Childless sex in the city? No doubt about it: America's supercities will impact religion news

Screen Shot 2019-07-18 at 6.08.53 PM.png

A quarter of a century ago, I started teaching journalism in big American supercities — first in Washington, D.C., and now in New York City.

From the beginning, I heard students (most from Christian liberal arts colleges) asking poignant, basic questions about the impact of journalism on their future lives, in terms of job stress, economics and, yes, marriage and family life. These questions were often asked in private. Needless to say, these questions have continued, and intensified, with the ongoing advertising crisis that is eating many newsrooms.

I continue to urge my students to talk to real New Yorkers (or Beltway folks) who are living the realities — rather than accepting stereotypes. It’s crucial to talk to married folks with children and discuss the communities and networks that help them thrive or survive. The challenges are real, but the stereotypes are — in my experience — flawed and shallow.

These subjects hovered in the background as we recorded this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in). This podcast digs into the implications of my earlier GetReligion post — “Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?” — about an Axios story on the economic and political clout of American super-cities.

If you want a deep dive into the marriage and family issue, check out the stunning essay at The Atlantic by staff writer Derek Thompson that just ran with this dramatic double-decker headline:

The Future of the City Is Childless

America’s urban rebirth is missing something key — actual births.

The opening anecdote will cause a shudder (perhaps of recognition) among many New Yorkers that I know:

A few years ago, I lived in a walkup apartment in the East Village of New York. Every so often descending the stairway, I would catch a glimpse of a particular family with young children in its Sisyphean attempts to reach the fourth floor. The mom would fold the stroller to the size of a boogie board, then drag it behind her with her right hand, while cradling the younger and typically crying child in the crook of her left arm. Meanwhile, she would shout hygiene instructions in the direction of the older child, who would slap both hands against every other grimy step to use her little arms as leverage, like an adult negotiating the bolder steps of Machu Picchu. It looked like hell — or, as I once suggested to a roommate, a carefully staged public service announcement against family formation.

Apparently, the public got the message. Last year, for the first time in four decades, something strange happened in New York City. In a non-recession year, it shrank.

But wait, aren’t we in the middle of a new golden age in big city life, including the Big Apple?

Yes, that is true. Yes, New York City is a stunning, amazing place and religious leaders, as well as journalists, need to remember that.

But. But. Somewhere, I fear that there are parents (as in people who want to be grandparents someday) handing copies of the following Atlantic quotes to my potential journalism students:

New York is the poster child of this urban renaissance. But as the city has attracted more wealth, housing prices have soared alongside the skyscrapers, and young families have found staying put with school-age children more difficult. Since 2011, the number of babies born in New York has declined 9 percent in the five boroughs and 15 percent in Manhattan. (At this rate, Manhattan’s infant population will halve in 30 years.) In that same period, the net number of New York residents leaving the city has more than doubled. There are many reasons New York might be shrinking, but most of them come down to the same unavoidable fact: Raising a family in the city is just too hard. And the same could be said of pretty much every other dense and expensive urban area in the country.

In high-density cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., no group is growing faster than rich college-educated whites without children, according to Census analysis by the economist Jed Kolko. By contrast, families with children older than 6 are in outright decline in these places. In the biggest picture, it turns out that America’s urban rebirth is missing a key element: births.

What happened to all of those big, thriving Italian, Irish and Greek families in the past? When we talk about “big” (anything larger than one or two kids) families in modern New York City, why do we assume we are talking about ultra-Orthodox Jews and, maybe, some families in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

You need to read the whole Atlantic piece. But here is one bite of material noting that, in terms of history, this child-free trend has not been the norm.

Cities were once a place for families of all classes. The “basic custom” of the American city, wrote the urbanist Sam Bass Warner, was a “commitment to familialism.” Today’s cities, however, are decidedly not for children, or for families who want children. As the sociologists Richard Lloyd and Terry Nichols Clark put it, they are “entertainment machines” for the young, rich, and mostly childless. And this development has crucial implications — not only for the future of American cities, but also for the future of the U.S. economy and American politics.

I would add, these changes are crucial and for the future of American religion and moral culture. And journalism. And many major religious denominations and movements.

Let me end with another illustration that is drawn, quite ironically, from an “On Religion” column that I once wrote about The King’s College in Manhattan. This was years before I had any idea that I might teach at this Christian liberal-arts college near the corner of Wall Street and Broadway. Here is the overture:

Any list of great cities in the ancient Mediterranean World would have to include Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Corinth, or some other crucial crossroads near what would become Constantinople.

Thus, these cities became the five patriarchal sees of Christianity in the first millennium.

"From day one, there was a commitment to the dominant cities and regions of that time," said J. Stanley Oakes, chancellor of The King's College in New York City. "That's where the early church flourished. That's where the early church did its work. ... People who care about nations and culture and economics have to care about what happens in great cities."

Yet any study of American Protestantism in the early 21st Century would focus on Colorado Springs, Colo., Grand Rapids, Mich., Wheaton, Ill., Orlando, Fla., and, perhaps, Dallas. It would not include New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston. …

Now, think about it. Are there urban vs. heartland tensions, in religious denominations, that resemble those seen every four years in American presidential elections?

Oh, most justices on the U.S. Supreme Court: Where do they do their law studies?

Where are the newsrooms that have the most clout in shaping what we know and what we don’t know?

Are there religion stories woven into these statistics and trends?

For starters, why do some forms of religion seem to struggle in our modern super-cities?

Enjoy the podcast.

MAIN IMAGE: Screenshot from Mad Magazine, offering a satire of the famous “View of the World from Ninth Avenue” cartoon in The New Yorker.

SECOND IMAGE: One of the famous red vs. blue maps of the 2012 elections, broken down by counties.

Screen Shot 2019-07-18 at 6.14.27 PM.png
Please respect our Commenting Policy