South End getting (a lot) younger

Influx of babies altering neighborhood's urban edginess

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / March 15, 2008

Editor's note: Alison Ryan, a South End resident, says an anecdote she provided to a Globe reporter was incorrectly recounted in a Page One story Saturday about the increasing number of young mothers who live in the neighborhood. Ryan told the reporter she was given a ticket when she double-parked in front of her condominium to unload groceries. Ryan says she was unloading the groceries on the curb before she pulled her vehicle into a space down the street. She says she did not, as the story stated, take the groceries inside her building, out of view of her vehicle.

Lunch hour at a South End cafe last Friday could have been mistaken for a Gymboree play-group.

Strollers surrounded a long table in the window alcove, and more clustered around tables along a wall. Half a dozen young mothers spoon-fed their babies Gerber Organic purees from the nearby Foodie's Urban Market and dabbed globules from chins with name-embroidered towels. As the waiter came running with napkins to sop up a spilled bottle, conversation turned to the new abundance of high-chair-stocked restaurants and other parental accommodations of the South End.

"You can't spit without hitting a Bugaboo," said Emily Golin, one of the lunching South End mothers, referring to a pricey, must-have brand of stroller.

The South End, domain of urban sophistication, has gone baby-gaga. Weekdays bring out brigades of mothers pushing strollers past art galleries and gay bars; weekends find fathers popping into cafes for lattes with their babies tucked into Baby Bjorns.

Three days a week, mothers shimmy with their babies and toddlers at the Baby Wiggle music appreciation classes, while a guitarist strums tunes like "Shake It up Baby" and bubbles float overhead. At the recently opened Kiwi Baby on Washington Street, parents shop for tangerine-colored high chairs with pneumatic lift and $320 Petunia Pickle Bottom diaper bags. The Garden of Eden cafe plans to add a cordoned-off section for patrons to park strollers. The neighborhood's destination restaurants, such as Aquitaine and Stella (named for the owner's baby daughter), have grown accustomed to a baby wail or sibling shove at brunch or dinnertime. Even the Beehive, a dinner and music hot spot with a line that can snake out the door on weekends, has a parents-with-babies crowd that congregates before 6 p.m.

"You can leave Cheerios under the table and the wait staff never seems to mind," said Liesl Trimnell, a 39-year-old South End mother of a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old.

For some - the nonparent gays and lesbians, artists, and downtown office workers who moved to the neighborhood when it was still emerging from its many years as a skid row - the wave of nesting parents has diluted the South End's urban edginess.

Indeed, small cheers went up when the Flour Bakery + Cafe, a snug spot suited for espresso sipping and nose-to-nose conversations, posted a sign on its front door asking that strollers be left outside. Joanne Chang, Flour's owner, said that when she opened the spot on Washington Street eight years ago, the cafe saw the occasional stroller, but then "gaggles of kids" came.

"About three to four years ago we had such an issue with parents bringing their strollers inside that there wasn't enough room for customers to stand and wait in line," she said in an e-mail.

Young families have always lived in the South End, drawn by spacious townhouses and brownstones or the neighborhood's public housing that offers subsidized apartments. What has changed, residents say, is that affluent young professionals who once moved away when they planned to have children began about five years ago to stay. Some now are upgrading from smaller, couple-size condos to four-bedroom units that can cost $2 million.

Getting a fix on the scope of the baby boomlet is difficult. Census figures for that part of the city have not been updated since 2000, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and the city keeps no tabulation of families living in the South End.

But parents say the evidence is everywhere, and that a critical mass of parents has created a multiplier effect: As more parents have stayed in the South End, more amenities have become available and the incentives to stay have increased.

"There are so many people here now with children that just because you have a baby doesn't mean you have to move out of the South End," said Maria Dolorico, a 38-year-old former mental health clinician who trained to become a birth doula after having children and who now runs a new mothers group out of her South End home.

In a measure of the growing clout of South End parents, a parking lot next to the Hurley Elementary School, long used by area residents for parking after school hours, was converted to a playground after a lengthy tussle between parents and other residents.

New parents can find neighborhood-specific tips at GardenMoms, a South End-based Internet chat room for parents. It offers pediatrician recommendations, advice about where to find organic baby bedding, and mother get-together dates in the neighborhood.

Despite the additions that make parenting in the South End easier, there are still inconveniences. In the winter, when parks and outdoor cafes are not an option, some say there are few large spaces where parents can gather. Comparatively small urban homes can make large playgroup gatherings difficult. And parking presents unique challenges for parents of young children.

Alison Ryan, a 31-year-old South End mother of a 1-year-old, said that on a recent winter day she returned from the grocery store. With too many groceries to carry a long distance while also pushing a stroller, she left her car double-parked outside her home, flashers on and her son strapped into his car seat. She dashed inside with the bags, planning to return immediately to park her car. She came back to find a parking officer writing her a $45 ticket.

"That's not family-friendly," she said. She now pays to have groceries delivered.

Some South End parents say that they happily forgo the amenities of the suburbs to experience urban life. Yet, some wonder how long the South End's brand of urbanity will last.

Anne Kirby, 41, a graphic designer and mother of two who has lived in the South End since 1991, said she has stayed because she values the diversity of the neighborhood. But increasingly she sees it waning, partly because of the prevalence of families like hers. When she bought her condo from a gay couple, the bow-fronted brownstone's four other units were owned by gay men or couples, none with children. Today, all the units are owned by heterosexuals, one of whom is the mother of a toddler.

"I don't want this neighborhood to turn into a homogenized place," she said. "I hate that, and I feel terrible about that."

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