The NYT Trolls S.F. Over Our Lack of Kids

Are we vibrant?

A scene from Children of Men set in an abandoned schoolyard. (fallingfromvertigo.wordpress.com)

Although they published some excellent journalism with respect to the cascade of alternative facts brazen lies pouring out of the Trump Administration during its first 48 hours, The New York Times found room over the weekend to do something else it also does very well: troll San Francisco.

With a headline that reads like a plaintive cry à la Children of Men, the NYT ventriloquizes one facet of the housing issue: “San Francisco Asks: Where Have All the Children Gone?” It’s by no means an offensive question to ask; the Chronicle basically wrote the same article last week. Both pieces reference the same Planning Department report, issued on Jan. 17, that puts S.F.’s share of families with children under 19 at the lowest of every Bay Area county as well as a sampling of large cities nationwide. But the conclusions the Times drew are, at best, facile — and also reflect their penchant for jabbing a stick at S.F.’s eccentricities for sport.

First — and this is a sin the Chron commits, too — just because there are 120,000 dogs and 120,000 children in S.F., values-based comparisons are silly. Although the Times frames its story around a childless, straight couple with a Scottish terrier, the choice between reproducing and being a human companion to a dog is a false binary. Yes, the proliferation of canine grooming outlets and doggy accessories generally is an affectation possessed by people with too much money on their hands, but that’s really not the same thing as pet ownership, either. (Plus, it’s not like dog-friendly housing is plentiful here, either, although I freely concede that finding space for humans is more important.)

In any case, the numbers tell a lot. In 1970, 25 percent of San Francisco’s population was under 18, a figure which has since fallen by almost half, to 13 percent. (It’s 23 percent, nationally.) No one questions that this has a lot to do with the tech industry, or with a school system whose labyrinthine vagaries make a lot of young parents decamp for Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

But this is a bit much: “Are fewer children making San Francisco more one-dimensional and less vibrant? The answer is subjective and part of an impassioned debate over whether a new, wealthier San Francisco can retain the allure of the city it is replacing.”

There’s truth to that, and trends like the de-Latinx-ification of a the Mission certainly mean replacing families with singles and childless couples. But I have to quibble with the logic that having more children would make San Francisco more “vibrant” (a word that could mean literally anything). To me, it would make San Francisco exactly like everywhere else. And I would have recommended interviewing a working-class family before publishing a story like this, because by talking only to professionals, as the Times did, it’s hard to get both sides of that “impassioned debate” over the new, wealthier city.

Moreover, underlying shifts in American society that the article doesn’t mention are important, too. Families are smaller in 2015 (2.54 people) than they were in 1970 (3.14 people). Americans — particularly people with high educational attainment — put off marriage and children longer than they did. Teen pregnancy rates are much lower than they used to be, which is great, but attitudes toward women’s bodily autonomy and role in the workplace have also changed, which is even better. And let’s not get into how the very concept of the nuclear family is an anachronism or how Americans work so goddamn hard and have so much goddamn student debt no one can even think about anything else.

San Francisco is a smallish metropolis, barely a tenth the size of New York, so trends affecting all affluent cities will be magnified here. I’m not speaking so much of cultural things that cause right-wingers to despair, like the infantilization of the American adult, but market-inflected effects on the cityscape. Is it possible that San Francisco has fewer children than it should because 70 percent of dwellings with three bedrooms or more are currently occupied by adult roommates, while in a more rational housing market, families would live there instead? Or maybe our obsession with building luxury housing has actually yielded many uninhabited units nominally “occupied” by hyper-affluent people who actually reside elsewhere?

The Times does imply something’s not right in the housing mix, when dropping this amazing stat (emphasis mine): “For every 100 apartments in the city sold at market rates, the San Francisco school district expects to enroll only one additional student.” Unquestionably, that ratio is off. Way off. But what’s more deadening to a city’s soul? Nonresidents bidding up housing prices for units they then treat as investment properties and not homes, causing unaffordability to trickle down? Or a deluge of well-educated 25-year-olds who, even if they lived elsewhere in America, still wouldn’t be having children for another 10 years, statistically speaking?

Rather than ask these questions, the Times turned to Richard Florida, the demographer-cheerleader of the creative class and perpetual go-to for thinkpieces of this sort. “If you get to the age that you’re going to have kids in San Francisco and you haven’t made your million — or more — you probably begin to think you have to leave,” he says.

Funny, I know many people who left San Francisco without making [barf sound] their million, and it wasn’t by choice. Some of them were even vibrant.

And even though the social-justice-minded part of my brain sincerely wants an affordable city for all, speaking as someone who gets plenty hounded on Muni for being a queer fish, I’m not entirely devastated to live in a place with a below-average number of teenagers.

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