Seattle leads the way with fewer children

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Seattle is becoming a role model for a new breed of American city, a sanctuary for professionals too busy to raise families.

According to the 2000 census, Seattle has the smallest percentage of children of any big city in the country except for San Francisco. From Green Lake to the Central District, many otherwise thriving neighborhoods have become virtual child-free zones, where kids make up less than 10 percent of the population.

"It's a real issue," said Seattle schools Superintendent Joseph Olchefske. "What we're looking at is the San Franciscization of Seattle."

The exodus of children from Seattle has its roots in "white flight" to avoid school busing in the 1970s, but today the trend may have more to do with Seattle housing prices and the kinds of people who are able to pay $350,000 for a bungalow.

Some of it is simple demographics: Nationally, birth rates have been steadily dropping among whites, the educated and the wealthy. Seattle is two-thirds white, highly educated for a major city, and has household incomes far above the national average.

The city did gain 3,400 children in the 1990s as it grew robustly, but the percentage of kids dropped again, as it has for 40 years, and birth rates suggest the trend will continue. Seattle now has about the same population it had in 1960 - but with about half as many children.

Some observers think a more subtle shift is also occurring: The city looks more and more like a theme park for adults. If the ghost of Norman Rockwell were to descend on Wallingford, Fremont, Queen Anne, Capitol Hill or the Admiral district of West Seattle, he might paint adults sipping lattes in a bookstore rather than kids slurping milkshakes at a soda fountain. In just five Wallingford and Fremont census tracts, the number of kids has dropped by 2,700 since 1970. In three Central Area tracts, there are nearly 1,400 fewer children.

Urban sociologist Joel Kotkin calls Seattle a prime example of an information-age city that is losing its historic role as an incubator for working-class and immigrant families and is increasingly dominated by childless couples, twenty-somethings, gays and empty nesters.

"Urban life will continue to evolve in its postmodern form, but without the common touch of humanity that only the sight and sound of children will bring," wrote Kotkin, author of "The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape."

Cheryl Chow, acting principal at Garfield High School, worries that "as we become a quote, `international city,' I think the core value of the human touch that we have is missing. To me, that would be one of the scariest things to imagine, to live in a city without all the generations."

It's no coincidence, Chow said, that some people see Seattle not as someone's home, but as a place to riot. Corny as it sounds, the city must promote not only affordable housing, but family festivals, she said. "Then you have neighborhoods. You have traditions. You have Seafair."

Two decades ago, the decline in Seattle's child population was considered a crisis. In the 1970s, the number of children dropped 35 percent when busing was instituted to desegregate Seattle schools, and politicians worried that a lack of kids would lead to crime and blight. Then-Mayor Charles Royer led a "KidsPlace" campaign to persuade parents to stay.

During the '80s, about one-third of Seattle couples having babies left for the suburbs by the time their children were old enough to attend school, estimates University of Washington geographer Richard Morrill.

But as it turned out, the exodus did not wound Seattle economically, and today there's no sense of crisis.

"The sky did not fall," Morrill said. "The sheer liberal, intellectual, educatedness of people, even if they don't have kids, creates this sense of place." There's no need for Seattle to be a magnet for families, since plenty of them live in outlying cities, he said.

"We can have a special niche in the metropolis."

Susan McCloskey grew up in Wallingford in a one-bathroom house with seven brothers and sisters, while her dad supported them as a hardware manufacturers' representative.

"It wasn't the cool thing to live in Wallingford. It was where the working-class people lived," she said.

Now McCloskey is principal of B.F. Day Elementary in nearby Fremont, in a census tract whose under-18 population is 7 percent. Only half the students come from the neighborhood, while the other half are bused in from other areas.

One B.F. Day family recently moved to Shoreline, seeking a larger house for the money.

"The adults want a separate bathroom for the kids," McCloskey said. "I don't blame them."

Principals in northwest Seattle have been told to expect a loss of 10 to 20 children per year. Seattle Public Schools lost 677 students in the last two years, and the district's demographer predicts a further decline of 2,000 over five years - roughly the population of five elementary schools.

And much of this may happen not because of middle-class families fleeing but high housing costs driving out working-class families. Olchefske offers this example: If an upwardly mobile couple with one child buys a house in Seattle, while an immigrant couple with six children moves to Renton for cheaper housing, the number of students drops by five.

Apart from housing prices, it's hard to conclude Seattle is inhospitable to families. Violent crime rates are low for a big city. Students in the public-school system, revitalized under the leadership of the late John Stanford, achieve test scores comparable with suburban districts.

Despite fears that Seattle voters would grow less supportive of schools, they just passed a pair of school levies overwhelmingly, and have also backed community centers, parks and libraries in recent years.

Seattle was named the most kid-friendly city in America last year by Zero Population Growth, in a survey that measured such indicators as education, crime, economics and health.

"The city is attracting and retaining substantial numbers of families with children," said King County demographer Chandler Felt, who points out that Seattle did gain children in the 1990s, even if the percentage dropped. San Francisco, by contrast, lost almost 4,000 children during the decade.

Birth rates suggest the city's child population may soon start dropping again as the baby-boom echo tapers off. Births to Seattle women dwindled from 7,300 in 1990 to 6,300 in 1999, and those who are having children are having them later.

In 1980, the average Seattle mom gave birth at age 27, but now it's about 30. For college-educated women it's 32. Gray-haired adults are lugging toddlers to city playgrounds, and they aren't the grandparents - births to Seattle women over 40 quintupled in the last two decades.

Jamie Lutton, 41, owner of Twice Sold Tales bookstore on Capitol Hill, embodies the tension between lifestyle and parenthood for many Seattleites. In her teens, she said, she read Ms. magazine, became a "ball-breaking feminist," and nurtured aspirations beyond the traditional housewife's role.

"I was so busy developing the business that I didn't have time for children, or marrying for that matter," she said. "I feel like I've excluded an important part of being a human being."

But then she looks at the population ticker in her store window, 6 billion and counting. "The consolation is my politics - you know, `One American uses as many resources as 12 people from India.' " Lutton, who is engaged to be married, said she may try to adopt.

Seattle's evolution is by no means unique, said urban historian Fred Siegel of Cooper Union in New York. Inner Paris has had few children for decades, and Manhattan is "totally yuppified," he said. Some economically troubled cities, like Philadelphia and Baltimore, are consciously trying to gentrify, in hopes that an influx of childless adults will save declining core neighborhoods.

"I don't see a stopping point for this trend," Siegel said.

Kotkin, the urban sociologist, has advised other cities to follow the pattern of places like Seattle and San Francisco, but he still has qualms about the emerging divide between cosmopolitan city dwellers and suburban families.

"By the year 2010, we are going to see successful cities looking like Seattle and San Francisco," Kotkin said. "The unsuccessful cities will have lots of children and families on welfare."

Mike Lindblom can be reached at 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.