Belltown and Brooklyn: How Seattle misses having kids in an urban center

Children change the character of a place for the better, but downtown Seattle lacks an essential ingredient for serving families with children: schools.

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Belltown residents call on the city to help keep their neighborhood safe.

Children change the character of a place for the better, but downtown Seattle lacks an essential ingredient for serving families with children: schools.

I always assumed that when my daughter, Amy, and her husband, Dan, were expecting a child, they would come back to Seattle. Amy had grown up in Seattle and met Dan, from Indianapolis, while they both worked in San Francisco. They married there and moved to Manhattan when Amy got the chance to open the New York office of her company.

They had this very cool but costly apartment on the Upper West Side with a tiny garden behind it not far from the Central Park Reservoir and the beautifully refurbished north side of the park.

The Seattle assumption was not really an assumption at all. It didn’t come from a set of facts somehow differently interpreted. It was just what I wanted. True, she had friends from high school in the Puget Sound area who had or were having babies, but she hadn’t lived in Seattle for nearly 15 years. So, as she sipped her grapefruit juice and absently rubbed her tummy in a bar we’d stopped at after a walk, I asked her if she had ever considered coming back to Seattle.

“Yes, we have, Daddy. We’re moving to Brooklyn.”

So, that’s how I got to know Park Slope, the Brooklyn neighborhood they moved to, and how I learned to appreciate their decision to locate there. Park Slope is jam-packed with kids, enjoys good public schools, has excellent public transportation and the support of lots of other mommies and daddies with similar demographic tags as Dan and Amy. Some New York City planners include other nearby neighborhoods in their definition of Park Slope, making it home to 40-70,000 people.

Park Slope enjoys all the playground, sports, and educational infrastructure to support families with young children, including fairly sizeable sidewalks. They need them. One day in 2006, when I had Lulu, my second grandchild, out in the stroller for the first time, I counted 12 strollers on 7th Avenue, the main shopping street in their section of the Slope, between Sixth and Seventh Streets. You had to be vigilant when approaching a curb cut.

Recently, walking back home in Seattle with the dry cleaning over my shoulder, I passed one, then two, then three strollers on the west side of First Avenue in the one block between Blanchard and Bell streets. You just don’t see three strollers on the same block in Belltown, Seattle’s hipster, restaurant and party scene neighborhood.

In Belltown, bottles and to-go food cartons fill up the garbage cans, not Pampers. I slowed as I walked by each stroller, adopting a casual air and checking the convoy to confirm the presence of a real kid and not a dog, old shoes, or garbage bags filled with clothing.

The sight of those strollers and the enthusiastic “yeh, we do!” that followed my question of whether all of them actually lived downtown, made me start to think about how well downtown Seattle welcomes its children. And, for that matter, how many of them are there to welcome? It turns out, there are quite a few.

The Downtown Seattle Association reports 2010 census data showing that there are 858 children under 5 years old living in downtown — that’s almost double the number living downtown in 1990. A third of those under fives live in the Pioneer Square zip code. All in all, the 2010 census reports there are more than 3,000 people under the age of 18 living in what the DSA calls downtown.

The DSA figures that downtown is made up of several distinct communities including Sodo, the International District, Pioneer Square, First Hill, the west side of Capitol Hill, the West Edge, Central Core, the Waterfront, Belltown (the Denny Regrade by my reckoning), Lower Queen Anne (according to DSA, the Uptown District), South Lake Union, and the Denny Triangle.

Perhaps the most intriguing stat from this somewhat arbitrary geography is that it has a large population of 25-34 year olds — a third of the 60,000 or so people living in the downtown defined by the DSA. We know what people of that age do when they get bored, so it is possible that we may well have a period of time in which there are even more babies born to downtown residents. The question then becomes whether we have an interest in helping those kids grow up in our downtown.

The census tells us that when the under-5 crowd starts going to school, many of their parents move out of Seattle downtown. Just 105 kids attend elementary school from homes in the downtown at a handful of schools on the periphery of the neighborhood.

If we chose to truly welcome those kids, we have many, though not all the tools to retain them. In Seattle Center, South Lake Union Park, and the Waterfront/Sculpture Park complex, the north and west of the downtown have great supporting park space. Last time the grandchildren were here, it was a five-minute walk from our condo to a lovely little rocky beach on Elliott Bay and maybe 15 minutes to the Seattle Center. Hell, we’re just 5 minutes from the Gum Wall! But the southern and eastern part of the downtown lack good supportive open spaces for children though the new waterfront will make a significant difference, particularly for Pioneer Square.

What we don’t have are schools. With the exception of the Seattle Center School, an arts emphasis high school with 300 students, and the private Morningside Academy, serving 70 elementary and middle school students, we have nothing serving young children in the downtown, just a handful of daycare operations. It would be a good idea to begin considering ways to harvest the young children of the downtown and apply them to the downtown’s future.

Children change the character of places for the better. Children soften the urban setting and broaden the economic life of urban places. Children who stay in the city tend to help turn renters into owners, further contributing to stability. Children improve the safety of urban places making us more vigilant. What makes us feel safer – a cop on every corner, or sidewalks crowded by strollers?

The Downtown Seattle Association has made retention and support of children in the downtown a priority in its recent strategic plan.  The organization is working on the possibility of an elementary school and on the creation of play spaces for young people in future park and street improvements and is seeking volunteers.

Park Slope’s journey begins with Brooklyn’s independent development from New York before it merged with the city and became one of its five boroughs. Brooklyn created many of its own cultural institutions — art museum, library, etc., but the development of its fine parks system was particularly significant.

Twenty years before the Civil War, it was home to a most curious park, a mixed use kind of thing that doubled as a cemetery. It was such a nice one that it was soon attracting 500,000 visitors a year — more than went to Niagara Falls at the time — for picnics and outings. Even with all the fuss, the residents never seemed to complain.

The success of Green-Wood Cemetery and the fact that New York’s Central Park was under construction convinced the highly competitive Brooklyn Parks Commission to aggressively acquire nearly a square mile of farm land on which Henry Litchfield, a lawyer, real estate, and railroad man, had built an extraordinary home at Brooklyn’s highest point. This would become the next great project of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and be named Prospect Park.

With the park as the centerpiece, the great Brownstones were soon crowding in. By the twenties, the swells in the Brownstones gave way to mainly Irish and Italian immigrants who worked in the pencil and watch factories and other manufacturing that became a part of Brooklyn’s blue collar culture. They in turn gave way to heroin, cocaine, and the great 1970s catastrophe that enveloped America’s greatest city.

Nearly half a million people fled Brooklyn neighborhoods like Park Slope in the decade of the '70s. However, even as thousands fled, others were moving in, finding bargains and fixing them up, having babies and putting their kids into local public schools. When they first moved there, one of the units in Dan and Amy’s building was still in the shape it was when the economy of Park Slope was driven by drugs and burglary.

Now, however, Park Slope is home to some 5,000 elementary school students, my two grandchildren among them. Yes, the demographics are changing, the rents are higher, but Park Slope and its neighboring communities are better for all the change.

The kids are attending highly diverse schools that generally succeed at improving the lives of most of the children attending them. They live in a culture where kids are king. That was Amy's better choice.

This story appeared earlier on the author's blog, The Cascadia Courier.


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