Over the last 15 years, as new people moved into the Town with kids and young natives began raising a new generation of Townies, it was always sort of assumed that the little tykes being wheeled down Main Street in carriages would one day flee along with their parents to the suburbs.
Charlestown had become, in many cases, just a stopping point for singles, young couples and new parents who were inevitably on their way to the far reaches once their children came of school age.
Earlier this fall, that trend in the Town was codified in a mapping study of children done by the Boston Public Health Commission. The study showed that a majority of the children in Charlestown were under the age of 6, and that there were very few older children – leading to the conclusion that parents were leaving when their kids hit kindergarten.
While it was certainly a true trend, that conclusion relied upon data from 2010, and many hold that since that time, the tide has turned in Charlestown and more parents are sticking around for the long haul – whether native to the Town or transplants into the Town. The rush to the suburbs, in fact, may have subsided as tastes, expectations and better public schools seem to be keeping parents put over the last few years.
WHO REALLY NEEDS A BACKYARD?
In the Charlestown Mothers Association (CMA), several members said the trend is playing out before their own eyes.
“Anecdotally, we have seen a bit of a reversal in people leaving over the last few years,” said Jennifer Rossi, who is a working mom of two that moved into Charlestown some years ago. “The feeling is there are more kids of all ages in Charlestown. It used to be about one-fifth of the parents stayed…I still think more people leave than stay, but there are many more parents who stay now than before.”
She said the recent Halloween celebration at the Monument was a big eye-opener as to how many families with children are staying here.
“That’s when you really see it and understand that a growing number of people are staying put,” she said.
Karen Ferguson, a stay at home mom, said there is a sense that families have new expectations of what they want their home to be like.
“Certain ideals have just changed in that people don’t need or want that big house and white picket fence as much anymore,” she said. “If I want that big backyard, I don’t need to have it at my home. I can just walk up to the Monument or to any of the parks. I don’t know if my parents would understand that and some of my cousins in the suburbs might not understand it either. It’s just a new ideal that people have about how they want their families to live.”
Added Katie Alitz, a mother with teen-age kids, “The desire for a big backyard goes away rather quickly once the kids get older. You can trade a yard for a playground for a few years, and when they get older, it no longer matters so much.”
Eileen Rooney said she and her wife grew up in Charlestown, and can trace their Townie pedigree back five or six generations, but feel people are staying – whether born in the Town or having moved to the Town – because it has become the tight-knit community it was before the school busing issue arose.
“The community has changed so much over the last 25 years,” she said. “When I was a kid I used to hear about the Townies and the Toonies and how the people who moved here never stayed. People would say that yuppies would move in, rehabilitate a house and then move away a year later. That really has changed. People coming in are building a different way and finding ways to stay here and not leave. New people are coming in with new ideas and making the Town feel like it did 25 years ago. I had a conversation with my dad and he said this is what it felt like before the opposition to busing came and people became fearful and diversity was scary. Our family is a testament to this change. We are a Lesbian couple from old time Townie families and we’re accepted. I believe that’s a big deal in all this.”
TIME AT HOME
And certainly new attitudes are a major part of it, but two key issues are the fact that the local public schools have improved and that living in Charlestown allows families to spend more time together.
“My husband grew up here and I’ve lived here 17 years,” said Jessica DeRoeve. “For him, it was important to stay in his hometown, but things have changed so much for him since he grew up and was riding his Big Wheel down Monument Avenue. It’s a different world here than it was, but for him the big decision was having more time at home. We looked at the suburbs and put an offer on a house once, but I’m so glad in the end we didn’t go that route…In the end, we felt there were enough good schools in the area. We did a mix of St. John’s and the Eliot School. We felt these were good schools and our kids were getting as good an education there as they would in the suburbs. We have been able to spend more time with our kids.”
DeRoeve said they can eat breakfast with their kids, attend their morning assemblies at school and then walk to work. At the end of the day, they pick their kids up at 5 p.m. and have dinner together every night. If they want to see a lunch time school concert or need to pick their kids up for an appointment, it’s an hour-long commitment.
“If you need to come home or pick up your kids for an appointment, it’s not having to take the the whole day off and use a vacation day,” added Debbie Evans.
Ferguson said that was a major decision for her family as well. Were their family to move to the suburbs, she said she worries about being isolated and away from her husband.
“If we moved to the suburbs, I would lose my husband for two hours every day on the commute where now he can walk to work from Charlestown,” she said. “I wouldn’t see him as much and our children wouldn’t see him as much. I feel like I would be very isolated as compared to here. It wouldn’t be the full-day playdate situation you have here with so many other mothers around in close proximity.”
ACCEPTING PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Among her friends, Alitz is considered one of the pioneers of keeping kids in the Town and sending them to the local public schools. Some 10 years ago, she decided to send her daughter to the Warren Prescott, which was a much different place than it is today.
“I think the fact that people now view the public schools as a viable option is a very big thing,” she said. “Some people will never get this, but some people don’t want to spend the money on a private school or leave the Town. When I sent my daughter there, the Prescott was about 15 percent from the neighborhood and 85 percent bused in from out of town. When we started, there was one kindergarten class. I only went there because I met a few other people who were sending their kids there and it seemed ok. Now, most of the students are from the neighborhood and there are three kindergarten classes and one Pre-K. The attitudes towards the public schools have really changed, and that has kept people here.”
And yet another new ideal within the school conversation is the diversity within the student population in Charlestown. Many parents said they want their kids to grow up around all kinds of people, rather than being in classes where everyone looks the same.
“Having a diverse school was a huge factor for us staying as well,” said Evans. “If we moved to Hingham, everyone would look the same. I feel my kids will get a much more real experience in school here than in the suburbs. They can see what’s going on all around them rather than only what’s going on in their own little world.”
ACTIVITIES HAVE INCREASED
Added to that are the sports programs, both new and old, that attract parents. From the traditional Little League and Gym Hockey programs to the newer soccer and lacrosse programs, those things bring parents together and give their kids activities closer to home. Many parents used to have to go to the Hill House in Beacon Hill for such things, or to other nearby cities, but now most every youth activity is self-contained.
“There’s still the old programs like gym hockey and ice hockey and Little League, but there are so many more things for kids to do now like soccer and lacrosse,” added Rooney.
With so much positivity about staying, there are still concerns.
Most parents said that rather than being concerned about their kids getting mixed up in traffic or not having a yard to play in, they are more concerned about future problems like the opiate epidemic.
“I do worry about the opiate problem,” said Rossi. “That’s something we didn’t have growing up. Charlestown isn’t immune at all to that problem. In terms of violence and drugs, bad things happen everywhere. I think our kids will be more prepared for that when it
comes because they’ve grown up around it. They actually see the things the kids in the suburbs don’t and see firsthand the choices that people make around them. It gives them a better sense of the risks.”
And in making the decision about jumping to the suburbs or staying in the Town – it comes down to just that – risks and rewards.