[Hpn] Paradox by the Bay: Kids Aren't Welcome
Fri, 08 Jun 2001 12:07:32 -0700
Thursday, June 7, 2001
Section: Southern California Living
Paradox by the Bay: Kids Aren't Welcome
By: SHAWN HUBLER
TIMES STAFF WRITER
SAN FRANCISCO -- To raise children in this city is to need a kids'
sweatshirt on short notice and to find yourself surrounded by stores that
only sell play clothes for dogs. It is to look for a house, only to have the
real estate agents for one seller after another tell you that, gee, they
don't really know much about schools in the city. It is to walk into the
neighborhood pizza joint, only to see, "We welcome well-behaved children"
posted next to the "please-wait-to-be-seated" sign.
It is to hear advice like this well-meaning counsel, from a real estate
agent in Silicon Valley: "Don't do it! Don't buy in San Francisco! For God's
sake, don't do that to your kids! Trust me. I grew up there. The weather
alone. . . ."
Here, she shuddered and took a long, calming pull on her latte. Actually,
she had a point. This was back in December--in the midst of a family move
involving two parents, three kids, a dog, a cat, a sitter and the sitter's
daughter--and even as she spoke, ice-cold rain was pelting the most
yearned-for, romanticized--and adult-centric--city in California. Not that
you could actually see the ice-cold rain--the ice-cold fog obscured it--but
it was there. Pelting. It felt like December in Nova Scotia. Meanwhile, 20
minutes to the south, on "the peninsula," as people here call the stretch of
upscale suburbia between the city and Palo Alto, the sun was so yellow, you
could have painted a Happy Face on it.
Tidy neighborhoods of tech workers unfurled seamlessly into each other,
neighborhoods that were closer to the new jobs that had prompted this
disruptive, midlife relocation. Neighborhoods with good schools and huge
supermarkets and mighty SUV carpools. Neighborhoods like any suburban
neighborhood, except that, whatever homes cost in your old suburb, here they
cost that . . . plus $1 million.
To raise children on the peninsula, it became clear on that day, was to
become the poorest po' folk in Silicon Valley. And to commute there from
some farther-flung suburb was to spend so much time in gridlocked Bay Area
bridge-and-tunnel traffic that those kids might as well be orphans.
"If you move to San Francisco, your children will never forgive you," the
"If we move to San Francisco, will they have Cartoon Network?" the children
* * *
According to the 2000 Census, San Francisco's populace lost more than 4,000
kids during the past decade, the result of high housing costs and the influx
of child-free yuppie hordes. Actually, the former feels less to blame than
the latter. Prices are breathtaking everywhere in the Bay Area; there are
places far more expensive than this storied city of gingerbread Victorians
and tourist attractions--places that, for all the financial obstacles, teem
nonetheless with children. To the people who live here, San Francisco's
dearth of children seems to stem from something more cultural.
The kid-unfriendly attitude shows up not only in the serious, large-scale
matters--the delayed park bond issues, the barely functional public school
system--but in the small, everyday ways, which are more telling. In one
neighborhood, the maitre d' at a checked-tablecloth bistro has managed,
strangely, to have a table every time my husband and I stop by as a
couple--and to be suddenly booked until 9 p.m. every time we stop by with
kids. At a swimming club near the Embarcadero, the attendant felt it was
just fine to pine aloud for "the golden years" before the club launched a
drive to attract more families. In a furnished home where we rented briefly,
the landlords allowed a corporation to hold an annual, wine-soaked party for
scores of adults, but worried--sincerely--that our fourth-grader's Razor
scooter might ruin the brickwork on the patio.
People here curse aloud, a lot, the way people do when they're young and
self-centered, or old and it's been years since they've had to watch their
language. In cafes, every pause seems to bubble up with the plaints of
20-somethings who still "hate" their moms and dads. Dog owners snatch up
their animals when children come near, not because they fear for the child's
safety but because they're afraid the kid might scare the pet.
* * *
It's comical and paranoid, and occasionally irritating in this city that
spends so much energy on the parallel play of adults--and so much time
confusing mass self-absorption with social tolerance. And yet, there is also
an unintentional upside to the way children are treated in San Francisco,
which may explain why it still hasn't been written off entirely by families:
For good or for ill, the city is so small that people have to engage here.
The kids who stick it out get to learn to be a part--rather than the
center--of something. Their life is not a kids-only theme park.
Nobody is going to hover over them (a fact that drew suburban kids here
during the '60s by the parentally repressed thousands). San Francisco
children understand, in a way some people never will, that they were neither
born to be waited on nor put on Earth to make somebody else's life perfect.
They're simply one worthy constituency among many. The big downtown arcade,
the Metreon, is aimed at youngsters, but also hosts corporate retreats and
cocktail parties. When we moved into our new neighborhood, the neighbors
dropped by with brownies and cookies--and so did their kids.
And if raising a family in San Francisco is sometimes like trying to
entertain a pack of toddlers in a maiden aunt's parlor, it is also, to
stretch the metaphor, like stumbling with your child into that maiden aunt's
magical attic. San Francisco is a city in which, for example, children can
ride vintage streetcars out to a Pacific beach that is as pristine now as it
was when the city was born. A kindergartener's birthday party here is as
likely to be held at a landmark bowling alley as at Chuck E. Cheese's. The
city has soccer leagues and summer camp, just like the suburbs, but it also
has museums and aquariums and zoos and Chinese New Year parades a kid can
walk to and Irish step-dancing contests and Italian grandpas playing bocce
It is a city that--so far at least--has hung onto a critical mass of its
natives, many of whom turn out to be the parents of the city's remaining
112,802 or so kids. When they ask each other "Where'dja go to school?" they
mean high school. They look out for each other's families. The other night,
at a school function in the Sunset District, the children suddenly
disappeared. "Oh, they're out in the church yard," one of the parents
said--and indeed they were, playing tag in the twilight around a statue of a
saint at the Catholic church next door, as if it were 1950 instead of the
21st century in a metropolis.
This, in fact is the paradox about the kid thing in San Francisco: For
grownups, it's a big city, a sophisticated and charming playground. But for
the children growing up here, it's a village--their village. And without
them, San Francisco may be a gem of a destination, but it will be less and
less a hometown.
* * *
For a related news story about San Francisco's dwindling population of
children, please see A-1. No Welcome Mat for Kids
GRAPHIC-DRAWING: S.M. POLLACK / For The Times
Descriptors: Children, San Francisco
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
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