Parenting/Kids In The City

Kids In The City

Okay, I know most readers of my blog are urbanists, etc.  Kids and fatherhood are usually topics I try to avoid as most people I've met who read this blog are usually younger than I and without kids.  And, raising kids is obviously a pretty personal thing; stuff usually left off the Internet and kept private.  But, I see a crisis here in STL that is really worth talking about, and I hope to make a couple points without getting too personal.  But parents talking about kids and raising kids in a city vs. a suburb or small town can easily get personal fast.  So I hope not to offend or come across as judgemental on how/where one chooses to raise a family.

Let me start with a disturbing fact:

28,895 people up and left the city in the 10 years from 2000-2010.  21,999 of those who left (~76%) were under 20 years of age. 




Of the 21,999 people under 20 who left, the biggest block of 17,433 were between the ages of 5-14:  school age kids. 

That is a big loss, right?  Now give it some thought.  Is that a direct reflection of parents leaving the city because of the perceived and/or real problems with the public and charter schools?  You would certainly think so.

Another look at the numbers will tell you St. Louis showed a gain of young people in their 20s where an increase of 5,925 was observed.  A gain of 14,471 of the so called "empty nesters" between the ages of 50-64 was also seen.  Nice, we're doing good attracting young, post-high school people and parents of post-high school children who want a hip, vibrant, non-suburban lifestyle.  Yet, we're taking a beating on school aged kids.

I think this is telling of the greatest problems we have to face in the next regime and generations.  Schools and crime.  Whether perceived or real, these 2 problems displace more decent people than anything else.

It's going to be brutal to hear entrenched city leaders in the 2013 mayoral race talk about what a great job they are doing when clearly, people are voting with their feet and continue to leave, sinking us to < 319,000 people.

There's a very personal side to this story of kids being pulled out of the city by parents.  Here are my thoughts as a parent of 3:

One could surmise that kids are not welcome here; that STL is a bad place to be a kid or raise kids.  But, you've got to wonder, what kind of kids are leaving?  Are well educated/wealthy

St. Louis Hills

parents packing up the beautiful little college bound things in the leather seated mini-vans and heading for the greener pastures of Kirkwood, Wentzville, Millstadt or Chesterfield where the yards are bigger and the neighbors are more homogeneous, right-minded or well-heeled?  Or, are cognizant, active/loving urban minded parents who are trying to live a humble life in the public education system, in a used car in an affordable apartment/house, in a city neighborhood, packing it up because they've been frustrated and disenfranchised by their city public/charter school experience and can't afford or don't want to attend private schools?  Or, are young, low-income single moms with multiple kids leaving to find a way elsewhere because they can't get a footing in STL and are making a jump to the county?  Or lastly, are nice families who want the best for their kids hearing the sensational local news and reading the paper and deciding to not even research or consider options in St. Louis for their kids and are actively planning on vacating for the burbs once junior gets to be school questions asked? 

I don't have the answers, but judging by the numbers, the ratio is roughly 3 kids/teenagers per every 1 adult heading out of town.  If I had to guess it is probably more young, poor single mothers taking a couple kids and leaving.  If it were married families or committed couples, the numbers would be more balanced toward adults:minors leaving St. Louis.  A further look at the 2010 numbers will tell you that African-Americans are leaving at a much greater rate than any other racial class counted by the census.  Most losses were from the most run down north city neighborhoods where counts were ~ 20% lower.


Anyhow, the reasons for mass minor exodus are probably a little of all of the above (and possibly other) scenarios.  The thing I know for sure is lots of kids are leaving the city.  Each one a lost opportunity for the future.  Each one a citizen that will no longer identify with St. Louis as his/her childhood home or experience.

So where does that leave those of us who have chosen to stay in St. Louis with school aged kids?  More importantly, where does that leave the next generation of parents considering kids or with kids nearing school age?

Let me give you a taste of my experience with the SLPS...

I consider myself an active dad, I love my kids and my wife and want nothing more than for them to live a happy life where they can have some say in what they do for a living and work toward what they think is right or wrong in the world.  Choices are huge with me.  If you have no choices in your schooling and your career and your future in general, you can feel cornered and defensive...sometimes defeated.  And animals act weird and out of their element when they are cornered. Fight or flight is a psychological concept I've always been interested in and STL living keeps me on the edge of that fight or flight teeter totter.

Living in St. Louis can be a constant fight.  The odds are stacked against you when it comes to raising a family.  When junior turns 5, you don't just walk up to the local public school administration office to sign your kid up for the shiny new neighborhood school closest to your home where you are met with smiles and open arms and plenty of other happy families, familiar faces and neighbors with precious little things in tow.  It isn't like that.  Many of the employees at the SLPS have gotten/retained their jobs due to nepotism and other antiquated ways of entitlement.  Many are accountable to no one and the service you get is horrible and enough to turn a normal, dignified person away after the first interaction.  Many cannot speak proper English, many will yell at you, or are raging racists and will not file your requests if you get cross wise with them or call them out on their behavior or performance.  Yes, we recently gained partial accreditation and that is fantastic, but somebody needs to clean house in the administrative arm of the SLPS.  Many of the teachers, counselors, principals, etc work their butts off and are top shelf educators and administrators.  But if your VERY FIRST touch point with the public schools is some racist, non-coherent person who hates their job, that can be enough to make you walk away.  Why would you want your kids to be around this type of person, right?  It can only go down hill from here, first impressions are very important as a parent.  You can lose decent people immediately, before they have even given the educators and schools a chance to work with your kid(s).  And you know what the most popular move is for a parent who is disenfranchised?  You guessed it:  move to the burbs.

Furthermore, neighborhood schools were abolished for racial de-segregation reasons clearly needed at the time in the 20th Century, but not so much now.  In essence, this deseg action eroded much of what was good about neighborhood schools and played a hand in destroying the fabric of neighborhoods and adding a tremendous overhead of busing and extended school days for kids that should have more time to study and play then sit on a bus for an hour or more to get to a decent school, regardless of where you live.  I realize I am over simplifying the complex history of a deseg policy, but some parents who leave for the county just want their kids to go to school with their neighbors kids.  Simple, right?  Can't blame someone for that.

Additionally, some SLPS schools perform very poorly, some are not safe and have a tremendous amount of knuckleheads/punks filling the seats...many of these kids have no active parents who want them to do better and have more opportunities than they did.  Willful ignorance abounds.  Many have no responsible father in the picture at all.  That's just a sorry fact.  Some don't get any re-enforcement at home to focus on homework and they suffer as a result.  This obviously lowers the quality of education for others in the room and exhausts the teachers and the system.  The thing is, many of the SLPS are simply not an option for any normal, loving parent who wants a dignified, safe learning environment for their kids.

As a result, in St. Louis as an active parent, you have to work extra hard to find the more rare, suitable options for your kids if you want to live here and have them in the best position to get a quality education and childhood school experience.  It's not easy like it is in say west county, where you just pay your crazy high property taxes, fill out the papers at Parkway West and all the dominoes start falling and you are just a happy little fish swimming with the stream.  No, St. Louis isn't like that.  If you want the good options, you've got to fight for them and in some cases you've got to have luck on your side as well.

You have to be informed.  You have to be active and prepared for a


 to get a decent way for your kids.  Sometimes that fight can be exhausting and sometimes contentious.  It keeps my finger on the eject button constantly.  If my kids are wronged and it's out of my control, I'll have to bolt for U.City (the Yale or Jail district), Oakville or Maplewood or some other civilized suburban city to try things out there.  Yet, there


great public, charter and affordable private schools in the city.  More choices exist now than they did previously and for that I'm thankful.  I think there are options a normal family who want their kids to succeed in an urban, diverse environment would consider.  I hear about more and more of them as I listen to other parents and neighbors talking.

I assume that many parents on the brink of a big decision to stay or go know that they are not up for the fight and choose the path of least resistance:  move to the burbs.  That may sound lazy, but can you really blame them?

With all that in mind, let me tell ya, raising kids in the city has been a far.  It's a lot of work, and it takes effort.  Let me also tell you that I'd by lying if I didn't say we also have gone through some pretty serious fight or flight scenarios.  An STL parent puts up with lots of crap that many of my suburban parent friends simply do not.  However, these suburban parents don't live in places that I find nearly as interesting and beautiful, but that's another story.  But, it has been an inspiration to live here, one that is completely unattainable in many of the burbs.  The chances of meeting someone I see eye to eye with on many levels (including parenting) are much greater here than other places.  I know what some are thinking...those are adult, selfish needs and its just not right raising a kid in the city.

However, the honest story is that we think we are doing better for our kids future to live in a city where they'll be exposed to a much more broad spectrum of kids and experiences than what we had growing up in smallish towns.

Here are some pluses for me:  my kids are exposed to constant beauty, taste, history and arts in their surroundings. My wife has a background in the fine arts; it's part of why I fell for her back when I was 19.  We have a long history of enjoying the beauty that St. Louis offers in the museums, galleries, stores, parks, restaurants, neighborhoods, buildings and streets.  It's an inspiring place.  I'm a simpleton, and can appreciate a blooming tree in Tower Grove Park or a Marsden Hartley painting in the SLAM, or hearing a favorite song on KDHX and just be floored and completely happy.  I am all about feel and experience...and going out to lunch or hanging out in Ballwin, Olivette or Creve Coeur has never matched the fun and inspiration and welcomeness I've felt in STL spaces that fill old buildings where the brick and mortar and hand cut lumber add to the authenticity of the overall visit.  Take the same pizza and serve it up in a strip mall in Marlborough, MO or a renovated, former beer malt house in St. Louis (think PW Pizza) and I'll take the latter any day.  It will be the same pizza, but a better experience.  One I don't mind spending the cash on and one I'd recommend to friends.

My kids have attended a magnet school in the SLPS for many years now, and I love the building they are in, the neighborhood and many of the families/kids that go there.  The school draws people from all over the city and county from different economic backgrounds.  It's as diverse as a St. Louis school can be I suppose.  Additionally, as a middle class-raised in the suburbs white dude, I like the fact that there are African-American


figures at their school.  In my up bringing there were black bus drivers, janitors and maintenance men, but few to no black teachers, principals, counselors, etc.  Their current principal holds a PhD and is an African-American woman.  So, playing with, living with, attending school with and listening/learning/looking up to people from different races is exactly what this city and America in general probably needs to get over a lot of the racist B.S. that holds us back greatly.

But the ultimate bottom line is this...I think they are getting an excellent education, and they are smarter and more focused than I ever was as a kid.  The public schools have many amazingly smart, dedicated and hard working teachers and administrators.  We've been lucky enough to have great teachers almost every year for all 3 of our kids.  We are happy, my kids are happy.  But you have to fight for these happy scenarios...the good thing is we are not unique, other families who have fought for their kids best interests are among us.  You walk together in great numbers and you get to be surrounded by extremely dedicated parents from all walks of life from all parts of the city...and you walk side by side with those that have chosen the good fight just like you.  The trials and tribulations are shared...but at the end of the day you're a city person who is succeeding with children that are succeeding as well.  You stayed, fought and just may win.

Now, I know there are plenty who don't have good things to say about schools no matter where they are.  I'm not trying to polish turds here, I'm not bragging, I'm not saying St. Louis has an advantage in any way over the 90 suburban cities in the county...I'm simply trying to explain that you can find a decent path for your family in St. Louis.  It ain't gonna be easy and it won't be perfect...but I don't think there is a perfect school anywhere.  I just wish parents and kids who are succeeding in St. Louis would speak up and tell their story a little...more on that in a minute...

Back to the census data...based on the numerical increases, I like the fact that we have thriving, energetic, young people in their 20s here.  They inspire me and make me hopeful for the future.  STL is an easy sell to young suburban or creative class kids looking for more than their boring childhood environs; or, gay people who want to feel more welcome than a rural/suburban setting can provide, empty nesting progressives seeking an active/walkable scene, entrepreneurs looking for a deal, immigrants who want to live/start a business on the cheap, lovers of architecture, history, I can go on and on about the easy STL sell.

But there's something we don't talk enough about:  we need families and kids that grow up here in order to be an even stronger city in the future.  Again, we lost 29,000 people from 2000-2010.  3/4 were under 20 years old.  Damn. It's the fight of our next decade to sell this place and retain middle class people with school-age kids.  Yep...I really believe this to be true.  It's bigger than crime and black/white racism.

Now that I've been a parent of ~10 years with 3 kids and the blessing of a devoted mom/wife that runs the family and is as up for the city experience as I...I know my kids are on a path to a life of beauty and respect for their surroundings and history and nature that I want them to have.

I must admit, I have a bit of a defiant spirit in me.  When I see and hear people I don't necessarily like or respect on any level railing against the city, I want to tell them to fuck off, or better yet, prove them wrong.  But the city really does stack the cards against you when it comes to raising kids with all the modern amenities and with all the suburban pressures that exist.  There's not cheer-leading squads, lacrosse teams, baseball teams at the city's best magnet schools.  Nor for charters.  If you want that stuff, you'll have to work hard to get them involved in CYC, YMCA or other ventures; or, you'll have to move to the higher tax districts and live in a place where you may not have a decent park, history, bar, restaurant or just "places" in general to be; or send them to private schools. 

The elementary city school my kids go to doesn't have organized sports teams, so you have to look elsewhere to get kids involved in sports.  The Catholic schools and the YMCA can help fill this gap..but again, it's extra work and $ for the parents to make this happen.  It's not part of the package.  This drives some away as well.

It's hard work and takes a lot more effort to raise kids to the best of your ability here in St. Louis and that is the honest reality of the current situation.  If you are willing to be active and put the extra work it takes to get your kids involved in the right situations for them, you can make it here.   You can be very happy.  Things are not as bad as the media makes it out to be.  The fact is, most people that complain and bitch about the city schools have ZERO first hand experience with them.  I would urge parents of young children to research the reasonable possibilities for an education before they leave.  Be part of the solution and not the ongoing problem.

In keeping with that last statement, I am going to try and do my part and take on a new side project...I will be researching city private, charter and public schools and interviewing parents on their experiences.  How do you get in?  Is there a lotto?  What are the costs?  Where do you go to get enrollment info and tours?  What are the other families like at that school? 

At the end of the day, I hope to have a guide (not unlike my neighborhood guides) for expecting parents and families/couples with kids to access real information from real people...not haters.  I hope to keep it real and talk about pros and cons.

If you are a parent with kids in a city school and would like to represent...drop me a line if you'd like to meet for coffee/beer/whatever and do a quick 30 minute interview of "your story".  I will respect your anonymity if you so choose.  We can also do an interview over the phone or email if its easier.

I honestly feel that we have hit rock bottom in many of parts of this city and that better days are ahead.  I feel that if decent, hard working parents with nice families who are mostly happy with their kids education would speak up, we could counter the negative stories and the uninformed haters as well.

If you would like to do your part, I can be contacted here:

Child Rearing In The City or Cheers to Dubb Nubb and SCOSAG For Bringing It All Back Home

Art is important to kids.  They need it in their lives as much as they need sports.  Fact.  The arts challenge kids to use their minds in creative and personal ways that sports don't always bring.  I'm not knocking kids sports as they are important, healthy and can be a hell of a lot of fun too.

I'm basing much of this opinion on the fact that my kids have been involved in several youth sports across several different organizations.  And, in the not too distant past, they went to a summer arts camp for a couple years called


in Tower Grove Park. It wasn't cheap for sure (thankfully, the grandparents subsidized the venture), but my wife was staunchly in support of it. So, we sign em up, they have fun and it was creative and unique and they love Tower Grove Park as a result of going there. During the course of this summer camp, they discovered a part in the park called "the tree's knees" which is a grove of mature Bald Cypress against a man-made creek that flows through the park where you can race little boats down. It's one of those things that are very personal and I won't try to explain why, but parents likely know what I'm talking about.  It's simply got a good vibe and Tower Grove Park is now the backdrop to some very fond memories of the kids and us as parents as well.

Anyhow here's the crux of this post, and why, based on having experienced both sports and arts related kid activities, I feel more rewarded with a musical memory that I will always carry, instead of the fleeting charge I may get out of a goal or a base hit or a win (although that's a lot of fun too).

One day my kids came home from the camp with this hand drawn picture. I didn't know what the hell it was, but I liked it. It reminded me of a record cover with a track list. After awhile I learned what it was. The kids were talking over and over about a band that came and played at SCOSAG. They loved it, they sang it and hummed it and the melodies were subconsciously growing on me. I assumed it was kids music and I must confess I don't usually enjoy kid music, so I was naturally resistant.  I have heard Barney and others that could make the Dalai Lama wanna shank a mutha. But my oldest who had taken a recent interest in music was starting to gain my respect. He had to have '

Harnessed in Slums

' as the opening track on his new mixed tape, so I started listening to him a little more. He showed me the CD he wanted me to listen to. The artwork was similar to the picture he drew and is now framed in his room:

We were heading down to southwest Missouri on a long drive, so my wife brought the CD and insisted that we listen to it.  So I popped it in the mini-van CD player with full skepticism and hovered my elitist finger over the eject button. The first track caught my full attention, 2nd did too, by the 3rd track, the back of the van was rocking and I recognized the melodies I'd been hearing filtered through 3, 5 and 7 year old ears...this was not kids music by any means, but it was created by teenagers. 

Then it happened, track 4


stopped me in my tracks and wife and I had a good, tearful moment in the front row of the van. Now, I'm a softy when it comes to lit, poetry and song writing (the greatest of all writing)...and I don't mind admitting that, music just has that power. I also have a soft spot for soldiers/veterans, especially ones who were forced (read drafted, not volunteered) to kill or be killed in war. So the song resonated and made me think of A Farewell to Arms, and All Quiet on the Western Front...World War I in general. It stopped me in my damn tracks. Everyone in the front row of seats was teared up, a quick view in the rear view mirror revealed the youngest two mouths agog staring plaintively out the windows worried about why mom and dad were upset and taking in what a sad lyric can do to people. The third row of seats had the oldest one teared up too. He got it, I got it, we all got it and marveled in the power of youth and the written/sung word.

Dubb Nubb is the band, they are from the suburbs of St. Louis. And they were teenagers when this album was recorded.  They are part of the underrated local music scene, they are now part of our life and experience and everything else. Here's the song I'm talking about:

You've got to read the lyrics:

When the war was over

I went home and cried into my pillow until dawn

I put my gun in the drawer

Sold my old clothes and bought some new ones, put them on

I lost my best friend in the battle

I watched him fall dead right into the snow

I lost me too much blood

But I bandaged up my wounds so nobody will know

It's alright, it's alright

I could have yelled surrender, but I thought that I could win the fight

It's alright, it's alright it's my own fault

I've been holding on to my own lies to tight

When the war was over,

I couldn't sleep with all these nightmares of my past inside my brain

I didn't win the medal

All I got are all these memories all traced across my face

It's alright, it's alright

I could have yelled surrender, but I thought that I could win the fight

It's alright, it's alright, it's not my fault

All these bullets have impaired my sight

Some day I'll go back to the battle ground

And cry for what was murdered, what was mine.

Let me say these words take me to somewhere very, very few words do. It's a WWI, Civil War imagery that gets conjured up and an amazingly sensitive take on a soldier's story, and to be transported to that place through the interventions of my child...that's good stuff.

This good parental memory would not have been possible without my kids experience at SCOSAG and seeing Dubb Nubb play for them.  My kids' opportunities growing-up and being introduced to so many different cultures, and experiences of sound and sight and taste and people and places, I feel are opportunities that are enhanced by my choice to be a city dweller and raise kids right here in St. Louis vs. the calm/staid cul-de-sacs of a suburban municipality. I like art and it's influence on our lives, and how St. Louis elicits thought and emotions on nearly every block.

I am sharing my joys and interests with the kids to the best of my ability; but as they grow, they share and teach me new stuff as well. I hope that when it is all said and done, they appreciate these gifts and broad experiences, and make the choice to hand them on to their own kids.  I hope that St. Louis is part of their experience and they realize how lucky they are to live in such a beautiful place with so many caring, dedicated, creative people in their midst.  Artists inspire me daily in this city...

The effect of this song didn't wear off, it still means a lot after a couple years.  So, I had to find out more about the song and get the scoop from the writer herself.  I was able to 

catch up with 1/2 of Dubb Nubb - Delia Rainey, who wrote the song.  Note that this was not a live interview, rather a list of

questions sent



, so the flow is not interactive and conversational.  Anyhow, here are her replies to my questions:

I understand that you wrote the lyrics, is that correct?

Yes, I did.

Has this song had the same effect on your friends and other fans?

'Soldier' is definitely a big favorite among my family members and other people who have been listening to us for a while, since we don't play it at shows very much any more. Every time we do play it, everyone gets super quiet and people really pay attention. We really only play it at intimate acoustic shows where this is possible. 

How does Soldier stand out to you personally compared to the other songs on the record?

I wrote Soldier by myself while desperately heartbroken in my bedroom. It came to me very organically and was probably written in about an hours time. For me, it truly is the most genuinely written songs on the record.

Is the soldier in the song triumphant in beating war and getting over his past; or is it a depressing tale of having lost innocence and a piece of his life lost forever?

Definitely the second one. The Soldier in the song is a metaphor for me trying to 'soldier through' a really tough time in a relationship, and not being able to fix it in the end, or 'win the fight'. It's always funny to reveal to people who really love this song that it is about a breakup with my high school boyfriend when I was 16, which is super silly and embarrassing now that I am 20!

Was there special consideration to sequence it as the 4th track, right in the middle? It’s between two really upbeat happy songs.

I have no clue why we would've chosen to put it there, we made that album so long ago! We re-recorded Soldier for our most recent full-length with glockenspiel and violin added (Sunrise Sleepy Eyed 2011), and put it in a similar spot in the middle of the track list (track 5), but I think putting an emotional song like that in a the middle of a record is a good turning point; 'moving on' to the happier times with the next song!

On to the melody. Did you also come up with the melody? Was it written on piano or guitar? I love whistling as a melody maker, and the whistling fits this song perfectly.

Thank you!! I did write the melody. I am horrible at guitar, (and have since moved on to ukulele), but back when I wrote this song I was still pretty into playing a little kid learn-to-play guitar, and that's how this song was written. I think I get this from my Dad, but I am always whistling little tunes, and putting them into songs! I'm really fond of Andrew Bird's quote that whistling should be considered as it's own musical instrument.

Is that a mandolin? Was it single note plucked? Was that played by you guys?

Yeah, that's Hannah on mandolin. She is amazing at stringed instruments - she has been playing classical guitar since she was 10 and it's now her music major in college. She says, "I was tremolo-ing on one note at a time"

Was it recorded live together, or was it recorded on multiple tracks and put back together?

For this whole record, we recorded each song in one take, and all together! It also only took us about 3 hours to record the WHOLE album! It was crazy. We never do this anymore with our other recordings, so The Best Game Ever is a special one.

In the last 2 lines are the lyrics: “Some day I'll go back to the battle ground

And cry for what was murder, what was mine.” Or “cry for what was mine, what was mine”?

You were close!! The line is: "cry for what was murdered, what was mine."

Finally, since my blog is a STL centric one, I’ve got to somehow tie this back to my audience. 

Are you from St. Louis? If so, what neighborhood?

Yes!! We are third generation St. Louisans, and grew up in Olivette

What’s it like gaining traction in the music community here? Was it hard to get gigs when you were in high school?

We were lucky to be a part of a really supportive group of high school musicians from around the county that had house shows and stuff, and that's how we found our support group. For the release of Best Game Ever, we played on Cherokee Street at Cranky Yellow, and ever since then, Cherokee Street has been our favorite place to play - mostly at Foam Coffee. Especially our last year of high school, we were surprised by how many shows we were able to play. Some of our biggest shows were at Firebird and the Billiken Club, and we got the honor to play at the RFT music showcase and also Loufest after winning the high school battle of the bands!! Because of school priorities and our parents worrying, we tried to only play one show a month in high school.

Do you think your sound and writing style is influenced by St. Louis or Missouri or the Midwest in general?

We are SO influenced by where we are from. We love to write songs about our love for St. Louis and midwest nature. The glory of the city and then also the beautiful country side of the midwest where we have traveled has a lot of emotional meaning to us, which gives inspiration to write songs. Also, we use some 'twang' in our music, which definitely derived from St. Louis music.

Are you inspired by the city in any meaningful way as an artist?

Driving into the city and seeing shows with traveling bands and local acts really inspired us to become part of the St. Louis music scene. The DIY venues and supportive community we encountered really helped us keep going with our art. As well, the feel and scenery of the city inspired us to write a hometown song called 'Mound City Baby', which you can listen to on bandcamp:

So there you have it.   Cheers to SCOSAG and Dubb Nubb for being part of my kids' lives...and our evolving music collection and the St. Louis artist scene.  The CD is on the shelf and the kid drawing of the album cover in on the wall...forever.

Dubb Nubb are playing at Plush on August 2nd.