cities with populations greater than 500,000, the population of children aged 14 and younger actually declined between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. Census data, with New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit experiencing the largest numerical drop. Many urban school districts—such as Chicago, which has 145,000 fewer school-age children than it had a decade ago—have seen enrollments plummet and are busily closing schools. The 14-and-younger population increased in only about one-third of all census-designated places, with the greatest rate of growth occurring in smaller urban areas with fewer than 250,000 residents.

Consider, too, the generation of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 in 2000. By 2010, the core cities of the country’s 51 most populous metropolitan areas had lost, on average, 15 percent of that cohort, many of whom surely married and started having children during that period. While it’s not possible to determine where they went, note that suburbs saw an average 14 percent gain in that population during the same period.

Of course, not all sections of our largest cities are equally bereft of children. Of Los Angeles County census tracts where less than 10 percent of the population was 14 and younger in 2010, a significant number were located downtown and along the coast. These are mostly high-density areas where housing is expensive. You’ll find a considerably higher proportion of children under 14 in low-income parts of South and East Los Angeles, and also in middle-class neighborhoods in the heart of the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys.

Opinion polls confirm the impulse behind the child exodus. For example, in a recent survey for the Manhattan Institute by Zogby Analytics, 58 percent of people with children under 17 said that they would consider leaving New York City for better opportunities elsewhere; only 38 percent of those without children agreed. Part of the reason is surely the city’s density and cost, which make family life difficult. In Manhattan, where the average rent approaches $4,000 a month, it’s no surprise that families are waning.

A more family-friendly city remains possible. The Brooklyn community of Flatbush—like Staten Island, Queens, and eastern portions of Brooklyn—was built in the first half of the twentieth century to appeal to families fleeing the congestion of New York’s core. Just as the suburbs do now, these new settlements revolted many urbanists, such as Lewis Mumford, who complained in 1921 that the “dissolute landscape” was “a no-man’s land which was neither town nor country.” But Flatbush’s tree-lined neighborhoods, such as Kensington and Ditmas Park, may be the city’s best hope for retaining middle-class families. These areas still have many single-family homes and low-rise apartments. And Cortelyou Road, a main drag in Ditmas Park, brims with family-friendly restaurants and shops, though it was fairly desolate just a decade ago. Young families are enthusiastic about the neighborhood. “It’s an amazing place,” says Kari Browne, co-owner of the Lark café on nearby Church Avenue. “But the key concern is: Can you afford to stay?”

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