While the City of Boston’s overall population grew by 9.4 percent in Census 2020, the 0-17 youth demographic declined again to just 15 percent citywide. Dorchester and Mattapan, however, continue to be home to a bigger-than-average youth population, with more than 20 percent in the youth category.
Even so, youth populations in Dorchester are much lower than they were even 20 years ago, leaving a plethora of robust youth programs and schools that serve kids competing for a smaller and smaller number of children and teens.
By the numbers, Dorchester had 26,826 youth aged 0-17 representing 22 percent of the total population. In Mattapan, the youth population was 5,323, which was also 22 percent of that neighborhood’s total number. Only Roxbury came close to those two neighborhoods, at 20.7 percent of its total population.
West Roxbury and East Boston had 19 percent, and many other Boston neighborhoods were far below – once-youthful South Boston accounted for 11 percent and Allston totaled 6 percent.
The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), which does extensive research on census numbers, said the two neighborhoods with the highest percentage remained the cradle of youth because of a larger and more diverse population overall and their youth numbers.
BPDA officials said both Dorchester and Mattapan are areas more suited for larger families, as opposed to places like Jamaica Plain and the South End, which have more young people and couples. That is mostly because, they said, there are larger housing units in the two neighborhoods. Additionally, they said, the Latino population in Boston increased tremendously in Census 2020. In Dorchester the Latino population went from 17 percent in 2010 to 20.7 percent in 2020. The BPDA said their research indicates that the Latino population tends to have larger households with kids. In the recent Census, Dorchester and Mattapan were in the top three for average size of household, at 2.6 per unit. Only Hyde Park was larger, at 2.7 per unit.
In the Boston Public Schools (BPS), the number of students from Dorchester and Mattapan is put at 15,837 students, which is 31 percent of the entire BPS enrollment. That, of course, does not capture the large numbers of charter school and private/parochial school students in the neighborhood.
“I think we are clearly noting some enrollment decline in the schools,” said Monica Roberts, BPS chief of Family and Community Advancement. “We are seeing that in Dorchester as well, but Dorchester remains the area that most of our families and students come from. We are seeing some declines in Mattapan also.”
With those numbers, Dorchester and Mattapan remain the prime places for families in the city – with the most schools (public, charter, and private), well-functioning youth sports, and many after-school program providers.
Even so, historically the numbers are down for the two neighborhoods, though it isn’t as steep a decline as it has been for South Boston – which went from about 35 percent youth population (ages 0-19) in 1970 to this year’s 11 percent.
In Dorchester, the 2010 Census had the youth population (which was measured then at 0-19) at 29 percent, or 32,755 young people. In 2000, it was 33 percent at 39,210. The height in modern times was in 1970, when there was a 41 percent youth population, which meant 58,808 young people – more than twice as many as in 2020.
In Mattapan, that neighborhood hit its height in 1980, when it had 35 percent youth population (again, age 0-19), which was 8,030.
One temperature gauge for the vibrancy of youth population is sports and programming.
Candice Gartley, the director of All Dorchester Sports & Leadership (ADSL), said they have some programming that attracts a lot of kids – like the collaboration between organizations that produced a well-attended summer basketball league at Town Field this year. But when they go out on their own for specialty programming, ADSL sometimes find there are no kids around to attend.
“For us, the numbers are worrisome because it affects our ability to fundraise,” she said. “We worry from year to year and hope we get the money to run the program...We started a girls’ program this year, and only two girls showed up. You wonder why they didn’t come and where are the girls.
“Ultimately, we have to support the families,” Gartley added. “It becomes worrisome because if we can’t prove we’re doing the job that the money they gave us was for, then the money for everything goes away. It’s a large concern because we offer some programs, and the kids just aren’t there.”
She said that youth baseball programming in the neighborhood – whether ADSL or others – has been on the decline for years citywide. She said they struggle to understand why the numbers aren’t there for baseball. Is it because there are fewer kids in the neighborhood or baseball is just not popular with the young.
“Baseball participation has declined enormously in this area,” she said. “Our numbers are way, way down, and so are others. That’s why Dorchester Baseball merged with Cedar Grove; they didn’t have the numbers, and that’s citywide. All the leagues meet in the city and they all say the same thing.”
Kevin Monahan, commissioner of the ADSL girls’ softball program, said the numbers for the girls are up, but he said he sees overall priorities steering away from family activities like youth sports.
Monahan, a South Boston native, recalled that the neighborhood once included 16 Little League teams and a robust youth hockey league. Both have seriously eroded, he said, since he was a kid. And he fears that Dorchester might be headed in that direction – albeit at a much slower pace.
“Everyone wants dog parks now and they don’t want athletic fields, and we have a hard time finding places to play softball,” he said. “It’s increasingly the single or married professional with a dog and they want to have a place to walk their dogs and they aren’t at all interested in playing fields…In two projects we were involved in, they were a very vocal group and demanding and they got what they wanted. It’s a twist on the census numbers, but I think it’s an indicator of where the city is going.”
In the schools, Roberts said, they have learned in talking with other big city districts that the trend of fewer kids in big cities is not unique to Boston. She said some of that has to do with the pandemic, and people leaving cities in 2020, but other parts of it are longer-term trends.
“This is a trend we’re seeing all through urban districts – a decline in enrollment and a decline in school-age kids in large urban cities,” she said, noting that this was discussed by the Council of Great City Schools, which BPS belongs to.
Roberts said BPS plans to get more competitive as the neighborhood numbers decline by looking to aggressively attract students who are new to the district or that have been lost to charter schools or private schools.
With fewer kids, she said “playing nice in the sandbox” with everyone might be more difficult.
“We are thinking about how to recapture market share,” Roberts said. “We don’t have all the kids in the city. We are thinking about how to communicate our value at BPS versus our counterparts at the charter schools, private schools, and parochial schools…In the past we have all kind of played nicely in the sandbox.”
Meanwhile, Gartley said she sees signs of maybe a potential change – strollers in and about the neighborhood.
“What I’ve noticed lately in this area is so many young families in the neighborhood,” she said. “I’ve picked up on that lately. You’ll see a couple with a baby and a stroller and a French bulldog. When my kids were younger, there were so many kids. Then in the mid-1990s and up to 2010, there was nothing. I’m seeing signs of kids once again.”