Kids and the city

Sooner or later, couples with children have to decide whether to stay in the city of move to the suburbs. In some cohesive neighborhoods, that decision is twice as hard.

August 01, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The Jacuzzi tub off the master bedroom on the third floor of the William Street rowhouse sold professors Peg McCarthy and Greg Ball as they sought a larger Federal Hill home six years ago. They imagined soaking in the tub after a long day of work - a refuge just a couple of blocks from the best that city life has to offer, from the Inner Harbor to neighborhood restaurants.

Then their son, John, arrived, followed by daughter Alice. Now the tub mocks McCarthy, who is usually too busy to enjoy it. Her children, now 6 and 4, must share a bedroom because of the house's quirky layout. The family could enclose the large bathroom to make another bedroom, or - horrors - give up their deck.

Both moves, though, might erode the value of the house if they wanted to sell. But they don't want to sell. Do they?

For residents of Federal Hill and other neighborhoods like it - gentrified urban communities where ballooning home prices have given many residents the choice of living anywhere - it's the central question for families. Stay or go? Commit to the local public school, or drive to private? Renovate or relocate?

It's a question being asked around the country, as downtown living becomes more popular. A Brookings Institution survey of 24 cities, including Baltimore, projected that all would see an increase in people living in downtown by 2010. In Houston, the downtown population is expected to triple by then.

In Baltimore neighborhoods like Canton, Fells Point and South Baltimore, young professionals have started adding floors to their rowhouses to make more space for children, to the consternation of some of their neighbors.

Yet William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer, says that most downtown settlers with children and a choice ultimately will leave.

"The drive to move to the suburbs is always there when people have kids," he said. "It's a mindset change about what they're interested in."

Reasons to stay

Unlike many trendy urban neighborhoods - where families may feel crowded out by nightlife, trash and noise - Federal Hill has built its own family network, durable enough to make the stay-or-go calculation truly complicated for some.

An Easter Egg hunt, complete with oversized bunny, and a Fourth of July parade now draw dozens of families. A parents' group that plans activities and play dates has grown to 200 members. On Halloween night, trick-or-treaters crowd the sidewalks.

A new theater series, Shakespeare on the Hill, offers free plays in Federal Hill Park, with an interactive performance for children. Port Discovery, the Maryland Science Center and the National Aquarium in Baltimore are all within walking distance, and the local public elementary school has a magnet science and math program. The Light Street strip now has an ice cream parlor, and a Cross Street coffee shop offers a play area.

"It used to be that once you got pregnant, you automatically started looking for a house [outside the neighborhood]," said Kirsten Sandberg, president of the Federal Hill South Neighborhood Association. "Now it's you have the baby and stay five or six years -and then move out."

Statistics show Sandberg may be right. The number of children under age 4 living in the neighborhood grew by 16 percent between 2000 and 2003, according to the Baltimore City Data Collaborative, while the neighborhood's overall population increased just 7 percent. But the number of high school-age residents fell by more than a quarter.

Child-friendly area

Some residents with children purposely moved to the neighborhood, having heard of its family network.

LizNoel Duncan and Blake Ricks moved with their three children to South Charles Street last year from San Francisco. Ricks works for the Department of Defense near BWI Airport, while Duncan stays home. Enamored of city life, the family rejected living in the suburbs. The day they moved into their rowhouse - just after Duncan delivered their third child - they learned about the local parents' group.

"We walk a lot to the Science Center, a lot to the Inner Harbor," Duncan said. "You just get a different experience of life, living close to people."

Sandy Asirvatham, a jazz pianist and former City Paper columnist, said she and her husband bought their Covington Street house planning to live there with a child; they later adopted son Miles Donovan.

"A lot of [early] parenthood is really boring," Asirvatham said. "You have to be able to walk and stroll places that are interesting to you."

Asirvatham hasn't regretted her decision. On a recent morning, her living room was crowded with brightly colored tumbling blocks, stuffed animals and puzzles. A dozen women from the neighborhood had brought their toddlers to a play date. An open spiral staircase was blocked by a four-sided gate, which Asirvatham periodically hopped over to get to the second floor.

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