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“You’re moving to New Jersey?!!” wrote a friend on a Facebook Maplewood mom’s group I’d just joined. I knew what she meant: I wasn’t exactly the suburban-mom type, shuttling my kid to soccer and caring for a big house and a yard. I was a city girl (didn’t matter which one — I’d lived in NYC, LA, DC and Tel Aviv), a journalist racing around to find interesting stories and promote my latest book.
But after four months of lockdown last spring in a two-bedroom South Harlem apartment, as my husband and I tried working from home while coercing our preschooler onto her Zoom classes — I finally got on board with my spouse, who’d always wanted to try out the ’burbs.
Like the thousands of families exiting the city during COVID-19, we started our search. But where? New Jersey, Connecticut and Westchester all seemed the same to me: lands distant from family and friends, places to visit for a day, a weekend, maybe, but always to return to the hubbub of The Big Apple. Even a subdued one.
Because we had friends there, we chose Maplewood/South Orange (which I soon learned is called SOMA), populated by artists and hipsters and other non-typical “suburbia” types, who are seeking more space at a semi-affordable price.
And so, in July, every time my real-estate agent beckoned, I raced 50 minutes to Essex County, feeling like a doctor on call but arriving too late.
Every time I saw a twee IKEA-style Craftsman that made me feel like I stepped into the catalog, or a majestic white colonial with a wraparound porch where I could write my next book, they had bids on them before I could even consider putting in an offer (with help from our families).
Turns out half of Park Slope and the Upper West Side had the same destination in mind — and they were outbidding us by 20 percent, often waiving inspection fees or offering all-cash deals. So we expanded our search to towns like Montclair and West Orange, where it seemed like every few blocks there was a new school district with its own plans for reopening.
“Millburn has a great plan!” my agent said, explaining it was two hours of in-person public school and two hours on Zoom.
Great? With my daughter entering kindergarten, and her private Jewish school in the city planning on reopening, I started to reconsider these hasty plans to leave.
“I don’t think you really want to move to the suburbs,” said my friend, a therapist.
I knew in my heart he was right. But I also knew my husband was right — we couldn’t face another winter lockdown in a two-bedroom apartment. So I unsubscribed from Zillow, downloaded the StreetEasy app, and set a filter for a three-bedroom with outdoor space for around $3,500 a month — without the killer 1 month broker’s fee.
With a record 16,000 apartments sitting vacant, and 37 percent of New Yorkers earning more than $100,000 saying it was “somewhat likely” they’d leave the city in the next two years, I was hoping to finally afford a big new apartment. We were paying $2,600 — a steal for pre-COVID New York — but our landlord refused to lower the rent like other landlords, despite an increasing number of vacancies in our building.
In upper Manhattan — Washington and Morningside Heights, South Harlem and the Upper West Side — I saw abodes that would have been previously out of our price range: a four-bedroom next door to my sister in the Heights for $3,600, a three-bed-bath duplex with a patio in Manhattan Valley for $3,500, a three-bedroom with a rooftop on the Upper West Side for $2,700. We toured a three-bedroom duplex on the Upper West Side with a roof garden for $3,700 (plus agent fee); a garden apartment adjacent to Mount Morris Park for $3,200. I was ready to take either but the former was a fourth-floor walk-up and the latter had no living room.
“This just means that our apartment is out there,” my husband said.
He was right: In October, shortly after renewing our lease, which we’d renegotiated to month-to-month, we found a garden apartment … two blocks west in South Harlem for $3,000. It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms (not even on our wish list!) and one beautiful backyard.
I knew the moment I walked inside that it was home. Within a month, we’d moved.
So, for now, I remain — very happily — a city girl.
Amy Klein is a writer still living in NYC. Follow her on Twitter @AmydKlein and on Instagram.
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