Karol Markowicz joins Kay Hymowitz to discuss raising young children in New York City.

“Raising a family in the city is just too hard,” concluded The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson last summer. But in Park Slope, one of New York’s most desirable neighborhoods, thousands of families thrive. Still, parents must navigate a host of challenges unique to urban life, including pricey housing, complex schooling options, and sometimes-unfriendly public spaces.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal.

Coming up on the show today, we have a special discussion for our listeners.

My colleague and longtime City Journal contributor Kay Hymowitz will interview Karol Markowicz—she’s a columnist for the New York Post—about some of the risks and rewards of raising a family in the city.

As they’ll note in the interview, Karol and Kay both live in the Park Slope—the quintessential family friendly neighborhood of Brooklyn—where they have both have raised or, in Karol’s case, are still raising, young children.

It’s something that we’ve written about in the past at City Journal and the conversation will be of interest to any urban parents, or parents generally. It’s a terrific interview and I know you will enjoy it.

A couple quick announcements before we get started:

First—our parent organization, the Manhattan Institute, is seeking nominations for its annual “Civil Society Awards.” If you’re a longtime listener to the podcast, you’ve probably heard us talking about this before. It’s our way of celebrating the hard work of effective nonprofit organizations across the country.

This upcoming fall, four winners will each receive a $25,000 for their efforts to solve our most pressing social challenges. If you know an exceptional nonprofit leader who—with the help of volunteers and philanthropic donors—is strengthening their community, visit www.civilsocietyawards.com and submit a nomination.

That’s www.civilsocietyawards.com

Finally—our listeners will want to make sure they keep an eye on for new essays from City Journal’s Winter 2020 Issue. Last week, we released Park MacDougald’s terrific essay on the intra-Catholic debate about liberalism and democracy which garnered a lot of attention. E.J. McMahon on the growing regional divide in New York State’s economy, which was adapted in the New York Post. You can see the full line-up from the new issue on our website, www.city-journal.org.

That’s it for the introduction. The conversation between Kay Hymowitz and Karol Markowicz begins after this.

Kay Hymowitz: Hello everybody. This is Kay Hymowitz. I'm a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at the City Journal, and I'm going to be talking today to Karol Markowicz. She is a columnist at the New York Post, a terrific columnist at the New York Post. Also for the purposes of this conversation, it's important to mention, she's also a mother of three children in Park Slope.

Kay Hymowitz: We're going to be talking today about raising children in the city and some of the problems and some of the gifts of raising children in New York City in particular. And I'm going to take the prerogative of mentioning a little bit about why I'm doing the interviewing here. I am considerably older than Karol.

Karol Markowicz: Considerably. [laughing]

Kay Hymowitz: Well, we won't go into that, but I moved into Park Slope, I actually bought a house in Park Slope with my husband in 1982, so that really dates me. Park Slope, which is now so far beyond the price range of what I could have afforded in those days. But in those days, it was manageable with a little bit of parental help. It was still what real estate agents called transitional. And what that meant was there's a little bit of crime still. It was not a fully gentrified, not even partially gentrified neighborhood. There were some pockets of gentrification, but there were many, many blocks that middle-class families tried to avoid. There was even a subway stop down by Fourth Avenue, for those listeners who are familiar with the area, that I wouldn't have walked down towards.

Kay Hymowitz: It was a very different neighborhood then than it is now, but I did raise three children there. And I came from the suburbs and I had grown up in the suburbs. So it was kind of a ... I don't want to say it was a radical move, but it was an unusual move for my immediate peer group. Although things were changing and a lot of my college friends did move to New York and to other cities.

Kay Hymowitz: At any rate, I have been a mother in New York City. Now, I'm a grandmother in New York City. And we'll have some comments about some of the changes that have occurred. But for now, let me turn it over to Karol. And so tell us a little bit about your decision making that brought you to Park Slope.

Karol Markowicz: I grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn. It's funny when I hear people who live in Park Slope for a long time talk about it, I know it wasn't what it is now. But for us who lived in Flatbush, Park Slope was basically Manhattan. You got dressed up to go to Park Slope. You put on nice clothes and you went out to a restaurant in Park Slope, and that was a very standard kind of thing to do. And it might've been ... It wasn't in the '80s necessarily, it was close to the '90s. But yeah, so my childhood home was in Flatbush and then my teenage home was in Bensonhurst. So I refer to those neighborhoods back then sort of as real Brooklyn, very ethnic, you don't hear a lot of English in those neighborhoods even today. And it was a complicated childhood where my early years was in a very crime-ridden neighborhood, but New York has changed so drastically that that same neighborhood now has multimillion dollar houses and it's gentrified in a really big way.

Karol Markowicz: I think the New York of my childhood is so vastly different than the New York we live in today. The one we live in today is so much safer and so much better in so many different ways that it's an easy decision to stay here and raise your children here.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. One way I like to capture that change, at least for people like myself, middle-class parents in the city, is that when my oldest child, my son went to overnight camp when he was about 10, he said that whenever he met kids at camp in his bunk or just met them around the camp from the suburbs, they would say, “You're from Brooklyn? Have you ever been shot?”

Karol Markowicz: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: Then fast forward 9 or 10 years, and he comes home from college and he says, “Why does everyone ... Everybody want to move to Brooklyn?”

Karol Markowicz: Exactly. So when I say I'm from Brooklyn now, like on Twitter, they picture like pickle stores and hipsters. And I'm like, “No, no, no, no, no. I'm from Brooklyn, the real Brooklyn, you know, actual Brooklyn.” So yeah, it means something very different today.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about what you see as the benefits of raising your children in the city. We'll get to the obvious downsides a bit, but let's talk about what's neat about it.

Karol Markowicz: I think that it's a misconception that kids grow up faster because they're in the city, but they do have a certain maturity to them that I really appreciate. I remember being 15 years old and meeting two boys who lived in Manhattan and they ordered cafe lattes and we were teenagers and yet they knew what a cafe latte was.

Karol Markowicz: My kids have a fairly sophisticated, let's say, not all of them, but my daughter has a very sophisticated palette. She has favorite restaurants. They enjoy things like ... Going to the Museum of Natural History is a very standard thing to do on a weekend. They're exposed to a lot of culture in a very casual way. It's not like we visit somewhere and pack it all in. It's just part of our everyday life. I also appreciate just the various diversity, both racial, economic, and political.

Karol Markowicz: We live in a very, very liberal area, Park Slope, but I'm a Conservative. I'm very open about it. I have a lot of Conservative friends. I was born in the Soviet Union, and so Russians in Brooklyn are very conservative. And so I know people sort of from a very fast range of perspectives and just a lot of different walks of life.

Kay Hymowitz: We have the benefits of the cultural scene. What about just logistics of getting kids around, that kind of thing?

Karol Markowicz: I mean just walking, being able to walk to most places is a gigantic benefit. On a weekend or on a weekday or whatever, we could step out to dinner and just go to our corner. We have two restaurants literally on our corner. Recently, I mentioned something on Twitter about letting my nine-year-old go to the store by herself and all these people were like, “haa!” You know, but they drive to the store. I can step out of my house and see my daughter go to the store on the corner. It's the bodega and she's going to ... We only moved there a few months ago, but she's going to know that bodega owner very well.

Karol Markowicz: And so yeah, I really like the condensed nature of it. It makes it so easy and accessible. When I lived a few blocks away from a supermarket, that was weird and wow, I live far from a supermarket. Now, I have two within a block of me. It's very nice to have all the convenience of it.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. The irony is that when I was raising my kids in President Street in Park Slope, actually our son in particular would be outside playing in the street.

Karol Markowicz: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: He played football with local kids, other kids who lived in the area. And that, you never see that anymore. Now, there's a lot more traffic.

Karol Markowicz: Right, right. Recently my two sons were ... My middle son's getting into ice hockey and he just gotten a stick and a puck, so they were kind of just playing on the sidewalk at the one really nice day we had recently. It still is not ... You know, for all the complaints about traffic in the city, it's really not that bad. I don't know, it definitely feels safe in a way that my childhood did not in a really specific way. I have no fears about my kids being outside and nothing happening to them. I don't know that my parents necessarily had those fears, but I feel like there is this atmosphere of the whole helicopter parenting, keeping your kids under a very watchful eye. And I don't necessarily feel like that's so necessary.

Kay Hymowitz: One of the things that I remember noticing recently when I was walking down this street was a father who was walking his, I would say four or five-year-old somewhere and they stopped at a corner and he said, “Well, do you want to go down Union or Berkeley?” Those are the kinds of questions. I thought he was asking for trouble by doing that, but nevermind. But that's kind of typical Park Slope parenting.

Karol Markowicz: Yeah, absolutely. You have to go down the street where they put out the most, I call it Park Slope “stoop crap,” where everybody leaves their stuff outside. Park Slope has a culture of ... Like my daughter collects books that people leave outside. We've gotten hundreds of dollars of free books just from the street. It's very nice. I always say if I had known growing up in Flatbush that the people in Park Slope are just leaving books outside, that would have been very exciting to me.

Kay Hymowitz: Well, of course, people do pour into the area for Halloween for exactly that reason.

Karol Markowicz: Right. Yeah.

Kay Hymowitz: Because it is a very kid-centric neighborhood, probably a lot more than some of the others.

Karol Markowicz: Absolutely, extremely. I think Park Slope is made for families.

Kay Hymowitz: Well, that's its reputation for better and worse.

Karol Markowicz: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: I want to at least make a passing mention of the housing problem, which is probably one of the first issues that people who were considering where to live are concerned about as they should be. As I mentioned before, it affected me, but not as much I think it does now. The odd thing is I'll just throw this out there with no complaint involved at all, but a lot of the people my age who moved there to raise their children 30 years ago are what's called aging in place. They're not moving, which is just an absurd waste of space. But for various tax reasons and other reasons, it makes sense. So we are hoarding from you guys, your generation. But the housing problem is terrible I know for younger families and especially if you want to have more than one or two children. Now, you have three?

Karol Markowicz: I have three, yeah.

Kay Hymowitz: So tell us about the housing issue for you.

Karol Markowicz: It's definitely been complicated. We've gotten lucky in some ways. I think we've hit the market at really right points and that's almost entirely luck. Our first two children, we had in my husband's bachelor apartment on the Upper West Side. They lived in a room that the rest of America would consider a very nice closet. So when the second child was born, we started really looking in Brooklyn and it was a good time to buy, and we bought a very nice apartment. Again, for non New Yorkers, it was between Fourth and Fifth Avenue, which was a little bit up and coming. Although I loved it, I thought it was really great. It wasn't super busy, it was just convenient enough for a lot of things. And then we had our third child and suddenly this apartment that we had considered, first of all, gigantic compared to my husband's bachelor apartment, suddenly was extremely tight. We had always planned to have three children. We just never really “planned” it. We just-

Kay Hymowitz: Planned where to put them.

Karol Markowicz: Right. We hadn't considered that another person would be living with us. We just wanted three kids. So our youngest child arrived and we very quickly realized we had to move and we sold our apartment just a few years after buying it at a very nice profit, the way New York real estate sometimes goes, that's the good side of it. And we got a bigger place. So it's been interesting.

Karol Markowicz: I think one of the challenges, and I know, I mean I assume you're a free marketer. We're sitting here at Manhattan Institute, I think we all are. But one of the challenges is we definitely just need more supply, right? But then you have these beautiful historic areas and what makes them so beautiful and historic, these like townhouses all in a row or, you know, it's very hard to say, “Okay, let's tear these down and build some high-rises.” But that's sort of a little bit what's needed.

Karol Markowicz: In areas like Park Slope and Gowanus and Carroll Gardens, they are doing that in some parts of it. So we just need more inventory and ... What's happening right now in Manhattan is actually a very interesting case where these developers built these three to four-million-dollar apartments that are now sitting empty because turns out there's just not enough people who want three to four-million-dollar apartments. But the 800,000, 1 million, 1.5 million, they haven't been making those. And those would be very popular. I have to imagine there's a developer out there saying, “I will make these.”.

Kay Hymowitz: He's got to figure it out.

Karol Markowicz: Yeah.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. Well, we like to believe the market will.

Karol Markowicz: I do like to believe that.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. It just may take time. I should mention, given that we're speaking from the Manhattan Institute, that we have done a lot of work on housing. I'm not going to go into the weeds on that now, but for anybody who's listening who might have an interest in that area, you should look on the City Journal website or the manhattan-institute.org website, and you'll find plenty to keep you busy. We have a number of housing experts on staff.

Kay Hymowitz: So the housing problem, we cannot clear up for any listeners. For now, just to say we recognize that we're both very fortunate to have places to live in these areas and recognize how difficult it is for many others. Many people don't have the privilege of being able to even consider living the way we do in the city.

Kay Hymowitz: Now, we need to get to the big kahuna, which I see as the largest problem pressing young parents in particular, not for the youngest children, but getting to be about four or five. And then from then on, the education question.

Karol Markowicz: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: I think if anything drives people out of the city, it drives young families who really like city living out, it is education. So let's talk about that for a little bit.

Karol Markowicz: Yeah. Everybody I know who is leaving or thinking of leaving the city, it is absolutely because of education. They maybe make a nice living, they could sustain themselves in the city, in Brooklyn and Manhattan and the other boroughs, but they cannot sustain private school for one or two or three kids. And that's really sort of what they think they're going to need to do. And I've written about this in the Post, but the real big problem of Bill de Blasio and his education ideas is that nobody feels secure. It could change at any moment. Tomorrow, everything can be different. And that sense of unease and unpredictability is just really anti ... It really works against parents wanting to raise their kids in the city. And the idea of like, well, so what? You just didn't get a good school or you're afraid of your kid's not going to a great school, so go ahead and leave. It's sort of a ridiculous premise because we want people to stay and raise their children here, not just because they have to, but because they want to.

Karol Markowicz: Again, in Park Slope, the schools are generally very good. Not all of them, but most of them. The question is also what makes a school good? Right? I've been thinking about writing something sort of extensive on this. And so I've been asking people, and the answers I've been getting are so ... Such a vast range of answers. It really just depends, right? It's not a specific thing. For me, for example, test scores matter a lot. For a lot of people, they don't. They just don't ... It's like, so who cares how good the test scores are at the school. The state test I'm talking about.

Kay Hymowitz: How do they expect to be able to determine whether kids are reading?

Karol Markowicz: Yeah, well they're like, “My kid will do well on this test and why do I care if ...” Let's say like a bad school, a really bad school in New York would have a 15% pass rate of the state exams. Well, if your kid's one of the 15%, do you really care? That's what the ... Yes, I do, I do. That's not the sum total of what's important to me. I want my kids to be challenged. I want them to constantly be moving forward. The other thing for me, the challenge, I want it to be hard. I don't want my kids to be skating through school, not having to try.

Karol Markowicz: So with the de Blasio immediately taking aim at the specialized high schools or the gifted and talented programs in New York, it's a real issue for parents. They don't know what to expect, and that's been a real big problem.

Kay Hymowitz: One thing that I've had a theory about as I've watched young parents over the years adapt to raising children in Brooklyn and in New York City more generally, if they can afford or don't want to use private schools and most people can't, then you have ... We do have a great deal of choice now that didn't use to exist. But the problem is you are constantly making choices. You have to research every step your child goes through; the preschool, the kindergarten. If things aren't working out or if you think you can get a better arrangement for the child to go elsewhere, you have to look for another school. When it comes to middle school, you've got another set of challenges and another set of decisions. And then not to mention high school.

Kay Hymowitz: Each of these, I know it can sound petty to outsiders, so you have to choose. But these are very anguished decisions because there's a lot of different variables that you're trying to, especially when you're there are two working parents, that you're trying to figure out. And your kids aren't necessarily going to be able to get into the place that's going to make your family life easier.

Karol Markowicz: Yeah. Well, so the middle school process, when you tell somebody outside of New York that your kids have to apply to middle school, it's just, it's mind blowing, right?

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah.

Karol Markowicz: But beyond that, so what happened in Park Slope, this is year one of this. They took away that application process and now it's all lotto. That's even worse. To me, it's like you really have no idea what to expect. A school that's good this year, whatever good means to you, cannot be good next year because it's fully lotto. So you have no idea who's going to end up there or how it's going to end up and what the levels are going to be. The strict lottery of it is so absurd. In fact, one of the arts and music middle schools in our neighborhood no longer can audition kids. Like it has to be a lottery because that's fair right? And things like that I think ...

Karol Markowicz: I know so many people that opted out, they either send their kids to private school for this year for middle school or charter schools or whatever, just because they didn't want their kids to be the experiment. It's one of those things. In fact, one of the people ... There was a story I think in The Wall Street Journal, one of the people who helped design the lottery process, his kid got some school that they weren't happy with and they now send her to private school, of course. Because look, theory is great, but when you get down to your own kids, it's kind of harder to live by it. Right.

Kay Hymowitz: And I'm sure you're familiar with the article that went viral, George Packer's article about our district, the schools there and the problems that he encountered there. And Matt Walsh's as well.

Karol Markowicz: Yeah, he's excellent. The Packer article was so interesting to me because I think that he's representative of this class of people who won't admit that they want what's best for their kids. I don't know, for me, I guess being an immigrant, I'm married to an immigrant, my husband was born in Israel. I think we can be so open about the fact that like, “No, I want what's best for my kids.” And that's it. And I don't feel any shame of saying that. And I will fight to give them the best situation and I want to improve all the schools. I don't want to remove the best schools or remove the screens from the best schools because I don't think that helps anybody.

Karol Markowicz: I think what the Packer article really expose is that people care deeply about things like test scores, but they can't admit it. You have to kind of be quiet about it because that's not the right opinion among the certain liberal left.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah, I think that's right. There's a great deal of concern in places like Park Slope about not showing your white privilege. I think immigrants don't suffer from that.

Karol Markowicz: Right. I always say that I came ...

Kay Hymowitz: Even when they're white.

Karol Markowicz: Right, absolutely. I always say that I came from ... My Russian community, if you're poor, you try to seem rich, but in Park Slope everybody's rich [crosstalk 00:00:24:26]. It's really weird.

Kay Hymowitz: It is weird. Yeah, it is. I thought the article was fascinating and scary. I was quite worried about showing it to my daughter and her husband who have children. One child was about to enter kindergarten next year. In district 15, which that's your-

Karol Markowicz: That's the district, yeah.

Kay Hymowitz: Which is the district in question, there's been a tremendous push. In part because the parent population is very liberal and for the reasons that you said, very reluctant to speak up. They're basically being used as guinea pigs to promote not just socioeconomic integration, which is fine, but they've instituted all these new rules about each of the middle schools is supposed to be 51% poverty. Now, we'll see how that works. I think you were mentioning friends who'd pulled their kids out of public school once-

Karol Markowicz: Well, again, maybe it all works out. That's fine. But it seems like such a wacky system that why would anybody participate in year one? They had a 7% drop in enrollment in these middle schools. It wasn't small. Yeah, it's a really tough place to be where if your kid is starting at these schools.

Karol Markowicz: I've written about this also, but my daughter, my oldest child, she goes to a gifted and talented citywide school. There's five of these. And it's the only K through 12 public school in New York City. When I tell people about her school, nobody cares, gifted, talented. They don't care about that at all. They care about K through 12, I don't have anything else to think about ever again. This is all they want. All people want is a sure thing for their kid. And it doesn't have to be this insanely competitive version of that school. It can just be a decent school where education is taken seriously, state tests are taken seriously and you have no decisions to make.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. And in a neighborhood like Park Slope, even though people do try to hide it, they're intensely competitive about their children and they want the bragging rights. They also want the kid to have a lot of options. I don't want to just a bad mouth and I understand the impulse, but there's no question that that competition, it affects the children tremendously.

Kay Hymowitz: I read a lot about young people; rising suicide rates, self harm, that kind of thing. These are not all city kids by any means, but I do wonder from what I see in an upper middle class community like Park Slope, what we're doing to these kids. The system almost forces you to be fanatic about it because they can't just provide pretty good schools.

Karol Markowicz: Right. I would say that in our situation, my daughter is far more competitive than my husband and I. This is her own ... She was born this way. She works really hard, the school really fits her, whether or not it's going to fit my son's remains to be seen.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. Well, those girls out there.

Karol Markowicz: Yeah. She just not play.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. You do see a lot of very hardworking, very ambitious girls.

Karol Markowicz: That's her, yeah.

Kay Hymowitz: Even as tweens.

Karol Markowicz: She's nine. She's been this way since she was a baby.

Kay Hymowitz: Absolutely. The school situation, I think for the rest of the de Blasio tenure, at any rate, we're not going to see much improvement of anything. We'll be getting more ...

Karol Markowicz: Right. And I mean the most amazing thing, of course, is that de Blasio and Carranza, who's a chancellor, education chancellor and our City Councilman Brad Lander, who was a big proponent of these wacky school changes. They all sent their kids to schools with screens that were majority white and they had no problem with that at the time, yet here we are.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah, there's a lot of hypocrisy.

Karol Markowicz: Yeah.

Kay Hymowitz: The question I guess is, at what point people say, “You know what? I'm willing to admit this is what I want and I'm going to try to get it.” Yeah, but we may be the last area that's saying, “No, we can do this.” We're going to create this utopia in Park Slope and it isn't going to happen. There's a tremendous amount of segregation, even in a place ... A very, very liberal place like Park Slope.

Kay Hymowitz: I've been actually doing a little research on this in terms of gentrification. A lot of gentrifiers say, and I think they mean it, that they want to be in the city because they like diversity. They like the dynamism, the diversity. And I think it's really true, but don't assume that there is a lot of interaction. There's a lot of what they call microsegregation going on, and I think we see that in Park Slope.

Karol Markowicz: Absolutely. Yeah, for sure. And I think there's so many easy fixes, easier fixes to the schools if racial or economic diversity was really what they want.

Karol Markowicz: Alina Adams, a really excellent education writer. She says that parents will accept racial diversity, economic diversity. They will not accept educational diversity. And that's really where they're going wrong with this whole thing.

Kay Hymowitz: And I think a lot of it has to do with behavioral norms. I mean, I think a lot of middle-class parents, aspiring middle class parents who want the best for their kids, and want their kids to really achieve, are worried about the atmosphere in the schools, rightfully worried about it. I think that there are schools in New York City, and I don't think there are many in Park Slope that fit this description, but there are schools in New York City that are just a little out of control and where teachers are really having trouble controlling and principals are not doing much about it.

Karol Markowicz: Right. I think people listening might think that we're saying ... That it's about race. It's really not.

Kay Hymowitz: It's not. Oh, no. No, no.

Karol Markowicz: It's not. Yeah. I can think of several all white schools that are out of control.

Kay Hymowitz: And of course we have charters that are predominantly minority and they're very capable of bringing discipline. If you're thinking it's just a racial thing. I was talking over the, I guess it was over the summer to a guy from Ghana who was moving his girls. He was a stone worker, a very, very good one, struggled for years, but somehow put together enough money to buy two houses in Bed–Stuy, which now must be worth a pretty penny. But at any rate, he still was taking his kids back to Ghana, why? Because he didn't like the discipline of the schools that he was finding in Bed-Stuy. That is something that parents of all colors and ethnicities would like to see for their kids.

Kay Hymowitz: Well, I think that we're coming to an end of this discussion. Anything else you want to add about raising children in the city?

Karol Markowicz: Not that I could think of. I feel like we covered a lot of it. I would like the idea of my kids are going to know how to use the subway system in a few years by themselves. And my daughter already practices her subway face, where you have no expression at all and teaches my six-year-old son how to do it. These are all positives to me.

Kay Hymowitz: Well, soon they'll have phones and they can look at their phone.

Karol Markowicz: Right. Like the rest of us. Exactly.

Kay Hymowitz: Like the rest of us, exactly. All right. Karol, it's been lovely speaking with you.

Karol Markowicz: Thank you so much for having me.

Kay Hymowitz: Thanks for listening.

Photo: Orbon Alija/iStock

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