Why We Are Moving from the Suburbs to the City Part I: Why We Initially Chose the Suburbs

Next month my family and I are moving to the Upper West Side. We are leaving Riverdale after only a year and a half living there, after moving from Elizabeth, NJ. We know we are going against the flow, and so many people have asked us why we are doing it. Usually I just say, “to shorten our commutes,” but there’s more to it than that. This series of posts will attempt to explain our reasoning.  Part II here.  Part III here.

Parktowne Apartments in Highland Park. We lived on the top (fifth) floor, and it is the tallest building in the area.

My first deliberate housing decision was made in my final year of grad school, when I moved to Highland Park, NJ just a couple months before getting married. Since I was going to be finishing my PhD at Princeton while my wife was going to be working in NYC, we chose Highland Park as a halfway point. As it turned out, my advisor spent the year as a visiting professor at NYU, and so I spent a third of my days going to Princeton, a third working from home, and a third commuting into NYC, so perhaps we should have just lived in the city back then. However, I was just a student and my wife in her first year of work post-college, and we could barely afford the 1-bedroom apartment in Highland Park, let alone an apartment in Manhattan.

Port Clinton Square. Yes, it’s always this empty.

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Our house in Skokie. Amazingly, this house was built with outdoor carports instead of indoor garages. Those Chicagoans are a hardy bunch.

The next year I got my first real job, at a hedge fund with an office in the outer Chicago suburb of Highland Park, IL. The office was in a pleasant commercial district near the town’s train station, and may have been designed with many New Urbanist elements in mind, but the fact is it was most convenient to drive there. My wife was, fortunately, able to keep her job with the understanding she would be working from home most of the time. We chose to live in the inner-ring suburb of Skokie. We chose that because we were told there were relatively move young people there than in outer suburbs like Highland Park. Turns out that meant 30s and 40s, while those in their 20s, like us, were generally to be found in Chicago proper.

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My office in Jersey City. The bottom floors of most of these tall buildings are generally occupied by parking, revealing that the developers expected many of the commuters to drive here.

Two and a half years later we moved back to the NY area, again for my work. This time I’d be working in Jersey City. The truth is we probably should have moved to Manhattan then, but having lived in the suburbs for the last few years, I only looked at other suburbs. Since Jersey City is not easily accessible from Westchester or Long Island, that meant NJ suburbs. [Actually, Jersey City is only connected by transit to Manhattan and to a few nearby cities in NJ. Everyone else drives.] Since my wife was still going to be working from home, the primary factor in choosing a community was the presence of an Orthodox synagogue and my commute time. The decision was a close call between Elizabeth and Teaneck. A shorter commute, cheaper cost of living, and a private tour of the neighborhood given by strangers I contacted over the Internet who eventually became good friends led us to choose Elizabeth.

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Our house in Elizabeth. Built in the 1890s, this house no longer faces the street because the street has since moved.

After two years of living in Elizabeth we started doing some soul-searching about where we really wanted to live. Elizabeth has a lot of great things going for it, including some of the nicest and most welcoming people in the New York area, and a really low cost of living.  I have to admit I was mostly OK with the way things were, but my wife knew she wanted something different.

Living in the suburbs, the majority of entertainment options are home-based.  For plenty of people, backyard barbecues, watching movies in an expansive living room, and letting the kids play in a dedicated playroom inside the house constitute a great lifestyle.  We always found that a bit boring.  We tried hard to go out for entertainment while living there, but whenever we did, it was always some place far, at least a 20 minute drive away.

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In the backyard in Elizabeth, swinging my daughter.  Other than the junk left there by the landlord’s kids, it was pretty and verdant.

We often drove to Westfield, parked the car and strolled around their pleasant downtown for a few hours. We went to the Jersey Shore in the summer, and apple picking in Central NJ farms in the fall. We went to Teaneck a few times, in part because we were still considering moving there, although it probably would have had many of the same issues for us as Elizabeth. On a few  occasions we even went into the City, but it always seemed like a huge trek.

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Ayelet playing on the rock-climbing wall in Elizabeth’s playground. Other than a few hours Shabbat afternoon, this playground was either empty or had exclusively non-English speakers.

The one thing we rarely did is go out within Elizabeth.  I tried to bike around, but the roads immediately outside our neighborhood were not very bike-friendly. There was a nice, new playground nearby, to which we sometimes walked from our house, but frankly it wasn’t dramatically better than just staying in our backyard. Other than that, Elizabeth did not have many of the types of stores and destinations we were looking for.  Elizabeth has a commercial strip, Elmora Ave, that is sort-of within walking distance, but it was dominated by nail salons, Mexican take-out, and 99-cent stores. However even in suburbs with a more upscale collection of stores it is rare that one can comfortably walk there from home. And so we realized, after two and a half years living in Elizabeth, that we wanted a change.

In my next post, I will discuss why we chose to move to Riverdale and what we learned about ourselves while living there.

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2 thoughts on “Why We Are Moving from the Suburbs to the City Part I: Why We Initially Chose the Suburbs

  1. I’ll bet all that moving has an upside, though: it forces you to throw out all the junk that a typical family accumulates over the years. You’re probably mean and lean!

    • Marc,

      Thanks for commenting. You’re absolutely right. We got rid of a decent amount of stuff going from a house to an apartment, but we are certainly getting much leaner this time around, moving from a 3BR to a 2BR. Not to mention we added a child over this period!

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