Reported on Oct. 22, 2009
A typical morning for 20-month-old Josie Dean includes painting, singing, baking and knitting, all done in the company of several friends. Whether it’s story time, music class or “Mommy and Me” yoga, there is no shortage of kid-friendly activities in Washington Heights.
“It’s just a great place to raise children,” said Josie’s mother, Jennie.
As younger families populate Washington Heights, the numbers of infants and toddlers are noticeably increasing. According to the 2000 census, there were 14,389 people under the age of 5 living in Washington Heights and Inwood, comprising 6.9 percent of the district’s population. A 2008 census analysis by the American Community Survey found that the number of children in the area under the age of 6 totaled 21,594, accounting for 9.9 percent of the population.
The baby boom is not unique to northern Manhattan. In 2006, The New York Times documented a similar increase in the rest of the borough, as the number of children under age 5 grew by more than 32 percent over the last decade, and anecdotal evidence supports these statistics.
“From my own observations, I can definitely say that the rate of births is up, and yes, there are more children,” said Ebenezer Smith, district manager for Community Board 12. “Just walking on the street, you see so many mothers pushing their baby carriages.”
Others, like social worker Jessica Shapley, have noticed the trend as well. For close to nine years, she has been leading support groups for mothers in Washington Heights. A new group starts every eight to 10 weeks, Shapley said, with more than enough new parents to attend each cycle of sessions.
“I started this group out of my own need when I first moved here because there was nothing,” she said. “Now there are definitely more children and young families than ever before.”
Shapley also moderates a “Parent and Me” Yahoo! group, which boasts over 1,000 participating families from Washington Heights and Inwood.
One local hub for kid-friendly activities is Fort Washington Collegiate Church. The church hosts an educational program called Bloomgarden, which began there in early October and meets on Mondays and Wednesdays. The program, which emphasizes artistic expression through interactive classes, now caters to a small group of eight parents and their children, with expansion plans on track for next semester.
“We wanted to create a place where parents and children can grow together, and ‘bloom,’ so to speak,” said Rachel Lederman, Bloomgarden’s co-founder. “It’s a place for creative expression.”
The Tuesday Toddler group, a free program funded by optional donations, features story time, guitar-led singing, and free play. Nearing the end of its fourth year, the program has expanded well beyond its original eight families, and now attracts close to 80 families each week.
“It’s a chance for both kids and parents to socialize,” said Troy Schremmer, the church’s director of education who runs the program. “It’s really about meeting a need for young parents in the community.”
What Shapley likes about Washington Heights is that “it’s a unique place with a small-town feel, where people really know the faces of their neighbors,” she said. “These different programs speak to the needs of the community, and people are moving here from other parts of Manhattan because they want that kind of kid-friendly atmosphere.”
New programs continue to spring up as more and more people opt to raise families in the city. On Nov. 1, the Jewish Community Council of Washington Heights-Inwood started a lending service for maternity clothes and baby supplies that includes pregnancy and parenting books, and items such as strollers, swings, and booster seats.
“I had been receiving phone calls asking for baby items,” explained Anat Coleman, community affairs officer for the Jewish Council, a not-for-profit organization that provides a range of free social services. “In the last five years, I have seen many young families moving into the area, and many don’t have space in their apartments or can’t afford to buy these items, so this was created in response to their needs.”