[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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Sun Jan 22 01:32:34 UTC 2006
The Suburbs: For Some, It's a Disaster, and They Race Back to the City as Fast
as They Can
By TERI KARUSH ROGERS
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.
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
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
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
"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
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