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

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; A01

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."

Kid happy hours are also lucrative. At least three other bars in the city now host one, including the Reef in Adams Morgan, which provides kiddie music and such dishes as "ants on a log" (peanut butter and raisins on celery).

The Argonaut, a bar on H Street NE, has hosted a weekly family night for a year and a half. Co-owner Scott Magnuson tells customers who grumble to come after 8 p.m.

Some parents hypothesize that the hostility they encounter stems from a culture gap between them and peers who have chosen to remain childless well into their 30s. They would know, these parents say, because they are describing their former selves.

"I remember really hating people with kids before I had kids," Hill resident Tim Krepp said. "I grossly underestimated at the time how difficult it is to get two kids around the city without cars."

Stroller bans

Many complaints about parents revolve around strollers, especially high-end models with large rubber tires that can cost more than $1,000 and have become a symbol of entitled parenthood.

In Georgetown, the owner of Exquisite Fabrics, Mo Rezvan, cited stroller size in defense of his long-standing ban on them. The policy attracted complaints after the shop moved from downtown K Street to the Shops at Georgetown Park less than a year ago. In one case, a mother was told that she would have to leave her sleeping 3-month-old near the entrance. Rezvan allows wheelchairs, as he must by federal law.

"Today, strollers are big, they have coffee and snacks, and they can spill" on his store's wares, he told the blog The Georgetown Dish.

"It does feel like discrimination," said Julia Young of Ballston, who ran afoul of the ban. Kids "are people, too, and they have specific needs."

Even in places considered havens for parents, business owners have started to draw a line. Two Amys, a Cleveland Park pizzeria popular with families, has a small "quiet room" upstairs where strollers and high chairs aren't allowed. In the Del Ray section of Alexandria, the frozen-custard shop Dairy Godmother and St. Elmo's Coffee Pub have banned strollers for part or all of the day.

While most parents comply without complaint, the rules have provoked testy exchanges. St. Elmo's owner Nora Partlow said some parents balk at having to leave their strollers outside. "People said, 'These things cost $500. I don't want it stolen,' " Partlow said. "I said, 'If you buy something that costs that much, why don't you get a bike lock?' "

A Dairy Godmother regular who declined to give her name said she was outraged when she, her two kids and a couple with a baby in a stroller were asked to leave before they were done eating so a videographer could get shots of the store. It was the couple's last outing before the infant, who has cancer, started chemotherapy.

Partlow and Davis said they are not trying to run parents off. They said as strollers have gotten bigger, it has gotten harder to keep entrances and exits clear.

Where there is conflict, there are often peacemakers. On Capitol Hill, Bonny King-Taylor, a pet coach known as the Doggy Lama, has been holding workshops on dog citizen skills, including how to deal with children and panicky parents.

The next one is slated for June in Lincoln Park. Will it foster a new detente between dog owners and parents?

She doubts it. "The people who need to come probably won't," she said.

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