[Paleopsych] NYT: The Suburbs: For Some, It's a Disaster, and They Race Back to the City as Fast as They Can

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The Suburbs: For Some, It's a Disaster, and They Race Back to the City as Fast 
as They Can

    Goodbye, Suburbs


    FOR many New York City families, January is the cruelest month. It is
    a time to get seriously claustrophobic in an apartment stocked with
    young children and the vast plastic undergrowth in which they thrive.
    It also a time for many to ponder the absurdity (or impossibility) of
    paying thousands upon thousands of dollars for private-school tuition,
    soon due for the coming semester.

    But those plotting a hasty exit to the suburbs (the space! the
    schools! the space!) may want to consider the experience of others who
    went before them, only to double back within a year.

    "I'm never leaving the city again; I'm terrified of leaving the city,"
    said Anna Hillen, 42, summing up the prevailing sentiment among the
    repatriates interviewed for this article.

    Ms. Hillen, her husband, Gerry McConnell, 42, and their son, Duncan,
    who was 1 at the time, vacated their TriBeCa loft in December 2001,
    shortly after 9/11. They bought a 6,000-square-foot newly built
    McMansion on three acres in the upscale, semirural Westchester enclave
    of Pound Ridge, N.Y., not far from the country homes they had rented

    "It was just a giant, echoing space," Ms. Hillen said, adding, "It was
    great to have all that room, but we never used it," except to put up
    extended family on holidays.

    Once settled, Ms. Hillen, a stay-at-home mother, embarked on a
    fruitless hunt for companionship. "Out there, you have to work at
    being with people," she said. "In a year, I got one play date for my
    kid. We joined the Newcomers Club, and the day we put our house on the
    market, they finally called. You'd go to the library for a reading and
    there would be no one there." She added, "You're a lonely, desperate
    housewife with nothing to do."

    Even the playgrounds were desolate. "And on the rare occasions there
    was somebody there and you struck up a conversation," she said, "they
    would literally move away. And they didn't encourage the kids to play
    together. We were so shocked."

    She spent every Wednesday in the city. At home, she busied herself
    with gardening. Still, she said, "you could only garden so many hours
    a day. And Duncan - I mean, you wouldn't think at one and
    three-quarters they're set in their ways but they are. He wouldn't go
    outside. In the summer I would stand outside with a Popsicle and go,
    'Come on, honey, you can have a Popsicle if you come outside.' But he
    would just stand at the door."

    After nine months, she persuaded her husband - who was enjoying his
    truncated commute to his financial services job in Greenwich, Conn. -
    to sell the house. "Summer had come and gone and I was looking at
    another winter of being completely alone," she said, citing frequent
    power failures as another concern, along with the so-so restaurants
    and lack of food delivery. "He was very supportive, the poor man."

    By December 2002, the house was sold at a loss and the furniture
    stowed away, and the family was tucked back into their old
    1,800-square-foot, two-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment in TriBeCa,
    which they had never got around to selling.

    It's worth noting that the suburbs are populated by plenty of
    satisfied former city dwellers harboring few, if any, regrets. Fully
    expecting to join the ranks of the contented, most of the couples
    interviewed here said their motivation for moving out was linked to a
    vague understanding that it was a prerequisite for raising children -
    a normal transition from one phase of life to the next, and one in
    which they would find plenty of company.

    "Everybody says when you get the baby, you leave the city," said Ronn
    Torossian, 31, the president and chief executive of 5W Public
    Relations in Midtown Manhattan. In July, he and his wife, Zhana - who
    have a 1-year-old daughter - sold their large one-bedroom on West 68th
    Street and Broadway and moved into a 3,500-square-foot split-level
    house in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., near friends. With the help of Ilan
    Bracha, a broker at Prudential Douglas Elliman, who had sold their
    apartment on West 68th, they moved back in December to a three-bedroom
    rental a block south from where they started.

    "It's like death out there," said Mr. Torossian, a fast-talking Bronx
    native who resisted the comparatively tempered pace, like food
    delivery that stops at 9 p.m. and a newspaper delivered at 7:30 a.m.

    "I can't wait 15 minutes in a bagel store to get two bagels," he said.
    "I can't have people looking at me like I'm crazy when I walk in and
    put a quarter on the table to get my paper and walk out. I go home and
    there's, like, people doing their lawn every five minutes. They seem
    like normal people but they spend, like, hours working on their lawn."

    What pushed him over the edge, he said, was the "drama" of his commute
    by car into Midtown. At 5 a.m., when Mr. Torossian ordinarily made the
    trip to avoid traffic, it took as little as 17 minutes. But coming
    home took three or four times that (two hours or more in foul
    weather), partly because of the bottleneck at his Midtown garage.
    "Calling ahead doesn't work because everybody leaves at the same
    time," he said. "If you don't bribe the guys there, you wait 15 to 20
    minutes for your car." He said he spent $100 a week in tips.

    His miasma has evaporated since his return to the city last month. "I
    feel like I'm walking on water," he said. "It's just a whole level of
    stress eliminated from my life. I go out a lot more, it's allowed me a
    lot more time to spend with my daughter, it's less stressful at work.
    It's phenomenal."

    Others who came back noted that beyond the city's borders,
    neighborhoods aren't exactly what they seem.

    "You go to these little towns and they are very charming and sweet and
    have all these cute little shops," said Brian Lover, who put his West
    Orange, N.J., house back on the market just three months after moving
    there. "But I think when you live in these areas full time, those
    neighborhood shops aren't so cute. And those neighborhood restaurants
    that look so great, you know how bad they really are."

    Mr. Lover, 42, a vice president at the Corcoran Group, and his wife,
    Kristina Rinaldi, 41, an interior decorator, decided to give up their
    one-bedroom rental on West 55th Street when they had a daughter,
    Tallulah. They wanted to live in Montclair, N.J., a popular magnet for
    exurbanites. Outmatched in bidding wars, they expanded their search to
    neighboring West Orange. There they became besotted by "an old English
    Tudor with a slate roof, character, an acre and a half of land," said
    Mr. Lover, who worked as a fashion advertising director for Esquire
    magazine at the time.

    In July 2001 they bought the house for $480,000; it came with a tinge
    of unreality. "Every day when I came home, I would say to myself, 'I
    really am a king and this is a castle, and who do I think I am?' "

    With their baby in tow, the couple stalked the parks and Gymboree
    classes in nearby Montclair, figuring "that's where we'll find the
    city people and the cool parents," Mr. Lover said. "But there wasn't
    anyone we could find a core to. It was all air." As for the city
    people they'd hoped to meet? "They were city people, not anymore," he
    said. "The suburbs have some way of sucking the city out of you."

    The events of 9/11 provided the final shove eastward. "We felt an
    empty pit in our stomachs because it was our city and we weren't
    living there with our friends who lived there," he said. The couple
    rented a 1,500-square-foot loft (sans interior doors) on Nassau Street
    near ground zero.

    "We lost a little bit of money," Mr. Lover said of the retreat back to
    familiar ground. "For a lot of people that would be kind of torturous.
    For us, I didn't care about the money. I wanted my life back."

    A short drive from Montclair up the Garden State Parkway lies
    Ridgewood, N.J., considered by many to be among the most desirable of
    New Jersey's commuter towns.

    "It's definitely someone's dream; it's just not our dream," said
    Andrew McCaul, a 37-year-old photographer who moved from Ridgewood
    back to Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, in June - exactly one year after
    buying a $580,000 three-bedroom Dutch colonial, in walking distance of
    town, with his wife, Sarma Ozols, 36, and their son Aidan, now 2.

    Their suburban sojourn started off promisingly in June 2004. "It was
    like a honeymoon period where it felt like we had a country house in
    the summer," Mr. McCaul said. But after three months, he said, "real
    life started setting in."

    There was the commute, for one thing. "You kind of trick yourself into
    thinking the commute is going to be easier than it is," said Mr.
    McCaul, who only occasionally caught the express train for a 40-minute
    door-to-door commute. "I spent many depressing nights at the Hoboken
    station," he added, waiting more than half an hour for a connection.

    "If you go out for a drink with friends, you're always watching the
    clock," he said. Adding insult to tedium, Mr. McCaul suffered through
    the suburban version of the Freshman 15, putting 10 to 15 pounds on
    his normally thin frame, which he attributed to his mostly
    nonpedestrian lifestyle.

    Though the couple liked their neighbors, Ms. Ozols, a photographer at
    home part time with her young son, recalled feeling cut off. "I didn't
    have a community of moms, and I guess that would have come in time if
    my child were older and going to school," she said. "It's not as easy
    as being in Brooklyn where you just start talking at the playground
    and there's always someone to talk to."

    She also found that the unaccustomed space - the house was roomy
    compared with the 850-square-foot rental they had left behind -
    "weighed on me," she said. And she developed an unfamiliar, unwelcome
    compulsion toward domesticity. "On Thanksgiving, I kind of felt I had
    to be Martha Stewart, with all the right plates and everything," she

    They listed the house last Mother's Day and sold it for $60,000 more
    than they had paid. The couple, who now also have a 4-month-old child,
    Julian, put the proceeds toward a 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom,
    two-bath condo loft in Carroll Gardens West. "The space is a lot
    smaller, but it's all we need," Ms. Ozols said.

    Melanie Williams, 40, also determined that smaller can be better. In
    February 2004, she exchanged a $950-a-month, rent-stabilized
    two-bedroom apartment in a "decrepit" Hell's Kitchen building for a
    spacious $1,350-a-month four-room apartment in Riverdale, a
    suburban-feeling section of the Bronx, in part because of the good
    public schools available to her daughter, Dorothy, now 5.

    "It was just like this land of no culture," said Ms. Williams, who
    owns Plain Jane, a children's home furnishings shop on the Upper West
    Side. "You never met anybody. There's one little street with a meat
    market on it. It was very bizarre but beautiful."

    Petty crime troubled them. The family car was broken into several
    times while parked on the street - an unfortunate necessity, she said,
    because all the garages were full. And over the next nine months, she
    said, both she and her actor/carpenter husband, Andrew Finney, 44,
    came to realize that although they had moved, "our life was still in
    New York."

    In November 2004, they rented a 900-square-foot loft in the financial
    district, in the well-regarded Public School 234 school district,
    which cost a third more than the Riverdale apartment. "It didn't
    matter," she said. "We had to get out of there."

    Some couples beating hasty tracks back to the city allowed that things
    might have turned out differently if they had school age children to
    provide a firmer wedge into the community.

    "It was a little premature for us, because we don't have kids," said
    Sara Mendelsohn, about the move she and her husband, Brian, made to a
    one-bedroom co-op in Great Neck on Long Island this past spring. The
    27-year-old newlyweds bought and renovated the dwelling after deciding
    their money wouldn't go far enough in Manhattan.

    Things went well at first. "We bought a car and really enjoyed having
    that kind of freedom," said Ms. Mendelsohn, who works as a business
    planner at Marc Jacobs. "And we always spend our summers out on the
    island at either one of our family's homes." But they failed to
    integrate into the community - in large part because they couldn't
    find it.

    "When we come home and walk from the train to our apartment, there's
    no one on the street between 7 and 10 p.m.," she said. "It's just that
    feeling of being alone. You walk the dog and there's no one there."
    She and her husband, who works in media sales, listed their apartment
    for $299,000 in October; they have been working with Barbara Haynes at
    Bellmarc and Lauren Cangiano at Halstead to find a place to rent or
    buy in the city.

    Learning the hard way, twice, Mary A. Sweeney, an Upper East Side
    registered nurse, moved back and forth - then back and forth again -
    to Poughkeepsie. (The first chapter, beginning in 2000, lasted almost
    two years; she blamed the second, three-month-long episode, occurring
    in 2003 when Ms. Sweeney was newly pregnant with her third child, on
    "lack of oxygen going to the brain.")

    Ms. Sweeney, 36, recalled the many disconnects she discovered between
    fantasy and reality.

    "We had this beautifully landscaped acre-and-a-half of land for the
    kids to play in, but we were terrified of Lyme disease," Ms. Sweeney
    said. "We lived in a cul-de-sac and it was lovely but if we biked off
    the cul-de-sac, we were on these beautiful country roads that were
    curved so that bike riding on them wasn't so safe. We realized we were
    far safer going to Central Park, really playing with the kids and
    having our picnic, especially in the summertime."

    She mostly stayed at home while her husband, Azeddine Yachkouri, 43,
    commuted to his job as a banquet manager at the Mandarin Oriental
    hotel in Manhattan. "It was lovely for him to drive home to me and the
    kids and the house and then drive back to the city the next day and
    work and socialize," she recalled. "But for me, when this retreat is
    my everyday life, it became monotonous and mundane."

    In the city, "I can go out with the girls when my husband is late at
    work or I don't feel like cooking," she said. "We can go into
    family-style restaurants with great buzz, great atmosphere."

    Though the Sweeneys' house was many times bigger than their old
    two-bedroom apartment, it exerted an unforeseen undertow. "All of a
    sudden you find all these projects to do in the house," she said. "It
    keeps you indoors more than you ever thought."

    She added: "We looked at other communities - Scarsdale and so forth -
    and it was the same thing. It was beautiful houses on these beautiful
    streets and as soon as the children were in school you could hear a
    pin drop on the streets. The only life was the birds chirping. I
    prefer to interact with my doorman or the guy on the corner of the
    street where you get your paper or your coffee."

    Those who have left and returned sometimes share their wisdom with
    friends who are considering the same move. "When people tell us that
    they're thinking about it, I'm like, don't do it," Ms. Ozols said.
    "But everybody has to get it out of their system. If we didn't do it,
    it would still be in the back of our heads. Maybe I would tell them to
    rent instead."

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