Next month my family and I are moving to the Upper West Side. We know we are going against the flow, and so many people have asked us why we are doing it. My first post discussed why we initially chose to live in the suburbs. In part II of this multi-part series, I explain what we learned about ourselves and our own preferences from living in Riverdale. Part III here.
In the previous post, I explained that we initially chose Highland Park, NJ and Skokie, IL based primarily on convenience, with minimal information about the communities themselves or about our own preferences. Then, when we finally had a real choice of communities upon moving back to New York, we limited our choices to suburban communities for no better reason than the fact that we were coming from the suburbs. It was only after trying out our third suburban community in as many years that we started looking for a different kind of neighborhood.
Our realization that it was time to move from Elizabeth was made much more urgent when my wife got a new job. However, unlike either of her previous two jobs, this job required her to work from a real physical office. For the first time in our married lives, we were both going to be working outside the home, every weekday, from at least 9 to 5. The last straw for Elizabeth was that this office was located on the Upper East Side, a minimum one-and-a-half hour commute via NJTransit and the subway.
First, a bit of background regarding our specific situation. While many families today are dual income, with both parents working outside the home, relatively few are “dual career.” A career is something that you’re passionate about, that motivates you to study and advance over time. Dual career families face unique challenges that sometimes I’m not quite sure American society is prepared to deal with. My parents are dual career, and they’ve been dealing with these issues for years. But it wasn’t until this job opportunity that I realized the full extent of the challenges of dual careers.
If this were just some ordinary job, and if we had really fallen in love with Elizabeth, we may have just passed on the opportunity. But the position was not just a job. Rather, it was an extraordinary opportunity to advance her career and introduce her to people and experiences in her world of Jewish communal professionals that she may have never otherwise met or experienced.
My wife accepted the job and we immediately started spending every spare moment examining whatever Jewish communities were within mutual commuting distance of Jersey City and the Upper East Side. This was perhaps our third opportunity to choose living in Manhattan, but coming from a large house in Elizabeth rented for under $2000/month, I just couldn’t see spending so many multiples of that just to live in a cramped apartment.
In the course of our search we discovered Riverdale, a great compromise neighborhood between urban and suburban. On the one hand, we live in a 20-story apartment building, and many simple conveniences such as a CVS, Shop Rite, and multiple kosher restaurants are within easy walking distance. Riverdale is also dotted with many parks, playgrounds, and other essential urban amenities. On the other hand, it’s still pretty far from Manhattan’s CBD. Even a Metro North trip to East Midtown via Grand Central takes about 45 minutes door-to-door. Consequently, it is also much cheaper than the City, and our apartment in Riverdale would easily cost twice as much transported 8 miles south.
Even when examining Riverdale, we looked first at private houses. For most of my life I’ve lived in houses. Prior to Riverdale, my experience with apartments consisted of a few years living in a crowded dorm in college, no-frills graduate student apartments, and a rather old no-service building in Highland Park. In all of these apartments, the kitchens were tiny and had very cheap appliances, doing laundry was always a hassle, the hallways were dimly lit, and noise from neighbors was a perpetual concern.
When we moved to our apartment in Riverdale, the first thing I learned is that apartments can actually be very nice. The problem with the apartments I had previously experienced is not that they are apartments, per se, but with the way they were built. Granted, you will very rarely get a backyard with an apartment. But with a balcony and a roof deck, I hardly even noticed we didn’t have one. Between our apartment’s W/D in unit, brand-new kitchen, and soundproofing in the walls and windows, I never felt we were missing any of those “essential” features of a house. In fact, living in a full-service building, with a porter, doorman, and resident manager, can even have plenty of advantages over houses. In the past year, not once have I shoveled snow, raked leaves, or mowed grass. Maybe some people enjoy those things, but personally, I’d rather go to the park with my kids.
The second thing I learned while living in Riverdale is the importance of local amenities. In Elizabeth, my wife often drove our daughter to a ballet class in a town a few miles away. In Riverdale, the ballet class was next-door. Every Sunday we go to a farmers market less than a block away. Over the past year, we’ve had self-serve frozen yogurt, Sunday brunches at a local restaurant, super play dates at the Riverdale Y, festivals on the riverfront, and visited countless friends and neighbors, all without ever stepping into a car.
And as for cars, the other major concern people have is “how will you get around without a car?” Or, if we intend to bring a car, “where will you park?” Shortly after moving to Riverdale, we immediately downsized from two cars to one. Not only do neither of us take a car to work any more, but even on weekends we make many trips on foot or via transit (or even by bicycle, in my case). I’m no anti-car zealot. I’ll take a car when it’s appropriate. But the one thing I didn’t realize before is just how few trips truly require a car. When we move to the City, our plan is to keep our car parked at my office most of the time and only bring it home on the weekends when we plan to go away. I’ve already started making many local trips around Riverdale by bicycle. If it turns out we can make even more trips without a car, perhaps we will sell that car, too, and use zipcar on the rare occasions we need one.
So those are the lessons learned while living in Riverdale. Apartments are not all bad, and some can even offer a better quality of life than houses. Having high-quality local amenities within easy walking distance is very important to us. It really is possible to get around without a car. In my next and last post, I’ll discuss why we decided to leave Riverdale, the challenges we expect to face living in the City, and how we intend to deal with those challenges.