New baby boom fosters culture clash: Parents vs. public spaces

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mel Antonen and his 3-year-old son, Emmett, were walking in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill one morning when a chocolate Labrador puppy named Wilson jumped at the toddler and wouldn't go away -- even after Antonen lifted his boy out of the dog's reach, yelling at the owner, "Get him off! Get him off!"

Owner and father exchanged words. Wilson's owner, a journalist who has lived on Capitol Hill for 15 years and identified herself only as Linda because she didn't want to be seen as hostile to children, said later that she wished parents would keep their children inside the park's fenced-in play area. "I find people with children to be tyrants," she said. "As someone who doesn't have children, I think children are fine. I don't think they own everything."

Politicians and planners have heralded the return of young families to such areas as Washington, Boston and New York as a sign of resurgence. But as the ranks of parents and their tykes have swelled, so, too, has resentment over having to accommodate them in public places. Skirmishes have erupted on buses, in parks, on playing fields and in bars. Often, the conflicts pit parents against childless adults who, after decades of middle-class flight, have gotten used to the sense that they have the city to themselves.

Through the first eight years of this century, according to District officials, children under 5 have made up a growing proportion of the city's population. (The pre-kindergarten set has expanded in the city's wealthiest and poorest sections: Ward 3 in upper Northwest and Ward 8 east of the Anacostia River, as well as in middle-class Ward 5 in Northeast. Over the same period, the proportion of children younger than 5 in Wards 1 and 2, stretching from Georgetown east to Logan Circle and Shaw, declined.)

Ken Archer, who lives in Georgetown, felt the full force of anti-parent resentment when he told readers on the urban planning blog Greater Greater Washington about an incident on a D.C. Circulator bus. The driver had told Archer that he and his family would have to get off unless he folded up his son's stroller. When Archer wrote that such policies help drive young families out of the District, the response from readers was so fierce that the blog's moderator had to shut down the comment board, a rare event for a site devoted to wonky topics such as bike lanes and inclusionary zoning.

"Why do people with children always think that they should be catered to?" commented one poster. "Fold your damn giant stroller (which seem to be getting larger and larger these days) and shut up."

Tensions only escalated after Archer and other parents explained that folding a stroller can be difficult when lugging groceries. "People should think about how they're going to get their food once they have a child before they have a child," replied a commenter identified as Teo. "Maybe have your neighbor watch your kid for an hour or two. . . . Maybe move closer to a store so you can walk. . . . Maybe don't have kids."

Baby happy hours

Parents can be annoyingly oblivious, said Kriston Capps, a Shaw resident who in April posted a lengthy rant on the city blog DCist about a run-in with a "Heinz-covered goober" during Wonderland Ballroom's weekly baby happy hour.

"Some of you will say that mothers deserve a bit of fun, too," Capps, who is 30 and has no children, wrote of his experience at the hipster watering hole at 11th and Kenyon streets NW. "But some of you are wrong. . . . Just like every parent out there who once swore they would never bring down the bar by bringing in their kids, I one day will have kids and view parent socials as no great harm. And on that day, I will be wrong, too."

"I don't hate kids," Capps said in an interview. "But you know, just like in totally reasonable moderation. Lots of adults can make a great scene at a bar. . . . Lots of kids cannot make a great scene at a bar."

He hastened to add that "I don't want people to think I am not husbandable because of some hatred of cute babies."

After the dust-up, Rebbie Higgins of Brookland, who often brings her two kids to the baby happy hour, told co-owner Rose Donna that she would understand if Donna decided to kick out the children. But Donna vowed to carry on. "This is a neighborhood bar," she said. "These are our neighbors."

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