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Five-Year-Olds at the Gate


Left, Glenn and Maria Hardy of Yorkville are waiting to find out where their daughter Alexis will get a seat this fall; Sacha Penn's daughter Murphy is on the waiting list at P.S. 41.  

Lost in the system’s reinvention, however, were parent and community voices—a loss felt acutely in middle-class enclaves like District 2. Before mayoral control, this district had unparalleled independence. It was the one place in the city where parents could help imagine and create new high schools, triumphs like Millennium and Eleanor Roosevelt. Shorn of access to the honchos who could rein in a rogue principal or get a playground fixed, parents had nursed a sense of grievance long before the combustion of the moment. But the neighborhood school was the last middle-class preserve, and the idea that it couldn’t be counted on seemed the greatest insult of all.

“The chancellor’s idea of equality,” Hemphill said, in a sentiment echoed on the steps of City Hall, “is that middle-class parents should be treated with the same disdain with which poor parents have always been treated.”

Twenty or so years ago, before the dawn of Triburbia, moneyed families in Manhattan were famously small and transient, with a one-child policy that was the envy of Beijing. By the time that child reached 5, or a second was on the way, the move was almost automatic: to cut bait for more space in brownstone Brooklyn or the fabled schools of Hastings or Montclair, New Jersey. In the wake of the mid-seventies fiscal crisis and the white flight that followed, the city abandoned nearly a hundred school buildings that might have come in handy of late.

By the mid-nineties, as crime fell and District 2 schools burnished their reputations under superintendent Anthony Alvarado, parents began to linger. “You get to kindergarten and it’s, ‘Well, I guess we’re going to try it,’ ” says Rebecca Daniels, who grew up in Manhasset and now chairs the district’s Community Education Council. “Then you get to third grade and—‘We’re here, this is great.’ By then you’re in the PTA, and the next thing you know you’re fund-raising for the Little League.”

The changes were cumulative and dramatic. In a 2007 study of 2005 census data, demographer Andrew Beveridge found three transformative facts:

First, Manhattan’s under-5 set had shot up by 32 percent in five years, compared to roughly 4 percent for the population overall.

Second, most of the growth came from white toddlers, up a stunning 40 percent. They outnumbered their black and Latino peers for the first time since Lyndon Johnson ruled the White House.

Third, those 35,000 white toddlers were exceedingly fortunate. Compared with New Yorkers in general, their parents were older (mostly thirtysomethings) and better educated and with a median income of $284,208—89 percent more than the next richest group of white-toddler households, in San Francisco.

(Topping the trend off were the twins and triplets. According to Michele Farinet, the parent coordinator at P.S. 41, sixteen sets of twins entered the school’s kindergarten lottery this year.)

Growth is not spontaneous; a city must build it before they will come. When Bloomberg promised to reinvent downtown, and by extension the rest of New York, after 9/11, he stoked residential development with an array of tax breaks. Unlike the towers of old, the buildings that sprang up weren’t marketed as pieds-à-terre for Port Washington sophisticates or glam toeholds for junior execs. In a borough once synonymous with the studio apartment, the new Manhattan properties featured three and four bedrooms, plus the signature millennial amenity: the building playroom.

In 2007, the Department of Buildings issued permits for 31,918 units, a 35-year high-water mark. By the most conservative estimate, that year’s activity alone brought hundreds of millions of dollars into the city coffers in closing taxes, much of it from buyers lured by strong public schools. But a disconnect yawned between development and the children it engendered. The crux of it, says Beveridge, is revealed in PlaNYC 2030, the mayor’s blueprint for a livable city of 9 million people—who, it should be noted, will be making lots more kindergartners. The document called for parkland within ten minutes of each New Yorker and a local war on global warming, but spent less than a sentence on the DOE’s capacity needs. “School construction is not part of the plan—full stop,” Beveridge says. “They plan all the other infrastructure, but they don’t worry about the schools.”

Bloomberg had fashioned a city of cranes and baby strollers, but only the cranes fell into his field of sight. “The city booked the revenue,” says Eric Greenleaf, the chair of P.S. 234’s PTA overcrowding committee, “but it didn’t book the cost.”

The surging tide of toddlers wouldn’t have surprised anyone caught in Maclaren gridlock at Bloomingdale’s or the lines at the Bleecker Playground swings. But someone apparently forgot to tell the Department of Education and the School Construction Authority.

It was hard to fathom how Klein’s brain trust could have been so Van Winkled to the emergence of family-style Manhattan. The Buildings Department sits around the corner from the DOE’s home at the Tweed Courthouse. Both report directly to Bloomberg, who is nothing if not nimble and decisive. And yet the left hand had no truck with the right—here was mayoral control without the control.

An explanation might lie at the very hypercentralized heart of the Bloomberg-Klein regime. By gutting the “bureaucratic dinosaurs” of the community school districts and their seasoned apparatchiks, the chancellor lost his middle management in the field. There was no one to notice the sudden glut of maternity stores in the Village—or to see where a new school might be needed most or how soon. Klein’s lieutenants were like air travelers peering down at Ferraris that seemed to inch along; they were poor judges of velocity.


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