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There goes the neighborhood

As middle-class families with children leave Boston in droves, are we becoming what author Joel Kotkin calls an 'ephemeral city'?

In the '60s, Jane Jacobs lauded Boston's North End (left, in 1968) as a bustling, multigenerational neighborhood. Today, however, many Boston neighborhoods, including the North End, Charlestown, and the South End (right, in 2005) have become enclaves for young, well-to-do professionals.
In the '60s, Jane Jacobs lauded Boston's North End (left, in 1968) as a bustling, multigenerational neighborhood. Today, however, many Boston neighborhoods, including the North End, Charlestown, and the South End (right, in 2005) have become enclaves for young, well-to-do professionals.

JANE JACOBS, THE URBAN thinker who died last month at age 89, might say Boston has it about half right.

In her classic 1961 treatise, ''The Death and Life of Great American Cities," Jacobs lauded such places as Boston's North End, and she would no doubt nod approvingly at the neighborhood's continued bustle and human-scale streetscape. But its makeover from multigenerational ethnic enclave to haven for well-heeled professionals might make her cringe.

That kind of change, which has come to many Boston neighborhoods, seems to make us less the urban brew that Jacobs celebrated than the kind of place writer Joel Kotkin calls the ''ephemeral city." Such outposts are no longer anchored by middle-class families with children and a broad job base, but by ''a wealthy elite, part-time sojourners, hordes of tourists, and those that serve them," Kotkin wrote last year in the San Francisco Chronicle.

To Kotkin, San Francisco is the quintessential ephemeral city, functioning more as a cultural center and magnet for those drawn to the perks of city living-affluent empty-nesters, younger college graduates, gays-than an engine of economic growth and opportunity. He points to the exodus of corporate headquarters from the city, such that barely one in 10 of the Bay Area's top companies is now actually based in San Francisco, and the fact that it has the fewest children per capita of any major city in the country.

Kotkin, whose most recent book is ''The City: A Global History" (2005), has carved out a niche as a contrarian on development and planning. He extols the virtues of suburban life in the face of smart-growth advocates who rail against the ravages of sprawl. And he relishes his role as foil to sociologist Richard Florida, whose 2002 bestseller, ''The Rise of the Creative Class," promoted efforts to foster an arts scene and a ''gay-friendly" climate as ways to transform dying urban centers into thriving ''cool cities."

Increasingly missing from this equation, says Kotkin, are not only middle-class families with children but the hope among those at lower rungs that the city will serve as a sturdy ladder of upward mobility. Jacobs, Kotkin likes to point out, wrote that a well-functioning city ''is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled people, many greenhorns into competent citizens.. . .Cities don't lure the middle class. They create it."

The danger, to Kotkin, is not only that vibrant cities like San Francisco will turn ephemeral, but that distressed cities will try in vain to follow the same path. Kotkin calls current efforts to jump-start Detroit and Cleveland through such a culture-centered strategy a fool's errand. Their comeback, he says, hinges on the much tougher, back-to-basics challenge of delivering good city services, including schools that will make them viable places to raise children for those who have other choices. ''There aren't enough yuppies to save Detroit," he said in a recent interview. But are there enough to save Boston?

. . .

It wasn't that long ago that alarm over the exodus of middle-class families loomed large in Boston's civic dialogue. With crime soaring, the public schools flagging, and families fleeing, it was the central issue framing the 1993 race for mayor. ''If you are somebody who's thinking of giving up on your neighborhood and moving out, I want you to know, it matters to me personally," Mayor Thomas Menino declared in his first inaugural address.

Just how ephemeral has Boston become since Menino made his personal plea? The 2000 census revealed that nonfamily households-made up of those living alone or with unrelated adults-were now in the majority in Boston for the first time. The city's public schools have experienced an enrollment decline of more than 5,000 students since 2000, and are serving an increasingly poor population, with the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch rising from 62 percent in 1994 to about 75 percent a decade later.

At the same time, as the Globe recently reported, just two of the state's 10 largest publicly held companies are now based in Boston, and six of them are based outside Route 128, highlighting the continued shift of economic might to the suburbs. Meanwhile, neighborhoods from Charlestown to South Boston-longtime ethnic holdouts-have gone from townie to tony. Alvaro Lima, the Boston Redevelopment Authority research director, calls it ''the South End thing," a patchwork of subsidized housing for low-income residents alongside million-dollar condos.

''I think there is a very great risk-and it may already be too late-that Boston will be a hollowed-out place," says Paul Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation. The consequences of such a loss of middle-class families with children, he says, are a drop in ''social capital," the kind of civic energy needed to push, for example, for reforms such as more pilot schools and higher standards in the school system.

And yet, as real as these concerns may be, Boston doesn't look much today like a city on the brink of ruin. After more than a dozen years not of decay and blight but of resurgent urban neighborhoods, soaring real estate prices, and, until recently, markedly lower crime rates, even Kotkin admits that Boston, with its intrinsic attractions and unrivaled concentration of colleges and universities, may be a place where ephemeral just might work. ''It's an evolution that Boston, due to its many blessings, may be able to survive in reasonably good shape," Kotkin says.

Bill Walczak, the longtime director of the Codman Square Health Center, looks at the newer residents who have brought ballast to his once teetering Dorchester neighborhood. ''Everyone thought it was going to be families who were going to do this," he says. ''It ended up being a lot of singles, gay couples, and people with very few children." In other words, the supposedly less rooted groups that Kotkin says are now filling out ephemeral cities.

Walczak points to a recent meeting of his local civic association that drew more than 100 residents, evenly divided between ''gay people and what we used to call yuppies and traditional neighborhood people," he says. ''Not only has the gay community decided to move into Dorchester, they've decided to adopt Dorchester." Many of the newcomers ''may not care about the schools," he says, ''but they certainly care about their neighborhoods."

Still, some think that kind of neighborhood activism alone-without attention to the schools, often the strongest civic glue in a community-isn't enough. ''We have got to stop having this pattern where young people move out of the city as soon as they have children," says Grogan. ''Boston has been really indifferent to this."

The city has, in fact, begun recruiting middle-class families for the schools. This is the third year of a pilot project, launched in conjunction with several YMCA branches and funded by The Boston Foundation, targeting middle-income families through everything from organizing visits to schools to house parties where current public school parents answer questions about their experiences. Laurie Sherman, the mayoral adviser coordinating the program, says there are encouraging early signs of increased demand for seats at the schools being targeted, with incoming kindergarten classes reflecting a greater balance of families across the income spectrum.

Meanwhile, whether the city can continue its role in ''creating" the middle class, as Jacobs would have it, remains an open question. In today's knowledge-based economy, that has to mean higher educational achievement for Boston's minority community, which now accounts for just over half the city's population-and more than 85 percent of the public school population.

Given the still uneven quality of Boston schools and big achievement gap for minority students, the road into the middle class for Boston's fast-growing Hispanic community, the only group whose numbers have been increasing in the public schools, looks awfully bumpy. ''Those pathways exist," says Jose Duran, executive director of the Hispanic Office of Planning and Evaluation, a Boston nonprofit that helps low-income Hispanic youth make it to college. ''But in some cases they're almost like hidden trails."

. . .

Kotkin's ephemeral city argument has resonated with some observers of urban America, but it has also drawn plenty of scorn from critics who say he clings to an outmoded vision of cities from the industrial era. Faced with today's challenges and opportunities, Boston seems to be following a two-track course: Eager for the expanded tax base and economic activity that comes with new high-end residential development, the city is rolling out the welcome mat for the less-rooted monied class, while trying to convince middle-class families it hasn't given up on them.

With high housing costs pushing families ever farther from Boston (and all too often out of the state altogether), it's hard to blame the city for trying to win with the hand it's been dealt. We can lament the loss of families and even the ways the city may be losing some of its character along the way. But the balancing act Boston is trying to perform is the sort of challenge other cities would love to have.

Michael Jonas is an associate editor of CommonWealth magazine, published by MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank in Boston.

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