How I gave up the house but found a life

Guest post by Charles Rubin
Suburbs to city living: How I gave up the house but found a life
Hoboken Map Print from Juanitas

For 22 years my family and I lived in Westfield, New Jersey, by many measures, the ideal place to raise a family. There are great schools, quiet leafy streets, multiple transportation options, a walkable downtown, and cultural and religious options to fit diverse tastes. Even its names evokes wholesomeness. When I arrived there in 1995, I knew within 30 minutes that it was the wrong place for me. It took us 22 years to undo that decision. I spent years telling myself that it was not so bad but always hating it. This is a story of finding my comfortable place in the world…

We arrived in Westfield through a division of chores between my wife and me. We had spent the previous three years living in Israel and had just returned to the US to be nearer our aging parents with four and seven-year-old daughters in tow. My job was to bring in some steady income. Being a network engineer, I had little trouble finding a position in midtown Manhattan. A position which I still have today.

My wife Lenore’s role was to secure housing. We were native New Yorkers but the city’s educational maze was just too daunting. An acquaintance from our time in Israel who then lived in and enthused about Westfield offered to take Lenore on a tour of central New Jersey communities. She spent several days touring his notion of the best towns: Cranford, Teaneck, Highland Park, Millburn, Summit, South Orange — it went by in a blur and Lenore returned to our temporary encampment with nothing decided. Time was running out and an ad in the newspaper about a two-bedroom garden apartment rental in Westfield seemed to offer a lifeline. Too tired to get there herself, Lenore asked our friend to check it out. His reaction: “It’s serviceable.”

After so many years, the suburbs still felt like an alien environment… Given the long commute, Westfield felt like a place where I slept but didn’t really live.

Two weeks later we moved into the apartment, sight unseen. We arrived at 5:15 on a late summer afternoon, the day before my daughter was to enter the third grade. We had promised her we would have all of her school supplies but were dismayed to find a deserted main street that closed its doors at 5:00pm

There are reasons why this town should have seen unsuitable to me. I have had a visual impairment since birth. This disability means that I don’t have a driver’s license. In the days before Lyft and other ride-sharing services, my world was built around the kindness of friends and relatives, public transportation, or where my feet and bicycle could take me. A leafy burg where many of the streets had no sidewalks and many services only found at the highway strip malls on distant Route 22 set off the warning bells on that first evening in town.

We stayed in that apartment for six years. In many ways it was the best place for us to live in Westfield despite being tiny with few amenities. Neighbors were friendly, there were loads of kids to play with, and rents were reasonable. It was, however, a mile and a half from the train station which either took 25 minutes to walk or eight minutes to bike. Add that to the 50-minute scheduled train ride and 15-minute walk to the office and I found that I was leaving the house at 6:30am and not getting home until 7:00pm on a good day.

In 2001, we bought a house reasoning that the kids were comfortable in school and suspecting that owning might translate to a greater sense of belonging. We spent 16 years in that house fumbling through home repair crises, shoveling snow, raking leaves, and worrying about where the next major expense would pop up. We also discovered that neighbors were a curious thing. On one side of us were a warm and engaging family that brought over a foccacia on move-in day and on the other was a couple whose hostility to us only grew as time went on. There were the normal disputes — his barking dogs, our unkempt front lawn — that just escalated over time. While we had more space to spread out, it felt more isolated and cramped. Our kids, used to apartment life with the reality of friends just outside the door, did not adjust well to the new circumstances of needing to be driven to play dates. No one just dropped in on our block.

After so many years, the suburbs still felt like an alien environment. Our kids were never into sports so that means of social interaction never happened for us. People seemed reluctant to invite us into their homes and when we invited people over, they sometimes came but never returned the invitations. Given the long commute, Westfield felt like a place where I slept but didn’t really live. We told ourselves that the kids were doing well in school and we didn’t know where else to go. The school excuse ended in 2009 when our youngest graduated from high school.

A year ago, we finally put our house on the market. It was a leap of faith. We did not yet know where we were going but selling the house would force that decision. It was a small house by Westfield standards on a busy street. It had a lot not going for it but, to the right family, it would be “serviceable.”

In late August, a couple came with their two daughters. Unlike many of the other viewers, they took the bus out from NYC. They came for the schools, much like us, and their girls were roughly the same ages as our daughters when we bought the house. We fell into easy conversation with them as their girls played in our backyard. As a clincher, we offered to drive them through town and drop them at the library which keeps Sunday hours and is one of Westfield’s greatest assets. This felt like a good match, although I did have some trepidation that they would eventually find the same downsides that I had. I tried my best not to share them.

The closing took place in January with a contingency that we agreed to rent for four months as they finished the school year in NYC. It gave us a comfortable cushion to figure out our next move.

Wherever we went, we would rent for at least a year before the next decision.

Early on we decided that, wherever we went, we would rent for at least a year before the next decision. The only criterion that we had to start with was that, after 22 years of long commutes, I wanted to get that time to 30 minutes or less. Friends made suggestions: South Orange, Weehawken, Riverdale. Visits to those places were disappointing. They seemed in too many ways just like the place we were trying to leave. It was then we realized what we wanted — stores, street life, social activities, a library that we could walk to and a building with an elevator.

Weehawken seemed the most affordable choice but, on a whim, we looked in Hoboken which we had always considered a little too hip and far too expensive for us. We visited the synagogue which, despite its imposing 100-year-old building, was warm and friendly with the rabbi following us out to the street after services to introduce himself and hear our story. Then we discovered that there were very attractive rental opportunities dealing directly with the landlords avoiding a broker fee. We looked at seven different buildings and went to a brick oven pizza place to weigh the options. One two-bedroom apartment with about the same square footage as our house and an 11-foot marble kitchen counter quickly rose to the top of the heap. The rent, however, was 50% more than we had paid on our mortgage. We concluded that it was something, that for a year at least, we could afford. We moved in a week before we had to vacate the Westfield house and have not looked back.

I pinch myself each day when I step off the bus three blocks from our apartment at 5:20pm, more than an hour earlier than I used to arrive home. The past summer was a whirlwind of outdoor concerts, movies, plays, and trying out what seems like hundreds of outdoor dining venues. I seem to have found an extra day of leisure somewhere. I leave an hour later for work in the morning and, somehow, get to the office earlier. There are, of course, negatives to consider. Parking is limited and there are panhandlers on Washington Street, the main drag.

We feel like we are the vanguard of a movement of older adults seeking a lifestyle that they could not find in the suburbs.

Time Magazine in their October 17, 2017 issue ranked Hoboken as one of the seven best places in the US to retire. When we mention to people that we meet in Hoboken that we just moved here from Westfield they remark that it’s usually the other way. Families generally leave Hoboken when their kids are of school age. Now we feel like we are the vanguard of a movement of older adults seeking a lifestyle that they could not find in the suburbs.

It’s still early in this experiment but I keep wondering why I did not make this move nine years ago. Suburbs may be wonderful for some people, but my visual impairment should have ruled it out. Many people crave space, I don’t. I love walking to the bus in the morning and seeing mothers and fathers walking their kids to school. I love having a supermarket across the street and too many restaurants to choose from. For now, I am close to work, in a place that delights and intrigues, in communities that welcome me, and somewhere that perhaps I can grow older gracefully in — a place that I fit, a place to call home.

Comments on How I gave up the house but found a life

    • 1. The American Dream of a house in suburbia with 2.5 children is not the dream of the author, even though it was his life. Living there brought him no joy, but he stayed because the ends (good schools, not uprooting the kids) justified the means.
      2. People consider “moving to the city” normal for 20-somethings, but not empty nest baby boomers.
      3. Small cities don’t get a lot of mainstream love, but they can be just as vibrant as big ones.

    • Not to mention the criteria of choosing a location when you’ve got a disability such as visual impairment. My brother, who crazily enough is also in IT and also visually impaired to the point that he’s not able to drive, moved out of “perfect” Maricopa AZ and back to the city of Chicago so that he could take public transit. He was tired of relying on his wife or friends to drive him places (including to work), and it was too much a strain on their relationship. It’s a huge concern people don’t really think about when they’re blessed as fully-sighted, fully-mobile, etc., and Offbeat Home does a great job of focusing on non-traditional families when it comes to the effect disabilities have on their choices, lives, and families.

  1. What a lovely post! It can be incredibly difficult to admit that the lifestyle we picked isn’t the one we wanted. Congratulations to you for finding your way to the home that fits you best, instead of the one usually packaged as the American Dream. I agree that we are likely to find more and more people moving back to the city for many reasons, including the desire for more accessible, culturally dynamic experiences.

    Thank you as well for the reminder that “more space” and “lower cost” don’t necessarily translate into more happiness. My husband and I are currently considering a similar move from a large apartment in an almost-suburb to a likely smaller, more expensive one closer to our city’s downtown, partly because my commute takes 75-90 minutes each way. In New England, that translates to leaving home before dawn and getting home after dark for most of the year. Long commutes can really grind you down when they mean you never see the sun, not to mention the sizable loss of non-working hours. Fingers crossed we can find a better fit, like you did.

  2. For years my husband and I lived in the suburbs because we both had full time freelance incomes. The truth was that we were miserable the whole time. We did the same as the OP for about 14 years before deciding to sell our second larger home in the burbs and move to a city closer to amenities. Yes it’s more expensive but we were able to give up at least one car and someone else now does the yard work and repairs. No more worrying about roof repairs costs, when the next sprinkler will break or what next major costly repair would sneak up even in a new house. That may all sound like we are lazy but I have an auto immune disease so being closer to good doctors helps plus real estate is not the “safe” investment it once was. We have more time for family and friends long neglected because of distance and something always needing looking after around the house or driving to doctor appointments. We only regret not making the decsion sooner.

  3. This is a great perspective to read! I was raised to believe part of being a successful adult is owning your own home, but there’s huge appeal in living within walking distance of the places you spend the most time at. My husband and I know that after retirement we want to live in the city, in a condo (landlords raising the rent every year stresses me out too much to rent) but now you’ve got me thinking about the possibility of doing that soon-ish.

  4. I appreciate hearing your point of view! My husband and I were born and raised in Columbus, Georgia, a conglomeration of neighborhoods. EVERYTHING is in a shopping center, near major roads. Due to chronic illness, I have not driven in nearly a year now. I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference, but I cannot walk to do anything as there is nothing near us. Once I get out of the neighborhood, I’m exhausted, and it’s still nearly a mile to the CVS. I feel like a burden on my husband because he has to drive me everywhere. But there’s hope yet! We’ve gotten two kids graduated, just four more years to get the youngest graduated. We can manage until then.

  5. Thank you for writing this. My 2 sons & I moved from a large city (Seattle, WA) to a small town in northern WI. We kept hearing, “Isn’t it wonderful to be in a small town?”, from the local residents. In actuality, it was miserable! The rent was indeed cheaper, however everything else was more expensive and the wages were much, much lower. You couldn’t get anywhere without driving – including a bike path (Yes, let that sink in for a moment….)! After 3.5 years, we moved back to a large city when my oldest graduated. He lives in Seattle & my youngest & I live in Portland, OR. We are all much happier!! There is so much to do & better opportunities. I love that I can look out the window & see our bus stop & walk to everything we need. We may have given up a large house & yard, but we gained a life in our “tiny house”. The suburb or small town living is not for everyone!

  6. Really glad to find your post. I am divorced after living in NJ suburbs for 20 years, with both kids gone now. I am scared but think I should sell my house and move to Jersey City/Hoboken or Brooklyn (my job is in Jersey City and I do a lot of activities in Brooklyn). Glad to hear it has worked so well for you!

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