At 2 months old, little Luke Saghir looked every bit the quintessential Park Slope pipsqueak as he lolled on his dad’s lap during a recent family outing to the neighborhood milking hole, the Tea Lounge. Dressed in a boyish blue T-shirt inscribed in cutesy irony with the word “Truck,” he ogled the scene of Mac-tapping hipsters and ridiculously svelte baby-mamas through serene, Crayola-blue eyes. If he wasn’t exactly banging his fist to the Clash songs that blasted over the café’s sound system, drowning out the new-mom chitchat about weight loss and vaccines, he seemed perfectly content in this nouveau parent wonderland.
“He’s a Brooklyn baby,” declared his mom, Alexandra Saghir, eyes beaming through the lenses of her rhinestone-dappled vintage black eyeglass frames. “He’s even got a ‘Made in Brooklyn’ T-shirt.”
But while young Luke Saghir is Brooklyn-made and Brooklyn-bred, he is not actually Brooklyn-born. Instead, for his birth, his ma and pa trekked some eight miles to the western edge of midtown Manhattan, to St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital’s cozy birthing center in the sky. There, they were rewarded for their schlep with a cushy, homespun suite outfitted with hardwood floors, a hydrotherapy tub and a full-size bed from which Ms. Saghir could labor and push au naturel, the way our ancestors did.
“It’s so worth it,” said the 30-year-old Ms. Saghir. “St. Luke’s is the best birthing center. People come in from New Jersey and all over.”
And from Brooklyn, of course. Lots and lots from Brooklyn.
Mr. and Ms. Saghir, and their little boy Luke, are the avatars of a strange migratory two-step that has sent hordes of ambitious, thirtysomething yipsters scurrying east to Brooklyn to spawn, but back west to Manhattan to labor and deliver. The trend is not for lack of neighborhood hospitals with open beds or willing obstetricians; within brownstone-belt Brooklyn—the epicenter of the baby boomlet—there are at least three hospitals with beds, nurseries and trained, stethoscope-toting doctors: New York Methodist Hospital, Long Island College Hospital and the Brooklyn Hospital Center. But when it comes to delivering their precious belly cargo, many Brooklyn breeders often opt to car-service their way over bridges and through tunnels, rather than hop a few blocks to the nearest hospital.
The reasonss newbie parents choose to take the long route are many and myriad—and, inevitably, they have been endlessly analyzed, argued and hashed out on the message boards of ParkSlopeParents.com and other local sites. For some, it’s simply a matter of finding a doctor who takes their insurance or is in lunch-break distance from the office, their real hearth-and-home. For others, like Ms. Saghir, the driving rationale is the desire to go natural.
“St. Luke’s has pretty much the best and only birthing center in New York,” she said, turning to smile affectionately at her son. (In fact, Long Island College Hospital also has a birthing center, but many of the 20-odd women who spoke to The Observer, including Ms. Saghir, were under the impression that staffing shortages kept it closed most of the time. An LICH spokesperson said it is still open.)
But for many parents, who ordinarily sing long, complacent paeans to their adopted borough, the decision was motivated by the belief that neighborhood hospitals just aren’t up to par. Call them too posh to push in Brooklyn—or, more generously, too pre-emptively overprotective to labor at a local hospital. Never mind the thousands of healthy babies born each year in these parts. For many parents, rumors of understaffed baby wards run by mean Nurse Ratcheds who won’t let newborns sleep in their parents’ rooms—which are not even private!—have convinced them to head for the brand-name Manhattan hospitals.
“We weren’t going to go to the hospital here. It just doesn’t have a great reputation,” said a finance dad named David, 38, as he sat on a bench in Park Slope’s J.J. Byrne Park, gently rocking a Maclaren stroller (he declined to give his last name). Nestled inside the buggy was his 16-month-old son, Ethan, who was born in style at the Upper East Side’s Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Honestly, out of all the people I know with kids, I don’t know one person who has given birth at Methodist [Hospital]. Actually, one person in my building did, but that was years ago.”
A tall Danish daddy named Stig was even more blunt about his decision to trade the convenience of Brooklyn for the cushiness of New York University’s delivery suites.
“We have the perception that we wouldn’t get the top-quality service and care as in Manhattan,” he said during an afternoon out with his 5-month-old, Oliver, and his well-behaved 3-year-old, Ashley. “We are very conscious of what kind of services we use, and local is not always the best.”
Dr. John Brennan respectfully disagreed. A 17-year obstetrics veteran with privileges at LICH, he swore that the services are just as good on terra Brooklyn as they are in Manhattan—even if the rooms don’t come with their own Bose radios and roving Starbucks coffee carts, as they do at the Upper East Side’s Lenox Hill Hospital.
“I did my medical school at Columbia University in Manhattan, and I did a stint as the residency-program director and as the vice chairman of the department [at LICH],” he said. “And I can say that the quality of the care, as far as medical treatment and safety and outcomes, is the same. I would not work at a place if I did not feel it was safe and that my patients didn’t have good outcomes.”
Still, the popular Park Slope doctor is covering all his bases. In September 2002, he scored privileges at Lenox Hill to accommodate patient demand to give birth across the river.
Nor have neighborhood hospitals been immune to the pull of patient demand. Recognizing a fertile clientele when they see one, both LICH and New York Methodist Hospital have begun gentrifying their baby wards to meet their new clients’ tastes—adding a birthing center, in the case of LICH, or embarking on a hefty renovation at New York Methodist. (Until recently, Methodist Hospital was the subject of some of the fiercest parental criticism on neighborhood message boards, with moms moaning about everything from the lack of private rooms to “terrible” food and M.I.A. lactation specialists—lactation, apparently, being an essential part of Park Slope life.)
On a recent Monday morning, New York Methodist Hospital’s associate director of maternal child-health nursing, Theresa Uva, was zipping around the fourth-floor labor and delivery ward, doing her best zealous-realtor impression. Small and cheery, with a purple smiley-face sticker stuck to her lab-coat lapel, she proudly showed off fetal monitors, high-tech “Star Wars” lights and new postpartum rooms—all the while ticking off a list of planned innovations: 19 private overnight rooms, 50 beds total, a “tremendous” new nursery, future “support groups” for breast-feeding moms, a full-time lactation consultant and a postpartum consultant.
“I don’t think that any other hospital in Brooklyn will have 19 private rooms,” she said. “And this is basically because the patients want private rooms, and you want to be able to accommodate them. You’re trying to make the patient happy.”
And some, in fact, have been happy. Among the parents The Observer interviewed, four said they had given birth in Brooklyn—including one brave mama who delivered at home—and all pronounced themselves decently pleased.
“I live out here, and my doctor’s out here, and it didn’t occur to me to go [into Manhattan],” said a slender mother named Val, as she and two breast-feeding pals nursed and chatted about their new charges. They had just come from mommy-and-baby yoga—downward-dogging their way back into shape—and looked like a lactating version of Charlie’s Angels.
Still, the majority of Brooklyn’s baby-booming set continues to hightail it to Manhattan—despite some serious close calls. One woman’s cab driver got stopped by the cops for running a red light; another was traumatized by the bumpiness of New York’s pothole-pocked streets; and a third almost gave birth en route.
“If we had left any later, it would have been horrible,” said Rivka Shokrian, a stylish 30-year-old mom with an actress’ face, recalling her harrowing drive to St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital 10 months ago.
She had already been in labor more than 24 hours when her husband finally convinced the doula, who had come to their house to help in the early stages of labor, that it was time to go to the hospital. Facing “hard-core” minute-to-minute contractions, she began having to push when the car was about five minutes from St. Luke’s—and then promptly got caught in a traffic jam. By the time they arrived, she was already fully dilated. “I got to the hospital at like 6:40 [a.m.], and she was born at like 7:15 [a.m.],” said Ms. Shokrian with a laugh and a nod toward the doe-eyed mini-person prattling to her right. Her name was Ella. “Yeah, it was pretty quick.”
And, apparently, it was worth the risk—or at least most of the time.
“We made the choice to go to Manhattan,” said Saul Charney, one of the few hoary-headed men hanging about the Tea Lounge on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Mr. Charney had been sitting on a worn couch near two newbie moms, listening to their thoughts on the great Manhattan-vs.-Brooklyn debate, when he decided to share memories of his experience 18 years earlier.
“We went to Lenox Hill. I thought the doctor was good. But”—and here he paused for dramatic effect—“he ended up being accused of molesting patients.
“I still don’t believe it,” he sighed. “I thought it was horrible he got convicted.”