'Strollerville' trends: Religion ghosts in epic quest by New Yorkers to find that extra bedroom?

As a part-time New York City resident — lower Manhattan, to be precise — I am learning how to read between the lines when people talk about their adventures trying to find affordable places to live.

Basically, if your family and/or set of roomies can live with one bedroom, you’re in business. If you need two bedrooms, things get tougher but you are still in the game. Listening to New Yorkers talk about apartments is kind of like hearing an urban version of Lord of the Rings or some other epic Hero’s Journey narrative.

Marriage doesn’t really affect this tale — but children do. Again, it’s all about needing that second bedroom. A third bedroom? Fuhgeddaboudit. Then it’s time to start studying commuter trains.

This is another way of saying that — in the New York City context — the decision to have more than 2.100 children has massive implications that involve real estate, but other big issues as well. If being a New Yorker is a kind of cultural religion, having two children raises eyebrows. But having more than 2.100 children is a heresy (for folks with normal incomes). At the very least, it’s countercultural.

This leads me to a remarkably faith-free New York Times story that ran the other day with this epic double-decker headline:

New York’s New Strollervilles

In search of affordable housing, young families are putting down roots in places like Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Morris Park in the Bronx.

What a great word — Strollerville. It’s kind of cute and trendy, but with just a pinch of judgment. The key is that all one needs to get into Strollerville status is, obviously, one stroller. The opening scene:

A few years ago, the gateways to the courtyard of Peter Bracichowicz’s co-op in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, were empty. Now, there are wall-to-wall baby strollers.

“I actually counted them: 10 on one side, eight on the other,” said Mr. Bracichowicz, a Corcoran agent who used to live in the complex. “And that’s just in the entrance.”

Oh the humanity.

What I really wanted in this story was one paragraph — just one — that talked about the New York City of the past, when large families were not all that unusual, especially among immigrants (think Italians, Greeks, Latinos, etc.) and the second generation of certain ethnic groups.

That’s where the religion questions factor into this drama. At some point, the realities of the New World have always had a way of tempering the convictions of the Old World. One one level, we are talking about real estate. On another level, however, we are talking about theology and culture. There is only one passage in this long, fascinating Times report that even hints at this. This is a bit long, but essential:

… Families planning their next move should beware: Baby booms, like housing bubbles, can go bust. The most fruitful area in 2012, Crown Heights South, Prospect-Lefferts and Wingate, in central Brooklyn, had a 9.5 percent birthrate, the highest in the city. But by 2017, the district had fallen 36 ranks, to a birthrate of 3.7 percent. The drop-off coincided with one of the sharpest price hikes in the city: The median sales price in the area more than doubled, from $420,000 in 2012 to $865,000 in 2017, according to StreetEasy, the real-estate data website.

“The prices have gone crazy, that’s what happened,” said Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociology professor at Queens College and the president of Social Explorer, a research firm that analyzed the data. As bargain hunters spread farther along mass transit routes, they find comparatively cheaper housing, but push prices higher in the process. Crown Heights is an example of what can happen when word of affordable housing spreads: Prices soar, and the next wave of buyers, including new families, has to look elsewhere. 

Affordability is not the only factor that influences the shifting birthrate, Dr. Beveridge said. In Borough Park, for instance, the consistently high birthrate can be partially attributed to the large Hasidic community, whose members tend to have more children. But there is also evidence that families getting priced out of wealthier areas are leading the shift.

Ah. This quote: “Affordability is not the only factor that influences the shifting birthrate. …” What might the other factors be?

It appears that religious traditions might be on that list. Other than Orthodox Judaism, I wondered if it would have been interesting for the business pros who edited this piece to have requested one or two telephone calls to a growing Catholic parish somewhere in the city or even to one of the many growing evangelical Protestant flocks.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that this Strollerville story is a “religion story.” I am saying that religion is one factor in this equation and that it deserved one or two (maybe three!) paragraphs in a long, long feature.

I am also arguing that this subject is linked to another major American story, one described in this recent headline over at The Daily Beast: “

America’s Future Depends on the Bedroom, Not the Border

As demographics shift across the globe, there are more grandparents than grandchildren for the first time in recorded history.

More grandparents than there are grandchildren? That’s a story.

In conclusion, let me quote a passage from a great Weekly Standard story that, tragically, is no longer available (since that news and commentary magazine’s archives are still offline). The most recent GetReligion piece containing this quote had this timely headline: “New York Times asks this faith-free question: Why are young Americans having fewer babies?”

One more time:

... In a world where childbearing has no practical benefit, people have babies because they want to, either for self-fulfillment or as a moral imperative. "Moral imperative," of course, is a euphemism for "religious compulsion." There are stark differences in fertility between secular and religious people.

The best indicator of actual fertility is "aspirational fertility" – the number of children men and women say they would like to have. Gallup has been asking Americans about their "ideal family size" since 1936. When they first asked the question, 64 percent of Americans said that three or more children were ideal; 34 percent said that zero, one, or two children were ideal. Today only 34 percent of Americans think that a family with three-or-more children is ideal.

But on this question there are two Americas today: a secular population that wants small families (or no family at all) and a religious population that wants larger families.

Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable. When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they're making a cultural and theological statement.

More than three children? That means most of those families will need more than one kid-zone bedroom.

Does this push them beyond Strollerville territory?

FIRST IMAGE: From Flickr Creative Commons

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