For Leslie Kossoff, an artist who lived in San Francisco for nearly two decades, her decision to leave the city was sealed last summer, as she helped her daughter, Sophie, now 6, dress for a ballet recital at public middle school in Noe Valley.
“The place stank of urine,” Kossoff recalls. The restroom “ceiling was caked with old toilet paper” that had long ago been sodden and flung upward. “It was like a women’s prison.”
Meanwhile, in her mid-Market neighborhood, three pot clubs opened and a drug market flourished.
Kossoff, her partner and Sophie soon moved to Portland, Ore.
Her family joined an exodus that has solidified San Francisco’s dubious distinction of being the American metropolis with the fewest children per capita. Census data from 2010 revealed that even though the city’s population grew by 4 percent in the last decade, the city lost 5 percent of its children, leaving it with just 116,000, or 14 percent of the total population. By comparison, 15 percent of Manhattanites are younger than 18.
The decline came despite a 2006 decree by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom that made it an official mission of the city’s Department of Children, Youth & Their Families (DCYF) to increase the number of children in the city.
DCYF finances many admirable programs, like after-school care and tutoring for aspiring writers at Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia organization. The department focuses on serving low-income families, and because it has seen a surge in demand in recent years, officials thought the city’s population of families was stable, if not growing.
The census data indicating otherwise was “so surprising to us,” said Maria Su, who heads DCYF. “It’s sad. There is this key component to what we believe to be the energy of the city missing. Every strong community has children.”
Even Newsom decamped last month for a sylvan corner of Marin, taking his wife, toddler and infant with him.
The factors that prompt middle-class families like Kossoff’s to leave are many, and perhaps not within the power of any city department to fix.
Consider the case of Shelley Esson, a Vancouver native who has lived in San Francisco for 12 years and seemingly a prime candidate for middle-class flight.
Esson came close to moving to the wine country with her young son and her husband, a bartender who grew up poor in Mexico. Last year, Crushpad, the make-your-own-wine outfit, moved her job from the city to Napa, and Esson declined to follow, though it meant she was jobless for several months.
Her decision to stay put came at considerable personal sacrifice. Esson works two jobs to make ends meet, and raises chickens and much of the family’s food in her Richmond yard.
What keeps her here? The random, lucky break of her 7-year-old son’s being assigned a decent school, and Esson’s fear that he would fare poorly in a community that lacked San Francisco’s Latino professional class.
In the wine country, she said, “the perception would be that his dad picks grapes or is a gardener. Here, there is the possibility for him to see the best of what there is to achieve, with Latino politicians, doctors, lawyers. There’s a lot less separation of the two cultures.”
So for Esson, the city’s vibrant urban culture — often viewed as a treasure trove for the hip and moneyed but one that offers little for many families — is actually what is keeping her here.
The question, for San Francisco, is how to reconcile the dominant adult population that may not give a fig about how many children live here with the needs of parents and their children.
The answer may lie not in special child-focused efforts but rather in broader public policy changes and better management of key city services.
Well-kept, well-designed playgrounds and parks, a transit system that is clean and reliable, and a diverse local job market are obvious starting points. Reform of Proposition 13 that allows communities to set and spend taxes locally would give families a greater sense of self-determination.
Giving parents the power to chose where their children attend school would also be a huge step.
Supporters of the byzantine lottery system that has long governed school placement argue that the system ensures economic and racial diversity throughout schools. But if middle-class families continue to flee (and if wealthy ones opt for private schools), then there isn’t much diversity left to preserve — and even hardy souls like Esson might no longer be proud to call San Francisco home.
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.