Three Years Into the “Move to SUMA”: Was Moving to the Suburbs the Right Decision?

Three years ago today, I moved out of the city.  I was 41 years old. I had lived in New York City since 1992, for most of 17 years, and was horrified about how moving to the suburbs of my youth was going to destroy my urban sensibility, and turn me into another colorless suburban drone.  The whole conceit of the “Move to SUMA” was the inside joke that “SUMA” was just another Manhattan neighborhood, that I needed to convince myself that I wasn’t actually moving into the suburbs if I wanted to survive.

So for the past three years or so, I’ve written about the good and the bad about living in the suburbs. I wrote about all my stereotypical suburban experiences — like getting a dog, buying an SUV, having a child, trying to find decent takeout food – and some less-than-stereotypical adventures, like when I almost killed my poor dog, or virtually destroyed my new boat.  Over time, I’ve also come to be a bit more of an advocate for the suburbs, almost to “validate” my decision — sometimes jokingly by pointing to all the celebrities allegedly joining me in suburban splendor, and other times more seriously to defend my new home from critics who argue that the suburbs are dying.  

But as I came to the third anniversary of my move out of the city, I realized that I’d never come right out to say whether I think I made the right decision to move to the suburbs. So let me make that clear: as much as it pains me to admit it, moving to the suburbs was the right call.

In fact, looking back, I’m surprised that it was a close decision at all. I’d had 17 years in the city, was looking to raise a family, and in my case my job was actually already in the suburbs.  And the more I look at the life I was actually living, the sacrifices I was making to maintain my self-perception as a smart, sophisticated city person were just too great. Frankly, it would have been monstrously selfish and unfair to try to navigate through the next phase of my life, as a parent, while still clinging desperately to that urban vanity.

For other people, the calculus might be different. If you don’t have kids, or you have enough personal wealth to provide enough space for those kids, or your work requires you to maintain that intimate urban sensibility, then maybe it makes sense to stay in the city.  I’m certainly not going to begrudge anyone that choice, particularly since it’s the choice I made for so long.

The longer I live in the suburbs, though, the more I realize that it was the right choice for me at that stage in my life. Like many people, the decision to move from the city is bound up in the decision to simply “grow up” – to get married, have kids, settle down.  It’s tough to separate one from the other.  Would I have moved from the city if I wasn’t married, or not planning to have a kid?  Maybe not.  But then I’d also have to think about the life I would have today as a 44 year old single childless man living in Manhattan, and whether that’s the life I want for myself.  That’s not a particularly pretty picture.

Moreover, I’m finding it increasingly tough to separate out my longing for the city from the general romanticizing about the life I had when I was younger.  That is, do I really miss the city, or do I just miss being the 25 year old, or even 35 year old, me who happened to live in the city — not married, no dog, no kid?   Basically, without a whole lot of responsibility and at the beginning, rather than middle, of my career?   Yes, I miss the freedom I had when I was 30 to get together with my friends Tom and Woody on a random night to play some pool and drink some beer.  But then I have to remember that they both moved out of the city years ago.  That life ended long before I moved to the suburbs.

I think that’s the challenge that anyone thinking of moving to the suburbs has to face.  Don’t think about the life you had in the city, and how living in the suburbs is going to change it.  Rather, think about the life you are looking to have, and where it makes more sense to try to have that life.

I started writing this blog to address the question of whether living in the suburbs would change me.  But that’s the wrong way to put it.  The better question is this: how will I change while I’m living in the suburbs?  The change is going to happen regardless of where you get your mail. It’s going to happen the first time you look around and realize that you’re the oldest guy in the club, or when you have a party and realize that all your friends have to drive in from their new homes, or when you realize that you can’t take cabs around the city with your baby in your lap.  The suburbs don’t change you.  You change.

And that change can sometimes be hard to accept.  You don’t want to be the guy with the two SUVs, and the Costco membership, whose nightlife revolves around game night with the other parents.  You want to be that other guy, the cool guy who still goes to Arlene’s to hear bands and chat up 25 year olds with navel rings.  But you’re not that guy anymore, not because you moved out of the city, but because that guy simply got older.  You can make the choice to stay in the city, but you don’t get the choice to be young again.  The question is whether you’re willing to accept the life you’re actually living, and give up the life that you’re living only in your head.

The mistake all us urban exiles make is that we compare our lives in the suburbs to the lives we had at the moment we left the city, a life experience captured at a perfectly romanticized point in time and lovingly encased in amber.  And then we flog ourselves mercilessly for all the compromises we’ve made and everything we’ve given up —  i.e., “can you believe I drive a minivan?” – without recognizing how many of those compromises were simply the inevitable result of, well, growing up.

And that’s what it’s really about – growing up. As I wrote last year in a riff on an old Winston Churchill quote: ”If you’re not living in the city at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not living in the suburbs at forty you have no brain.”  I lived in the city for much of my 20s and most of my 30s, and that was right.  But now that I’m in my 40s, I can’t imagine what life would be like for me if I was still living in a fourth floor walkup with a 18 month old kid and a dog.  Okay, I can imagine it.  Horrible.

But I can’t blame the suburbs.  The suburbs didn’t do this to me. The suburbs didn’t make me an uncool dad who goes out maybe once a month and drives a seven-seater crossover. For better or worse, I did it to myself. I just happened to live in the suburbs when I did it.

The Grass is Always Greener: Why People Who Live in the Suburbs Want to Live in the City, and People Who Live in the City (Surprisingly) Want to Live in the Suburbs

Greg Hanscom put up an interesting take on on the discrepancy between where people say they want to live (dense cities) and where they actually seem to be ending up living (sprawling suburbs).  He points to polling data that came from the real estate advising firm RCLCO showing that 88% of Millenials and even their Baby Boomer parents express a desire to live in denser and less car-dependent settings, which is in conflict with census data showing population growth in the suburbs and declines in the cities.

His take:

  • Lots of Millenials would LOVE to move to the cities, but to do that they need of them jobs that no one seems to be able to get these days. So they’re camping out at their parents’ place in the suburbs, “watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia reruns and dreaming of big city living.”
  • Although crime is down in the big cities, but not enough to diminish frightening images of the city as violent places.
  • And although young people like to live in the cities, they pack up for the suburbs as soon as they have kids.

Finally, he makes a brilliant point that maybe this is all about something deep in the American psyche that makes us consistently pine for that which we don’t have, almost a “grass is always greener” perspective that affects all of us.  He points out that according to a 2009 Pew poll, 46% of the public “would rather live in a different type of community from the one they’re living in now — a sentiment that is most prevalent among city dwellers.”

It’s a brilliant post, and I think he’s right on all counts.  Without question young people want to live in the cities — why wouldn’t someone who is 25 prefer to live in a place with abundant nightlife opportunities, ethnic diversity, culture, and public transportation that allows you to drink your face off and still get home safely?  And, conversely, it’s also abundantly clear that people tend to gravitate toward the larger living spaces afforded in the suburbs once they start filling up their 600 square foot apartment with a bunch of screaming children.

Moreover, I think there’s something to the “grass is greener” affect.  Most people who live in the city tend to settle down into a torpid state where they take all that great city stuff for granted.  Like me, they stop going out so much, particularly as they get older, and spend more time in their home and surrounding neighborhood.  And then they increasingly realize that, boy, it really sucks to spend 90% of your time in a two-room apartment, so they pine away for the larger, greener pastures of the suburbs.  Then, of course, you have people like me who move to the suburbs for a lot of good reasons, but look around one night at the Cheescake Factory and think that they’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.  Essentially, we all want what we don’t have, particularly if we used to have it.  It must be something deeply wired into our brains to keep us constantly on the move, always looking for something better, that helped us get through the caveman days.  But it really does make it difficult to appreciate what you have.

So I have no problem admitting that I’m one of those people: I moved to the suburbs, but I really do miss living in the city, and I’m certainly happy that I got my 17 years of urban living in before I exiled myself.

I’ll also say this: if you’re reading this, and you live in the city, go do something. Go to the park, or a club, or a great restaurant, or stare at paintings.  That’s why you’re living in the city, why you’re sacrificing all that money and comfort.  So go do it.  Before it’s too late.

Why Everyone Should Own a Dog, Including and Especially Single Men

We’ve had the Kozy dog for a little over a year now, and I will say without reservation that it is the best decision that I have every made, other than marrying my wife, a clarification I feel obligated to make because I do enjoy the occasional sexy time that I would almost certainly never have again if I said that buying a dog was a better decision than getting married. Not to mention that, with the real estate market struggling like it has, I don’t quite have the wherewithal to give up half my money.  So the wife is the best decision, no question.  But the dog was a pretty good one, too.

Here’s why: no one has ever been as happy to see me, at any point in my life, as that dog is every single time I come home.  I’ve never seen such joy. It’s at a level of Times Square at the end of World War II, but EVERY SINGLE DAY.  I come home, and he’s practically quivering with joy, shaking his tail so vigorously that he basically is shaking his whole body.  My wife? She might rouse herself from the couch to give me a kiss hello.  But my dog loses his mind.

So far, that’s really the best part about living in the suburbs. I never wanted a dog in the city, because I could not bear the thought of having to climb up and down those stupid stairs every day to walk him all the time.  But in retrospect, I was wrong.  I should have gotten a dog years ago, although that would mean I wouldn’t have THIS dog, and I honestly can’t imagine having any dog than Kozy.  Yes, I know that if I’d gotten a dog five years ago, before Kozy was ever born, I’d love that dog too and be unable to imagine owning any other dog.  But that hypothetical imaginary version of me is simple wrong: THIS dog is the best.

So I should have gotten a dog back when I lived in the city.  Frankly, everyone should have a dog: urbanist, suburbanite, people living on the moon.  Get a dog.

In fact, I’d particularly recommend my single male friends looking for female companionship to get a dog.  First of all, having a dog is a signal to women that you have at least some basic nurturing skills, which women find sexy.  Nothing turns a woman off more than to come back to your apartment and find some long-dead plant festering in the corner, a sign that you’re so incapable of taking care of anything that you couldn’t even manage to WATER A PLANT.  You bring that young lady back up to your place, and show her that you’ve actually managed to keep a dog alive, and you’re well on your way to Sexy Time.

Second, having a dog is a pretty well-known way to meet women. You don’t realize how many other people have dogs until you have one yourself.  It’s like how when you buy a car, you start to notice all the other people who have the same car.  So now that I have a dog, I’ve started to notice all the people walking their dogs when I’m in the city, something to which I was completely oblivious back in my ignorant dog-free days.  And a lot of those people are young, attractive women who have clearly recognized the value of unqualified adoration, something they apparently aren’t getting so much of from the likes of you.  They’re out there, walking their dogs, waiting for you.  Not to mention how cute dogs, and my dog is awfully cute are like catnip (okay, mixing animal metaphors a bit here) to women.  Walk a dog, meet a woman. It’s that simple, and a lot easier than trolling bars.

Third, dogs are great for screening out women that you probably shouldn’t be dating or marrying.  If you’re dating a woman who doesn’t like dogs, that’s a really bad sign.  If she likes cats, that’s even worse, because cats are terrible, awful, evil things.  A woman who loves dogs has an appreciation for mindless, stupid creatures who give unbounded affection but make a lot of messes, which is exactly what men are. A woman who hates dogs is probably not going to like living with you, especially you, because you’re a pig.

Of course, all that wisdom comes too late for me, already happily married.  But it’s not too late for you.  You married people?  Get a dog.  Single people.  Get a dog.  Everyone should get a dog.

Return from Exile: Santa’s Five Rules for Enjoying Santacon

About five years ago, we were on the C train coming back from getting dim sum with some friends who were visiting from out of town.  We were toward the front of the train, and as we approached the 81st street stop we could hear some wierd chanting coming from the cars behind us.  It sounded like “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh”, and it was getting louder as the train started to slow.  When we got off at the stop, and climbed the stairs up to the corner by 81st and Central Park, we realized what it was — a horde of people dressed in santa suits all chanting “HO HO HO”, who were now flooding off the train in droves.

It was frightening, if hilarious.  Hundreds of people in santa suits, all in red, with one small group of “reindeer” holding up signs indicating that they were protesting working conditions at the North Pole.  They just kept pouring out of the subway exits, hundreds of them, a sea of red, chanting “Ho Ho Ho” and herding toward the park.

I asked one of the Santas what was going on, and he explained that it was “Santacon,” a yearly “convention” of Santas that takes place in cities across the world, sort of a combination of flash mob and pub crawl that is scheduled each year by self-appointed (dis-)organizers who have created informational websites where you find out the where and when, download the dirty Santacon carol-book, and even now sign up for Twitter feeds so you can join the herd as Santa gets “on the move” from place to place in the city.

After seeing it that day. I was hooked.  I’ve been at every Santacon since.  If you’re going to do it, though, you need to follow the rules:

1.  You ARE Santa

The most important thing to remember about Santacon is that it’s your chance to BE Santa.  We’re all Santa.  So you have to stop talking in the first person, as in “I am hungry.”  Rather, it’s “Santa is hungry.”  “Santa is thirsty.”  When you greet people at Santacon, you don’t say, “hi,” you say “Hi Santa,” and they say “Hi Santa” back.  It’s glorious.

2. Wear a Suit
Most women don’t wear classic Santa outfits, God Bless their beautiful hearts, but get creative with some outfit from Ricky’s or something else that puts a feminine spin on the Santa theme.  But if you’re a guy, put on a suit.  No hanging out with the group in your jeans and t-shirt, with some lame-ass Santa hat on.  You’re not too cool to be Santa. This is like a black tie affair at which you’re going to look like a dumbass rube if you’re not in costume.
3.  Layer Up
 The worst thing about Santa suits is that they’re usually made of paper-thin material that doesn’t exactly provide warmth on a cold December day.   The nice thing about most Santa suits is that they’re big and baggy, so you can put clothes on underneath them.  Do that.  Nothing worse than a frostbitten Santa. And if you’re a woman putting on some sort of sexy costume, wear it OVER tights or something, not just because of the cold but because you’re going to be hanging out with a lot of increasingly drunken and occasional lecherous Santas.
4.  Have Fun, But Not Too Much Fun
Take a huge group of people, add alcohol, and you’re likely to end up with at least a few people getting arrested or breaking things.  Don’t do that. While it’s hilarious to see a Santa carted off in handcuffs, think of the children…
5.  Stay with the Herd
A few years ago, we were at Santacon down in Tompkins Park and ran into Ted, a friend who happened to live in the area.  He didn’t know it was going on, so he wasn’t dressed, but he enjoyed the vibe so much he hung out with us for the rest of the long night while we traveled from place to place as part of the herd.  All night, he complained about feeling out of place, as the only one in the group who didn’t have a suit on.  Late in the night, though, the Santa herd moved on, and we just stayed at a bar we liked on the LES.  After about midnight, he looked around, turned to me and said, “Santa, the worm has turned.”  Sadly, at that point, I was the only Santa in the place, and looked like a complete jackass.  Never leave the herd.
See you, Santa!

Is that a Big, Giant Pipe in Your Living Room, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

The condo we bought in Nyack was on the market for almost four years. It was one of those brutal stories of a seller putting a home on the market at the beginning of a bad real estate market, and pricing it just a little too high for the market, and then continually reducing it time after time, each time just, still, a little too high.

One of the reasons I think the condo sat on the market for so long is that it was very idiosyncratically furnished.  It was gorgeous, with what were obviously very expensive furnishings.  But they were a little bold for most people’s tastes — think the Liberace suite at a Vegas hotel.  Okay, now ramp it up about 20%.  There you go!

It’s actually a decent lesson about real estate, from both sides.  From the seller’s side, it’s important when you’re trying to sell your home to “depersonalize” it as much as possible.  Buyers sometimes have trouble seeing through the visual effect of a very intensely decorated home. Usually, of course, the challenge to the buyer is overlooking stuff like dirty windows, ugly furniture, and the fragrant wafting of cat piss, but sometimes it can be something as simple as a very tasteful, but highly stylized, method of decorating.

From the buyer’s side, though, it’s the reverse. It’s easy to fall in love with an immaculate home, and tough to fall in love with a place that makes you gag.  But the smartest buyers realize that when the seller leaves, he’s taking that stupid cat with him along with all his disgusting furniture.  That’s where the deals are.  You buy a home in lousy condition (aesthetically, I’m not talking about something that’s falling down), you probably can get more of a discount than it will cost you to get it back up to shape.

So that’s kind of what happened with us.  The seller had the place decorated to her taste, which was not universal, and I think a lot of people had a tough time seeing through it for the underlying value.  But when she left, a lot of that stuff went with her.

One thing that didn’t go with her — actually, two things — were these giant plaster columns that were in the entry to the condo.  I don’t know anything about anything, so I’m going to call them Corinthian Columns, although that’s almost certainly wrong.  But you get the idea. Floor to ceiling plaster columns with intricate design work.  Perfect if you’re making a speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, not so good if  you’re a relatively mild-mannered couple who has a greater need for, for example, a coat rack.

So we decided to take down the columns, which we would replace with something a little less grand and little more functional.  That’s when we discovered that one of the colunns concealed a floor-to-ceiling exhaust pipe.  Big, black pipe, all the way from the floor to the ceiling.  Ugly.  Massive.  Maybe that’s why they built a column around it.  The column wasn’t great, but it was better than this pipe.

Of course, it was too late to do anything about it.  One of the columns was already down, and we’d started demolition on the other.  So we’re going to have to get creative, maybe redirect the pipe into the wall or something.

All of this, of course, is costing me a good deal of money.  When people say that living in the suburbs is cheaper, they don’t count stuff like taking down columns and, maybe, having to put them back up again.

Lessons for Exiles: Hiring an Interior Decorator When You Suddenly Have an Empty House to Fill

There comes a time in many a young man’s life when he has to hire an interior decorator. Not every man, of course. Many men go their entire lives without experiencing the joy of interviewing a group of what are invariably straight women and gay men who will explain to them about color coordination and fabric samples.

I am not, though, one of those men.

Most people who live in the city don’t need interior decorators, by virtue of the simple fact that they don’t have a lot of interior to work with.  It’s not worth paying someone to help you decorate 500 square feet.  It’s only the seriously wealthy with multimillion dollar 3 bedroom coops and condos who can even make use of a decorator.

But when you move to the suburbs, you suddenly find that you have to fill up all that new space, that you’ve gone from two bedrooms and a living room to four bedrooms and a living room and a dining room and a family/great room and a foyeur and maybe a few other rooms to boot.  It’s like someone leaving the military whose wardrobe consisted of uniforms, two pairs of khakis, and some tshirts suddenly needing to figure out what business casual means.

You don’t absolutely NEED a decorator, of course.  You can do it all yourself, if you have any kind of design sense.  But, man, it takes a lot of time, so if you’re a busy type who has a million other things to worry about for the new home, it’s not a bad idea.

We had actually used a decorator before to reasonably good results in the city, after we did a combination/renovation of our apartment to create a two-bedroom with a lot more space.  She helped us buy a lot of new stuff.  But even with that, we were going from 2,000 square feet to 4,500 square feet when we moved to the suburbs, so we thought it would be helpful to have someone help us with it.

With regard to the expense, it’s really not so bad.  The basic value proposition most interior decorators provide is that most of their fees are offset by “decorator discounts” that they get from furnishing retailers — that is, you have to pay them, say 30% of the value of the furniture you buy with them, but they get you a similar-sized discount off the retail price of that furniture.  I’m sure that really savvy shoppers can finagle their way to some of that “decorator discount” on their own, but, again, then you’re spending all your time trying to find furniture rather than, you know, your actual full-time job.  Decorators also charge a manageable hourly rate and maybe a consulting fee, but in the grand scheme of everything that you spend to furnish a new home, it doesn’t really move the needle.

So it worked for us. It might not work for everyone, but this was our first big new home together, and it’s a great space, so we wanted to do it right.  And, frankly, we didn’t trust ourselves (particularly me) to know things like what colors and patterns go together.  You’d be amazed at what is actually fashionable design-wise.  There seems to be a fine line between “bold” and “ludicrious,” and I’m not so sure that I can see it.

If you’re going to hire an interior decorator, though, a couple of things I’d recommend to keep in mind:

Fees in Writing. Get all the fees in writing, and make sure everyone understands what you’re paying for and what you’re not paying for.  We once had a problem with a decorator because she believed she was getting paid even for furniture we found on our own (which is not unreasonably necessarily, just not what we expected).

Get the Discount.  Make sure you’re getting that decorator discount, and even condition the fees on it.  We had another issue with a decorator when we were paying 30% of our purchases, theoretically getting a 30% or so discount off the retail price, then found our couch offered for about 40% off to the general public.

Hire someone you’ll like.   This is a bigger deal than you think.  If you meet a bunch of decorators, you’ll find that they’re all probably pretty good.  They’ll all show you pictures of their work, and most of them have a fairly broad palette so they’ll work with your particular tastes.  But you’ll also probably find that you just LIKE one of them more.  That’s actually important, because you’re going to spend a lot of time schlepping around places looking at furniture, so it’s kind of nice to have a designer that is pleasant to be with.  You might be inclined to hire some scary genius who intimidates you, on the theory that they must be good if they’re that overbearing, but you’ll have a miserable experience working with them.  That’s no fun. Life is too short to be running around sample stores with some jerk.

In our case, we had a bunch of good people come through to pitch the job.  We liked them all, really liked two, and ended up loving one of the two.  So far it’s been great, although we still don’t have any actual furniture yet….

Lessons for Exiles: The Challenge of Decorating an Actual, You Know, Home

When you live in Manhattan, the biggest challenge you face in designing your home is trying to find places to put all your stuff.  When you’re living in 800 square feet, pretty much everything you buy has to be multi-purpose — your dining table doubles as a desk, your living room couch is your guest bed.  Most of my life in the city, I ate dinner on a tv tray sitting on the couch.  Our dining table, which we only pulled out for guests, was this clever foldout that seemed to defy the laws of physics in its ability to convert from about an 18-inch end table to seating for six.

In the city, square footage is at a premium. I actually convinced my wife that we needed flat screen TVs with the argument that they were SAVING us money, because they freed up floor space that cost like $1,000 a square foot.  You put a TV on the wall, you open up like 10 square feet — that’s $10,000!  That was a good argument to win.

But when you move to the suburbs, no matter where you move, you’re going to double or triple your square footage, so you all of a sudden have this enormous obligation to buy a lot of stuff.   Now you have a dining room, so you have to buy an actual dining table that doesn’t fold up like an accordian when you’re not using it.  And you have actual guest bedrooms, so you need places for them to sleep.

Sadly, they don’t just give you all that furniture when you cross the border into the suburbs, you have to go and buy all that stuff.  It’s one of those hidden expenses of living in the suburbs, like property taxes and car insurance, that you don’t generally prepare for when all you’re thinking about is how much cheaper the actual real estate is.  Congratulations, you now have a 4,000 square foot colonial with five bedrooms!  Now take out your credit card so you can fill it up with a bunch of stuff!

And it’s not like you can put it off. There’s nothing sadder than popping in on someone who moved out to the suburbs a year ago, and you find that they’re still storing boxes in the guest bedrooms.  You gotta suck it up and buy some furniture for those rooms.

So that’s what happened to us.  We had a little bit of a head start, because in 2005 we combined our apartment with the one below us, so we went from 600 square feet to a relatively, for the city, roomy 2,000 square feet.  We bought a lot of stuff back then, but we still were going from 2,000 square feet to 4,500 square feet, with all sorts of new rooms to fill up.

Here’s what happens when you start trying to fill it up:

  • You’ll start to resent your friends.  The idea of spending a few thousand dollars for a bedroom set for guests is galling.  A bed is like $1,000 right there, plus they need a headboard, and a table, and some sort of dresser, and, you know, towels and stuff.  Who do these people think they are?  What is this, a hotel?  Bring a blow up mattress, you’re lucky I’m not making you sleep on the couch.
  • You realize how much stupid, useless furniture you need.  When you live in the city, every piece of furniture is important.  In the suburbs, you just need lots of stuff so that your place doesn’t look all empty.  Who has end tables in the city? Who has a foyeur?
  • You realize how expensive it is to cover walls.  In the city, you maybe have five or six actual walls to cover up with art and stuff, once you take out the walls with lots of windows, kitchen walls, etc.  Now, in the suburbs, you have like thousands of feet of bare walls.  Start shopping.

Assuming you end up keeping the stuff you had in the city, that you haven’t been living all this time with the milk crates that you bought in college as your bookshelves, you’ll probably at least be able to use some of your city stuff in the suburbs.  What happened with us is that everything we had got downgraded a level.  The stuff that we just bought for our living room ended up in the family room, requiring us to buy all new stuff.  And our bedroom set became a guest bedroom set (which frankly is more than you deserve, you freeloaders).  I guess it makes sense: as you get older, you hopefully have more money and can afford better stuff, so your new stuff is nicer than your old stuff.

So be prepared.  If you’re moving to the suburbs, don’t put all your money into your down payment, because your real estate closing is just the beginning of all the crap you have to buy…..

The SUMA Life: Finding Dim Sum in the Suburbs

The whole idea of building a “SUMA life” in the suburbs is to try to find ways to recreate and fashion an urban experience in the suburban environment, in what is probably ultimately a failed attempt to retain some semblance of the life you lived before you exiled yourself.  It’s not easy.  But it’s not supposed to be easy.  The whole point of living in the city is that you can have experiences that you simply can’t replicate when you live in the suburbs.  But as with many things, there is heroism in the attempt.

With that in mind, we wanted to try to find a place to get dim sum — the “Chinese brunch” experience that you can get in like a dozen places in Chinatown and, I would guess, in other urban Chinatowns, and, I would also guess, in, you know, China.  My wife is a Chinese-American, so dim sum became a pretty regular staple of our weekends. Most weeks, we’d just order dim sum-like appetizers from our local Chinese place, but that’s not the same.  Dim sum isn’t about the food, it’s about the experience, which requires certain atmospherics:

  • First, you need a huge warehouse-like space with a ton of people sitting, often community-style, about big tables.  You can’t get real dim sum in some fancy upscale Asian fusion restaurant.
  • Second, you need the carts, those metal monstrosities being wheeled around with all the little plates on them.  You can’t get real dim sum by ordering from a menu. Flagging down a cart, getting a plate, and then having the waitstaff stamp your “card” with some totally incomprehensible mark that eventually determines how much you’ll pay is part of the fun.
  • Third, you need a lot of food that the white people like me won’t ever eat. It’s not real dim sum if you don’t see stuff like bird’s feet or pig’s knuckles (or bird knuckles and pig’s feet, I can’t remember which) that isn’t, in my opinion, actual food, but which real Chinese people like.  (Indeed, one of the things I’ve learned about marrying into a Chinese-American family is that the greatest delicacies are precisely the foods that are most inedible, something I have learned at many Chinese wedding banquets where the only thing I could eat was the plain lo mein noodles served at the end like a palate cleanser).
  • Fourth, you need actual Chinese people eating there.  You go to Chinatown, you can tell that you’re getting authentic dim sum because there are a lot of Chinese people there. I’m not racially profiling, or whatever, I’m just pointing out that you can take certain comforts in knowing that you’re not in some tourist trap, and that the food must be good, or at least authentic, if you see them there.

All that said, I didn’t have high hopes for finding dim sum in the suburbs.  I can’t even get good everyday Chinese food like vegetable lo mein in the suburbs, much less a lip-smacking plate of bird feet.  It’s not like I’m going to eat the bird feet, but I like knowing that it’s there.

Against all odds, though, we found a place.  A simple Google search turned up an actual Chinese restaurant in Westchester called Central Seafood that’s about 20 minutes away and had some reviews mentioning the dim sum.   So we went, and it was perfect — big rooms, round tables, lots of Chinese people, food I wouldn’t possibly ever eat.  Not quite the Manhattan experience, but with some advantages like, you know, parking, and cleaner rest rooms (don’t ever go to the bathroom in Chinatown.  Ever).

So we found a small piece of SUMA, a place to get our dim sum fix  once a month, with the bonus that it’s very close to a great dog run where we can take the dog.  Although, obviously, we won’t bring the dog to the restaurant, both for the health code issue and, you know, (stipulate to a Chinese people eating dog joke).

UPDATE: We have since found another place called Aberdeen in White Plains that we haven’t tried yet.

Advice for People Moving to the Suburbs: How We Found Our New Home

We just closed on our new place yesterday.

I haven’t written about our new home because (a) I didn’t want to jinx it, and (b) I didn’t want to sit here and reveal how much I love my new place while there were still little issues to work out with the seller.  Nothing undermines whatever bargaining position you might like to maintain than a public blog that explains how much you love the new place and will pay ANYTHING to get into it.

So now that we’ve closed, I can talk about the process.  The first thing you need to know, if you don’t already know it, is that I’m in the real estate business. I’m one of the owners of Better Homes and Gardens Rand Realty, one of the largest real estate companies in New York City’s northern suburbs.  It’s a family company, started by my mother Marsha about 25 years ago, and now owned by Marsha, me, and two of my brothers (Greg and Matt).  In fact, the reason I’m moving from the city is that I’ve been commuting to our offices for the past 9 years, and I’m finally tired of it. As much as I love living in the city, when you work 10 hours a day and commute for 2, it doesn’t leave a lot of time to enjoy what the city has to offer.

So in moving to the suburbs, I was really going home.  Going home to the area that I grew up in, that I lived in until I went off to Georgetown for college and law school. And going home to the area where I’ve worked — IN REAL ESTATE — every day for the past nine years.  (Okay, not exactly every day, or even every work day, since I took any excuse to stay in the city and work from home whenever I could).

The second thing you need to know is that I was pretty much locked into Rockland County, the smallest county in New York, on the Western side of the Tappan Zee bridge.  It’s where most of my family lives, where our headquarters is, and where I’m most familiar.  In retrospect, I probably could have spent more time looking in Westchester, but the types of places I wanted were a little out of my budget in Westchester.

All that is by way of saying that I had a bit of an advantage in buying in the suburbs: I knew the area, knew local real estate, and had about 800 agents that would help me buy a home if I asked. My mother is a Realtor, my brothers are all Realtors, I’m a Realtor, and my wife is a Realtor.

And it was still a pain in the ass.  Physician, heal thyself.  No matter how much you know about real estate, it’s still tough buying a house for yourself.

We had certain ideas about what we wanted.  We wanted to be within 30 minutes of Manhattan, since my wife will still be commuting to her job in the city.  And we wanted something interesting.  If that seems vague, it’s because it is.  We really just wanted some sort of home that would be distinctive, that when we brought people out from the city they would nod their heads and say, “ahh, I can see why you moved from your place in the city.

So what were the kinds of things we thought were “interesting”:

  • We loved this house on a cliff in Upper Grandview, this great architecturally interesting house with amazing panoramic views of the Hudson River.  We went to see it about eight or nine times, driving my friend and colleague Margo Bohlin, the top agent in our company and the region, crazy. But ultimately, our friends with kids, knowing that we’d like to have kids someday, explained the fundamental concerns about owning a home on a cliff.
  • I loved a house in Valley Cottage, this big giant huge enormous house with 10,000 square feet, 25 acres, a pool, and a full basement that I would have turned into essentially a commercial pub complete with the DirecTV football package. I loved it, but my wife was concerned with moving into a house on the top of a mountain, surrounded by 25 empty acres, in an area where she knows no one except me.  She thought it would be isolating.
  • My wife loved this house in Sparkill that was big, comfy, beautifully done up, and only about 15 minutes from the GW Bridge.  I liked the house too, particularly that it was about 5 minutes from a private golf course I play on, but didn’t love the lot. Or the price.

We saw lots of other houses, most of them nice but not interesting, or interesting but not practical.

Then something funny happened.  We had looked exclusively at houses, houses on big lots. Then my mother, who has had a real estate license for about 35 years and was known as an absolutely killer buyer agent before she opened up her own brokerage, suggested we look at this condo in Nyack.  Nyack is this charming old village on the Hudson River, the one really walkable community in Rockland County. It’s got restaurants, bars, shops, all in a very small compact area.  People sometimes say it’s “city-like,” but that’s not it.  What it mostly reminds me of is my old neighborhood in Noe Valley, San Francisco — charming, cute old buildings, a strong but small commercial district, and a couple of hills.

We hadn’t really looked in Nyack, mostly because the houses were outside our price range.  But my mother knew about this condo in a complex right on the water, two blocks from the Nyack downtown. It had been on the market for three or four years, chasing the market down on price for most of that time.  It also had a lot of trouble selling because (1) the taxes are outrageous (I’m not even going to tell you what they are, and (2) the place was done up a bit in a very specific style, which a lot of people can’t see through.  So it had been on the market for a while.

A condo, but 4,000 square feet, four or five bedrooms, and unbelievable views of the river. With a lot of great touches: three refrigerators, two giant wine fridges, six or seven terraces, high end sound system, etc.
I was resistant to looking at a condo at first, but she made me go look at it.  And when I saw it, I realized that it was the right place for us.  My wife was concerned about moving to an area where she didn’t know anyone, so moving into a condo complex with other people, and two blocks from the one true downtown in Rockland, made sense.  We both wanted something interesting, and what’s more interesting than the biggest and coolest condo in the region.  Plus, I don’t need to learn how to cut grass.

So we made our offer, worked it out, and got into contract. Closed yesterday. It’s ours.

Our first night in the place, there was a massive thunderstorm that came through the Hudson Valley.  We stood at the windows with the lights out drinking wine watching the lightning strike the Hudson River, outlining the Tappan Zee Bridge in silhouette.  Very cool.

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Good Night, 82d Street

I remember the first time I saw this apartment. August 1994. I had been looking for about six months, and actually had seen an apartment in the building the first time I went out with a broker.  But Iwasn’t ready to pull the trigger the first time out, and someone else got it.

Then it happened that another apartment in the building came up for sale, which is a little funny considering that there were only four units in the building — a four story townhouse on 82d between Columbus and Central Park West.  This apartment was on the fourth floor, with a roof deck.  Owned by a nice couple, Ben and Susan, with their young child. (As I wrote this, I looked Ben up, he’s still a doctor in Manhattan, actually wrote a book — the scary part is when I think about the young child who was playing when I saw the apartment the first time, who’s probably close to college by now).

One bedroom. One bath. Nice kitchen. Brick walls, wood floors, fireplace.  That’s what I wanted.  The bonus was a spiral staircase from the bedroom going up to a private wood deck that I could already see filled with various friends and potential female acquaintances.  Perfect bachelor pad, I thought. Had an accepted offer three days later, no second thoughts.

But the “bachelor pad” thing didn’t really work out. I met the woman who would later (much later) become my wife four days after I first saw the apartment, spent an hour at dinner sketching out the layout on napkins at a restaurant in Little Italy.  By the time I actually moved into the place in December, we were serious and she was helping me shop for furniture.

Ten years later, as we were thinking about getting a larger place, the joys of 600 square feet in a fourth-floor walkup having slightly faded, we found out that the couple who lived below us were thinking of selling.  We bought their place, combined it with ours, built a proper room on the roof.  Actually created something. An apartment we helped design, one that was unequivocally and indisputably ours. Until now.

So I’ve been in the building since 1994, except for two years in California for school, and six months in the renovation exile in Suma.  A little math — 15 years, minus 2.5 years. That’s almost 5,000 days, over 700 weeks, 162 months.  One and a half Clinton administrations, two Bushes, and a small piece of Obama. Three mayors, four governors, the invention of the internet, the rise of hip-hop, 9/11, a blackout, and a bunch of other stuff. I met my wife the week I saw it, fell in love with her living here, married her 20 blocks away.

The building was very good to me. I will miss her.

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