Three-year-old Vaughn is distractedly wandering around the concourse of the Comcast Center, a yellow balloon in one hand, a crumpled piece of paper in the other. He’s just one of dozens from the under-five set that has come out in full force on a rainy weekend morning to meet the stars of a popular children’s show — as well as to listen to music, try their hand at drawing, and indulge in all-around orchestrated pandemonium.
It’s “Saturday Playdate,” a monthly free-for-all sponsored by KidsinCenterCity.com, a two-year-old clearinghouse created by the Center City District. (This Saturday, starting at 11:30am, a Mother’s Day celebration, “Next Stop. . . Baby!” offers massages, mocktails, and vendor appearances targeted at expectant and new moms.)
The tagline of KidsinCeterCity.com reads, “Welcome to your new classroom. Center City Philadelphia.” And truer words were seldom spoken.
According to CCD analysis, more than 17,000 kids have been born to Center City parents between 2000 and 2008. For comparison’s sake, in 1990 — a long, long time ago in Center City — under 300 births were recorded; in 2008, just over 2,000 were. These days, nearly three-quarters of kindergarten students in Center City schools are drawn from downtown neighborhoods.
So, not only are Center City denizens birthing, they’re staying — and the hope is that they’ll stay even after their kids start schoolt “It’s the chicken or the egg syndrome writ large,” says Paul Levy of the CCD. “You’re an expecting parent and you notice, oh, there’s a children’s bookstore, and wow, a kids’ consignment shop just opened.” In other words, more kids breed more stores, which breed more kids. That’s exactly how Vaughn’s mom, Lauren Summers, was lured back to Center City.
“I lived here for 15 years,” she says, “but then we moved away because of my husband’s job. When we had Vaughn, we decided to come back so he could be closer to his grandma. Everyone said we were crazy, ” she adds with a laugh.
“No one has kids in Philly, they told us,” Summers continues. “But we came back, and we couldn’t believe all of the strollers on the streets.”
These days, the young parents have become so committed to city living with their child, says Summers, that they’ve taken an active interest in Stanton Elementary, the school at 17th and Christian where Vaughn will attend kindergarten in a few years. “We’re not confident that it will change substantially before he’s ready,” she says, “but we want to start being involved now, not later.”
At the Nebinger School, just ten blocks east, principal Ralph Burnley reports that such interest by pre-school parents is not uncommon. “Today’s affluent urban parent wants to stay put,” he observes. “They like the neighborhood and want to make sure that what’s here becomes better and realizes its potential.”
It’s a fortunate position for an oft-beleagured public school to be in. Nebinger is located in the middle of a series of neighborhoods in the expanded boundaries of Center City that have become Kid Central. In just one two-block stretch of 9th Street in Bella Vista, for example, a half dozen small businesses catering to young children offer parents a multitude of ways to keep kids active and healthy. There’s Yoga Child and The Expressive Hand Pottery, there’s Philly Kids Gym and Sprouts Pre-School.
“There are all of these cool businesses, and a lot of them are mind-and-body health-oriented, so we fit right in,” says Chris Kram, owner of Sanus Baby, a 320-square-foot shop specializing in natural and green products for babies and new moms. Its light wood shelves are lined with everything from $15 “Safe Sippy” cups (no BPA) to the pricier-than-CVS Earth Friendly Baby line of shampoos and lotions. In the two months since Sanus has been open, the neighborhood’s in-the-know moms have slowly discovered it, and are spreading the word, Kram says.
Kram and his partner, Bernadine Saintil, relocated from New York City specifically to open a child-centric store. When he discovered a Craigslist ad for the 9th Street space — across from a Starbucks and the Philly Kids Gym and around the corner from a Whole Foods and a Big Green Earth store — Kram couldn’t believe his luck. “This space and this location would be, what, $10,000 back in New York?” he says.
Down the block, Paige Mackey-Gottesman, another transplant (she moved from Houston to Philly in 2002), has recently opened Our House Montessori School with a partner, Christine Laramee. “I saw the growing need of families in Center City for Montessori education,” she says noting that just two other Montessori toddler programs exist in the region (one in Center City, one in Fort Washington). “After looking at the space in Bella Vista — with its tin ceiling, exposed brick walls, giant windows — we were sold. We have so many families and wonderful small businesses around us, and we’re surrounded by beautiful parks and playgrounds. And the neighbors have been so supportive, the word of mouth has been incredible and inspiring to us.”
When Kathryn Snyder moved to Philadelphia to attend graduate school in the late 1990s, no such plethora of family-friendly services existed. She and her husband, Nathan, have rented, and then bought, in Bella Vista; along the way, they’ve raised two children, who are now 8 and 10 years old and attend Independence Charter School. Recently, Snyder established her own family therapy practice, Parent to Child, in the area.
As both an interested parent and a service provider to the others like her, Snyder recognizes that it’s become a lot easier for urban-minded parents to stay cityside over the last decade. “I’m really glad for how things have gotten better,” she says. “But in many ways, that just means that there’s a lot more stuff to buy and memberships to join.
“Where we still come up short, I think, is in civic spaces,” she continues. “We need parks and playgrounds that stay open and are maintained and staffed, that offer more free events. I mean, that’s why people stay — for the creativity and the community that’s here. I feel that sometimes there are not enough ways to share all of that energy.”
Professionally, she observes, it’s great that those in a position to offer referrals now have options such as her business so that in-town parents don’t have to make their way out to the ‘burbs. But as more and more kids enter the picture, gaps remain. “We have a huge need for pediatricians,” she points out. “The few existing ones are way overbooked.”
And it’s issues like parks and healthcare services — and schools — that are of the most interest to planning officials. “As we analyze census numbers in greater depth, we’re going to be looking very closely at what we can control,” says Laura Spina, the area’s Community Planner for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. “Things like making sure there are enough facilities like rec centers, schools, libraries playgrounds. Things like open space, and bike lanes.”
Other peripheral concerns, like zoning and transportation, will be impacted, too, she points out. Take housing, for example. “When the market picks up, it will be interesting to see what kinds of new units we get,” says Spina. “Will there be larger units, with more bedrooms? Will apartment buildings feature different amenities, instead of just restaurants and bars? Where will new housing be located? Will new bus routes be needed to get more kids to school?”
Good questions, all. And, like all, er, family planning, questions better addressed sooner rather than later. “There seems to be this perpetual current of opportunity opening up for new families that want to raise their young children in Center City,” says Mackey-Gottesman of Our House. Even in the past year, we’ve seen more and more families having more chilldren and moving into the area. The perimeters [of where they choose to live] seem to be spreading by the minute!”
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