By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008
NEW YORK -- A decade ago, 3-year-old Theo Carlston may have been considered part of an endangered species: a white toddler in Manhattan.
But here he is: blond, soft-eyed, sweet-faced, building a fort at a members-only indoor playground in fashionable SoHo neighborhood, surrounded by others like him.
Once upon a time, Manhattan was an island of adult thrills and vices. In the national imagination, it was a place of artists, musicians, socialites, Wall Street bankers -- or of hustlers, runaways, addicts, murderers. But it was not on the radar of the typical white, middle-class couple as a place to raise children.
Now demographers say Manhattan is increasingly a borough of babies, and more and more of them are white and well-off.
The number of children younger than 5 in Manhattan has increased about 30 percent since 2000, said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. The increase is driven by white toddlers, whose numbers have gone up by 60 percent, according to the 2000 census and the 2006 American Community Survey, he said. For the first time since the 1960s, young white children outnumber their black or Hispanic counterparts in Manhattan, demographers say.
"It's surprising," Frey said. "It's a selective part of the white population, a lifestyle of people who want to have children and can afford to live in the city."
Indeed, according to Andrew A. Beveridge, a demographer at Queens College, the median household income for this group of children was $280,000 in 2005.
In a reversal of a decades-long trend of flight to the suburbs, affluent couples are deciding to stay, at a time when crime is low, some schools have improved and urban life has a new allure, said Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of urban history at Columbia University.
That decision, a sign of rapid gentrification, is being repeated in several cities, such as Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and the District, all areas where the numbers of young, white children have risen at a much higher rate than the numbers of young children overall -- figures that in some cases have even decreased.
In New York, Theo's parents -- who work in public relations and finance, and who grew up in suburbs -- said they had been looking for a more interesting, diverse and convenient place to live.
"Right now, we're excited to be here," said Theo's mother, Jennifer Carlston, 35. "We haven't considered leaving."
Their decision, and that of parents like them, has the potential to touch most every aspect of life in the city, including real estate, education and the character of neighborhoods.
Already, some of the unlikeliest sections of Manhattan have become havens for white babies.
Alphabet City in the East Village, which a decade ago was famous for its post-punk scene and its heroin markets, now is rife with hipster preschools for tattooed and pierced rock-and-roll parents, and baby boutiques that sell $112 onesies made by Italian designers.
Chelsea, once known for anonymous same-sex encounters on its piers, is now the site of the city's only Buy Buy Baby megastore, and of playground flirting among gay dads.
Central Harlem, whose preschools once catered almost exclusively to African American children, now has white students in its Montessori schools.
The army of affluent tots is changing the physical face of Manhattan, said David Wine, vice chairman of Related, one of the city's largest residential builders. He said demand has increased for larger apartments with three, four or five bedrooms -- a bedroom for each child, perhaps, but also maybe a playroom, a home office, a family room, and rooms for guests and live-in help.
"It used to be that somebody would live in a 1,200-square-foot two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan until they had kids, and then go buy a 3,000-square-foot house in the suburbs," Wine said. "Today they want to go and create the 3,000-square-foot house in a luxury building in Manhattan."
Meanwhile, applications are up at brand-name private schools, such as the Trevor Day School, where they have risen 15 percent since last year.
"I feel like a wartime profiteer," said Amanda Uhry, the founder of Manhattan Private School Advisors, which charges a $15,000 fee to help parents through admissions -- and whose business has tripled since 2002.
Public schools have recently instituted more stringent guidelines for admissions to gifted programs, where applications have more than tripled since last year.
The baby boom has also spawned a wave of child-centered businesses. Kid Car NY is a carpool alternative, a taxi service that, according to its Web site, offers safety seats in "kid-friendly, luxury minivans" with "specially trained drivers." Manhattan Childproofers considers the possible dangers to children living in apartments and sends a team to help avoid them. Nannies advertise themselves as "twin specialists" in a city where well-off older parents undergoing fertility treatments are more likely to have multiple births.
The Manhattan arts scene has also extended itself. Downtown experimental music clubs book kiddie bands on Saturdays. Art film theaters show Rattle & Reel matinees, where babies are welcome and cry at will. The pastry chef from the upscale restaurant Aix teaches confectionary classes for kids, and fashion designer Cynthia Rowley recently helped children design muslin skirts at an event at the sleek, spare W Hotel.
But young Theo Carlston is just happy to play at Citibabes, a SoHo club where parents can use the gym or have a manicure while their children take dance classes or French lessons.
"I'm hiding in my fort!" Theo shouted as his mother discussed the city her family is helping to create.
Staff researcher Bob Lyford contributed to this report.