Thoughts on the New “Quasi-Urban Suburbia” — What Do “Millennials,” “Young Professionals,” and “Empty-Nesters” All Have in Common?

It’s funny.  When I started writing this blog about my experiences moving from the city to the suburbs about seven (!) years ago, I thought my desire to retain a certain urban sensibility was unusual.

After all, I’d seen my city friends leave for the glories of suburbia, one after another, without ever apparently looking back.  So I sort of thought that my desire to maintain a walkable, urbanist lifestyle, my own “SUMA,” was unique, almost quixotic.

But either I just wasn’t tuned in to the world around me, or I was a bit ahead of my time.  Because now I keep reading how developers are trying to build multi-use, multi-family suburban communities that retain a certain urban sensibility.  Here’s an article from this week in the Times by Marcela Susan Fischler:

Some suburbs around New York City are becoming decidedly less suburban, as new apartment buildings and condominium communities close to mass transithelp expand the downtowns of these villages and towns. Multifamily housing is also popping up near highways and main thoroughfares.

Young professionals seeking more space than they can afford in Manhattan or Brooklyn, empty nesters looking to downsize and leave the snow shoveling to others and, to a lesser extent, millennials moving out of their parents’ basements are leading the charge to a more urbanized suburbia.

What’s interesting is not just that people are looking for that urban experience in the suburbs, but the TYPES of people looking for it.  As the Times notes, it’s not just millennials who are loathe to give up the urban lifestyle — we’re also seeing the appeal to “young professionals” and “empty-nesters.”

Now, of course, one of my main themes in this blog is that NO ONE who lives in a city  ever WANTS to move to the traditional suburbs, any more than people WANT to buy a minivan.  It’s a choice borne out of circumstance (or even desperation) when you have kids and you simply have to accept that you have to give up the urban amenities for a more child-friendly lifestyle.

That is, think about what “millennials,” “young professionals,” and “empty-nesters” all mostly have in common — NO KIDS. And that makes sense. If it’s just you, or you and your new spouse, or you and the spouse you’ve had for a while, then a two-bedroom with no back yard but with a short walk to trains and downtown makes a lot of sense.  Once you have a couple of kids, though, and that second kid is sleeping in a closet, and they’re driving you ABSOLUTELY FREAKING CRAZY when you’re cooped up with them all day, then you’re going to want a bigger place.  Go break things outside for a while, kids!

So what’s my point? That there are limits to this new urbanist suburbia, and that it’s not a replacement for the traditional suburbia, at least not for the vast majority of people who decide to move (however reluctantly) to the suburbs in the first place. And as much as I absolutely love that developers are responding to urban exiles who want to retain at least some of that lifestyle, I don’t think it means the end to the traditional suburb.

Anyway, tradeoffs do not have to be absolute.  I gave up my 2,000 square foot apartment on the Upper West when my wife and I decided to have kids, but I’ve retained at least a semblance of my former life by finding a place that’s a seven-minute easy walk to the downtown of Nyack.  I don’t have the full suburban experience of a one-acre lot and all that, but I’ve got a backyard and a small pool.  And I’m surrounded by people with that same sensibility, who are willing to take that same “half-step” of moving to the suburbs, getting the bigger house, but keeping just a touch of that walkable urban sensibility.

Message to People in the Hamptons: You Do Realize You’re Spending Thousands of Dollars for a Weekend in the Suburbs, Right?

The Hamptons are the worst.

I mean, seriously.  What an amazing marketing job they’ve done out there to convince Manhattanites to spend thousands of dollars and a five-hour schlep in traffic to visit what is essentially — and I hate to break this to you — JUST ANOTHER SUBURB.

Because that’s all it is.  The Hamptons are just the east end of Long Island, the original Manhattan suburb.  Think about it:

  • Five bedroom colonials and high-ranches?  Check.
  • One acre lots?  Check.
  • You have to drive everywhere?  Check.

That, my friends, is a suburb.  S-U-B-U-R-B.  The Hamptons are a beautiful place to live, probably one of the nicest suburbs in the region, but they are still a suburb.

And it amazes me that the same people who will sneer at me for my suburban exile in Nyack will happily spend half my yearly mortgage payment for a half-share so they can spend a few weekends in a five-bedroom high-ranch in Water Mill. Yes, okay, there’s a beach.  You claim that you pay all that money so you can be “at the beach.”  But are you really?  I did Hamptons shares a few times when I was living in the city, and I can remember going to the beach maybe three times. So don’t tell me about the beach.

Now, I’m not talking about the Hamptons experience that the uber-rich have, the Billy Joels and Alec Baldwins and Howard Sterns and David Kochs or whoever.  That’s a whole different world of ridiculous houses and star-studded parties and caviar and champagne and feasting on the flesh of sacrificial virgins in secret underground temples to Mammon. But you’re probably not having that kind of Hamptons experience.

No, here’s the experience you’re having.  You have a friend-of-a-friend, some sort of hyper-organized Tracy Flick type, who sent you an email blast six months ago inviting you to grab a summer share of some amazing “beach house” she found in Sag Harbor or wherever. So in the middle of some dreary January day, you plunked down a few thousand dollars for a quarter-share.

And now it’s one of your weekends, so you pack a bag and start on the great Hamptons Weekend Forced Death March. Maybe you took the train, fervently hoping that you get one of those three-seat benches and that you don’t have to sit next to someone else.  Or maybe you hop on the Jitney, so you’re stuffed into a bus — because who doesn’t love the luxury of riding in a BUS — for what would be a three hour trip if you’re in some glorious parallel universe in which there isn’t any traffic, but in your universe will end up taking like five hours.  Or maybe you splurge and rent a car for the weekend, because nothing says “relaxing” like sitting behind the wheel in traffic on a Friday night for a couple of hours.

But now you’ve arrived, and you find out that you’re sharing five bedrooms with about a dozen people, none of whom are your friends because you all screwed up and took different weekends for your share.  Hopefully, there’s at least a pool, because you now find out that the “beach house,” isn’t actually on the beach. Or near the beach.  It’s maybe in the same zip code as the beach — a fifteen minute drive, which would be manageable except that there’s no place to park your car without a permit, and although Tracy Flick got hers three months ago, you didn’t.

But the fun doesn’t end there. Not only have you shelled out thousands of dollars for your share, but now you arrive to find that you owe another hundred bucks or so for your contribution to the food and drink that Tracy picked up for the weekend. Except that you got there too late for Friday night’s dinner, and half the beer is already gone, so you’re basically paying for everyone else to eat and drink.

It gets better the next morning, which is spent in a three-hour group conversation about whether you should all try to go to the beach.  Chances are, of course, that if it’s not raining, it’s really, really hot, so everyone agrees it’s not a good idea to pile ten people into the one parking-permitted car to go to the beach where you’re not legally allowed to drink anyway.  So you all end up by the pool, which would be fine, except that the whole day is spent with people texting their “real friends” in a desperate search for the “good house parties” to go to that night.  And the women that you thought might be good hook-up possibilities back when you scanned Tracy’s “signed up!” list in January are totally not interested, instead passing back-and-forth their dog-eared copy of the Hamptons Magazine’s Annual 50 Hottest Bachelors list, a list that you’re almost certainly not on.

Even if you actually do find something to do that night, it’s probably a schlep from one part of the Hamptons to the other, so someone has to stay sober to drive. That would be you.  Then you get there, and it’s a sausage fest, so you all pile back into the car to go to some crappy bar that  — I hate to break it to you — is basically a suburban hangout for nine months of the year.

You wake up Sunday morning, and there’s nothing left to eat, because the people who stayed behind when your group went bar- and party- hopping ended up inviting some friends over and they ate all your food.  So you hang out for about a few hours, listlessly watching some Wimbledon on the teevee machine, before heading back for the five-hour trip home.

That, my friend, is your weekend in the Hamptons suburbs!  You spent it in a nice big suburban house with a suburban yard and a suburban pool where you needed a suburban car to get around, and the only thing that differentiated your “Hamptons Beach House” from those stultifying high-ranches you would never live in over in Westbury or Pleasantville or Park Ridge is that you were a fifteen minute drive from a beach that you never visited. And it only cost you a month’s pay so you can spend four more weekends there. Well-done!

And not only that, it’s a BAD suburb, an unholy alchemy of suburb and city that perfectly synthesizes:

  1. all the inconveniences of living in the city (expensive and crowded living space, annoying strivers, $15 sandwiches) with
  2. all the irritations of living in the suburbs (the need for a car, sprawl, lousy bars), and then adds
  3. the final secret ingredient of a glorious five-hour trip to get there.

That emperor?  He’s naked, my friends. He’s buck naked!

Maybe you disagree. Maybe that’s not been your experience. Maybe I’m just a bitter middle-aged man with hazy recollections of uniquely awful Hamptons weekends.  Fine.  But if you’re having a good time out there, and not because you’re some total desperate striver who likes to send his weekends trying to find the perfect party where THERE MIGHT BE MODELS, it’s probably because you’ve actually managed to put together a group of people you actually like, and you’re just basically hanging out with them. But if that’s the case, then it’s not the Hamptons you like, but your friends.  And you could be having a good time with them ANYWHERE, and save yourself a lot of trouble and money.

That’s really the bottom line.  The more I think about the differences between living in the city and living in the suburbs, the more I realize that the only real distinction is the people, the fact that urban environments uniquely attract interesting, bright, and challenging people who choose to live there primarily during the most sociable and vibrant time of their lives — when they’re young, single, and childless, looking for other young, single, and childless  people to hook up with and befriend.  The city doesn’t make them that way.  Theres nothing inherently interesting or special about the city, other than the people who live there.

The Hamptons are the proof of that.  There’s nothing inherently “hip” or trendy or even distinctive about the Hamptons, other than the people who choose to relocate there for part of their summers. Take away the people, and you have just another suburb, one that’s as close to Manhattan as Albany, and just about as interesting.

So, as the self-appointed driver of the Suburban Welcome Wagon, I have a message for all of you Hamptons-goers that you might not want to hear, but I think it’s for your own good — “Welcome to the Suburbs!”

 

What Do You Do When Your Birthday is on Friday the 13th? Nothing.

Tomorrow is my birthday. My 45th birthday. 45 years. Halfway to 90.

That’s a pretty hard number, actually.  90 is pretty old. Not a lot of people live to 90.  In fact, a quick internet search shows that only about 1% of people in this country live to be over 90.  So the odds say that I am halfway to dead.

The more immediate concern is that I can no longer say that I’m in my early 40s.  I’ve been saying that since the moment I turned 40, and I’ve gotten as much mileage out of it as I can.  But I can’t resist the dreaded “mid-40s” anymore, although I expect to stay in my mid-40s for another five full years, until I hit the next big milestone.

So I’m in my mid-40s.  It’s a little weird for me, because much of my life I’ve kind of defined myself by being “the young one.”  When I was a kid, all my friends were older than me, which wasn’t strange because I hit puberty early and always looked a lot older than I was.  When I was in my mid-teens, I looked over 21, and was actually the best candidate among my friends to be able to buy beer. Which is why they probably hung out with me.

(I’m assuming, by the way, that the statute of limitations on illegally buying beer has long since passed, but if it hasn’t I want to make clear that I just made all that up).

Being the “young” one carried with me for a long time. I was one of the younger students in law school, since I came straight out of college. In my jobs out of law school — clerking, then at a big law firm — I was generally a lot younger than the other people I worked with.  Then I started teaching, the “young professor,” much closer in age to the students than the other professors.  Even when I started working at my real estate company in my early 30s (I was in my early 30s, by the way, until the minute I turned 35), I was one of the “young guns” — usually a lot younger than other broker-owners, or even most of the agents in my company.

So that’s kind of ended. I’m not the “young” guy anymore. My friends are all now younger than me, all people I met back when I didn’t have a kid and would go out more.  And even my new friends, the ones I’m generally making because we both have kids, are a lot younger, since they weren’t stupid enough to wait until their mid-40s to have them.

All that said, I’m coping okay. 45 is not a big landmark number.  The big birthdays are 18 (old enough to vote), 21 (old enough to drink), 30 (no longer a “young person”), 40 (starting mid-life), 65 (old enough to get social security),  90 (“I beat out 99% of the rest of you!”), and 100 (you get mentioned on the Today show by Willard Scott).

But anytime you hit a fairly round number you sort of think about where you are and where you’re going. By the time you’re 45, and have put more birthdays behind you than you’re likely to have in front of you, you realize that you’ve also probably experienced most of the big moments of your life: your graduation, getting married, having a kid, buying your first home.  Now, most of those big moments, those landmark milestones, are going to be experienced vicariously, through the people you love. You want to live long enough to see your kid graduate, your kid get married, your kid having a kid and making you a grandparent.

The consolation is that you get to take stock of where you are, and, hopefully, feel good about what you’ve already put in the book. I have a great wife, a beautiful kid, a a wonderful family, some great friends (who hopefully forgive me for pimping the BRAND NEW MOVE TO SUMA FACEBOOK PAGE), a good business, and a nice home.  So I have nothing really to complain about, other than the normal grousing about the flipping of the calendar.

So what am I doing to celebrate?  Absolutely nothing.  It doesn’t help that my birthday falls on Friday the 13th, which can’t be good.  But I don’t expect that we’re doing much of anything. My wife threw me a great surprise party for my 40th — a great dinner, then she got a bunch of tables in this great Meatpacking District club where we had about 40-50 come out to celebrate.  So my 40th birthday was basically a drunken bacchanal.

Now, a move to the suburbs, one dog, one kid, two SUVs later?  Nothing. If my wife is throwing me another surprise party, it would honestly be an ENORMOUS surprise, because all indications are that we’re both just too tired to do much of anything.  In fact, any actual party would be more of a big passive aggressive move by the wife, since we barely acknowledge her birthday two weeks ago, spending it, at all places, at a business conference of mine.  So if she throws me a party, I’m in trouble, because it would be more of a “see how much MORE I LOVE YOU than you love me” move than anything else.

And I don’t know that I could handle that, not when there’s a 99% chance that I’m halfway to the grave.

Suburban Rite of Passage: Filling Up Your Kitchen With Appliances You Never Use, EXCEPT a Juicer.

One of the things that happens to you when you move to the suburbs is that you start accumulating a lot of new stuff.  I’ve written before about how one of the big challenges in making the move is buying all the new furniture you need to fill up your new home, after spending years in a cramped city apartment relying on “transformer” furniture: tv trays that become coffee tables, couches that fold out into guest beds, collapsable end tables that turn into seating for six, stuff like that.

The effect is even bigger in the kitchen.  When I lived in the city, I pretty much had one appliance: a toaster.  That was it.  To the extent that I might have had any culinary ambitions, they were pretty much limited to recipes that relied heavily on browning slices of bread.  The funny thing was that I don’t actually eat a lot of toast — I rarely eat breakfast, and toast is not really a dinner food.  But when I got my own place, my mother got me the toaster, telling me that having a toaster was a sign of maturity, a sign of settling down.  I honestly never knew that a humble toaster could say so much about a person.

Nevertheless, that toaster stayed with me for years, prominently featured in my tiny little kitchen, just sitting there like a scrub basketball player at the end of the bench waiting for the coach to call him into the game, patiently biding its time until the day that I would have a dinner party featuring 15 different varieties of warmed bread

Now, of course, it didn’t really matter back then, because I never cooked.  Two people with full time jobs living in a small apartment with no kids and access to about 100 restaurants that will deliver food to their door have little need to roll their own pasta. But now that I’m in the suburbs, and well outside the Lenny’s delivery zone, I’ve suddenly found myself cooking more.  And as a result, my toaster has suddenly spawned a whole new array of cooking appliances:

  • A food processor, which according to most people who cook is the one indispensable cooking appliance.  To me, it seems like the one indispensable way to cut off a few of my fingers.
  • A pasta maker, which I haven’t actually used yet because I can’t figure it out.  I’m not sure that I have all the pieces, because it just looks too flimsy.  I need to do some research.
  • A slow cooker, which I think we might have had in the old apartment in the city, but it was always stored in an upper cabinet above the refrigerator, and required me to get a stool to pull it out, and it was heavy, and I am very, very lazy, so that was pretty much it for slow cooking back in the city.  Now it sits on the counter, just waiting for me to fill it with vegetables and meat and then find something else to do for six hours or so.
  • A waffle maker, which is just about the most frivolous appliance you could possibly have.  It does one thing. One thing!  And moreover, you only need that one thing at most once a month, unless you really, really like a lot of waffles.  To paraphrase Robin Williams, a waffle maker is God’s way of telling you that you have too much space in your kitchen.

That’s all on top of all the new pots and pans we have stored away in our ridiculously big cabinets, including a couple of cast iron pans that I like using just because it makes me feel like I’m some scrappy short order cook in a diner or something.  COOKING WITH IRON!

One thing I will NEVER get, though, is a juicer.  I’ve had a juicer. It was horrible.  I think a lot of people at some point in their life fall victim to the hype about juicers — that we all need to drink more juice, it’s so healthy, so tasty.  What no one ever tells you in those commercials is the amount of sheer pain that goes into making a cup of juice.

First, you have to buy an absolutely ungodly amount of fruit.  I had no idea how little juice there was in an orange until I tried to make orange juice. You need like a whole SACK OF ORANGES to make a decent glass for just one person.  You want to make juice for your friends coming over for brunch?  No problem, just back up the car to the produce stand and start emptying it into your trunk.  Why haven’t those geneticists come up with an orange that is nothing but juice, that you can basically stick a straw into like a coconut?  Something to work on, you scientist geeks!

Second, once you have your crate full of oranges, you have to actually CUT them before you can stuff them into the juicer’s big scary sharpy maw.  But doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of the juicer?  If I wanted to sit there and cut oranges all day, I could just squeeze them to make my juice.  I don’t even need you, Mr. Juicer.

Third, once you’re done stuffing 87 orange halves into the juicer to make a small cup of juice, now you have to actually clean the juicer.  And it’s not like cleaning a juicer is like cleaning a pan — the juicer has this sharp, complicated blade that is perfect for severing more of my fingers, and which ends up all matted up with dismembered orange parts. “Scrub scrub scrub the blade,” sings the juicemaker!

Bottom line, if you want a nice cup of juice, expect to spend about half an hour between the cutting and the stuffing and the cleaning.  And that’s for oranges, which actually have a decent amount of juice in them.  You want, say, carrot juice, with all those helpful anti-oxidants or whatever it’s supposed to have, figure on an hour.  For a cup of juice. A cup.

The one thing a juicer does is give you an enormous appreciation for those stores that will sell you a big glass of freshly squeezed juice for like six bucks.  After you’ve owned a juicer, you’ll never begrudge paying that money for juice again. Six Dollars!  Think about it — it’s the same price as a large cup of coffee, but I can make all the coffee I want pretty easily at home.  I don’t even know how those juice places can stay in business, or keep their employees for more than one shift.  I’d rather dig ditches than make juice for other people.

So my advice to new suburbanites is this: never ever under any circumstances ever ever EVER get a juicer.  Otherwise, when it comes to appliances filling up your kitchen counters and cabinets, go crazy, if only so that you can make your visiting toast-eating city friends jealous.

What’s the Manliest of Holidays? The Fourth of July, Although Not for Men Like Me

I love the Fourth of July.  Not only is it the best holiday of the year, and the most suburban holiday of the year, but something else just occurred to me this past week: Independence Day is the manliest of the holidays.

Everything associated with the Fourth is manly:

We celebrate the achievements of manly men.  The whole holiday commemorates a bunch of men deciding to declare their independence.  Independence! What’s more manly than that?  Now, of course, it’s absolutely HORRIBLE and SEXIST that only men signed the Declaration, and my wife has pointed out that “all men are created equal” doesn’t at all imply that any of them are the equal of women.  But it is what it is: the Fourth of July celebrates men doing a manly thing.

What do we celebrate on other holidays?  Christmas is about a woman giving birth, or more secularly about a big fat man giving away free stuff. Not manly.  Thanksgiving?  All about having a big meal, which is relatively manly except that the main thrust of the holiday is COOKING the meal, which isn’t manly at all.

We blow stuff up!  What’s more manly than taking fistfuls of gunpowder and setting them off for no reason other than to see what the explosion looks like?  It’s the ultimate peacock display: lots of noise and flashes of light, accomplishing absolutely nothing. And if you’re like me, you get the potential bonus of blowing up your house when you try to connect a propane tank by yourself.

Blowing stuff up!  Now, THAT’S a manly holiday.  Christmas? Putting up decorations, buying gifts, writing cards. Yeeesshh. Thanksgiving?  Cooking.  Halloween?  Dressing up.  All these are girly holidays.

We cook manly food in a manly way.  Indeed, the Fourth of July is the one day of the year that men are expected to do the cooking, mainly because the “cooking” is simple enough for them to handle.  Here’s the recipe: (1) take meat, (2) put on hot grill, (3) cook until done.  No measuring, no mixing, no ingredients, no setting a timer.  Simple. Easy. Manly.

All that said, I should be clear that I am not at all a manly man.  It’s sad, really. I don’t know how to fix things, or make things, I work in an industry (real estate) that is about 90% women, and my main job requires me to basically type a lot. Put it this way — at a costume party a few years ago, the theme was that people had to dress up in a representation of their “uniform,” and most of the men had ACTUAL uniforms to wear: doctor’s scrubs, fireman gear, manly stuff like that. I wore a tux.

My glaring inadequacy, in fact, has become more pronounced now that I’m living in the suburbs.  There are just more manly men living out here. You live in the city, you’re surrounded by bankers and lawyers and other girly men like me.  All the manly men — the cops, the firemen, the contractors, they live out here in the suburbs. You see them at Home Depot on weekends picking up lumber and table saws and pistons, or whatever,, when I’m usually there to get replacement light bulbs or batteries or something. I’d like to say that it was 17 years living in the city that made me so soft, but I was pretty much a marshmallow my whole life.  Living in the city just hid the fact, since I had a super and stuff like that.

So when I say that the Fourth of July is a manly holiday, I say it mostly in appreciation for OTHER men, the manly ones, the guys who can actually do stuff and fix stuff and make stuff. And I was brutally reminded of my own shortcomings in this area this year.  We were having our annual party at my mom’s house, which we’ve done for many years because she has a pool.  She also has a grill, but it wasn’t working.  So, in the classic family fashion, she didn’t actually try to fix the grill, she just bought a new one.  That’s really the way we do things in the Rand family, which might explain my basic inadequacies in this area.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t get the grill delivered, so I had to pick it up.  Ideally, a real manly man would have a truck or something to go pick it up, and maybe one of those dollies or something to move it.  Of course, I have an SUV, not a truck. And I don’t have any dollies, other than the ones my kid plays with.

So here I am, on an incredibly hot day, trying to get this giant grill into my SUV. Again, this is a challenge I never had to deal with when I lived in the city. First of all, I would never have had the need for a big grill, or a big anything, in my old apartment.  Second, no one would have ever expected me to bring it home.  What would I do?  Strap it to the top of the cab, like Mitt Romney’s dog?

Now, to give myself a little bit of a break, I will point out that grills are VERY HEAVY, and so it was never going to be easy to get in, even for a manly man.  But I tried. I actually lifted it into the air, pulling out some tendons in my back (if backs have tendons, I guess) and almost getting it in.  But it was too big.

Which brought me to the next great divide between the manly man I wish I were, and the girly man that I actually am.  A manly man would have tools to take apart that grill to get it in the car.  I, of course, had no tools in the car. But I did have something almost as good: twenty dollars of cold hard cash.  So in the great Rand family spirit that led us to buy a new grill rather than just fix the one we had, I proudly took that crisp twenty dollar bill and slipped it to a guy at the store who actually had tools. In fact, a whole STORE of tools. So he helped me take the grill apart and get it into the car.  Of course, by “helped me,” I mean that he did it while I watched with an attentive look on my face designed to indicate that I could do all that if I only had remembered to bring the right screwdriver, or wrench, or plunger, or whatever it was that he was using.

Once that beautiful display of basic economic market dynamics was completed, I sped off to my mom’s house to start the reassembly.  And I’m proud to say that I actually was able to put it back together, or at least at the very end I didn’t have any leftover screws or bolts — which is not always the case when I put something together, when I usually reassure myself that that most manufacturers put in a couple of EXTRA bolts JUST IN CASE.

Even better, the grill worked, once my manly friend Mike helped attach the propane tank, something that I’m not quite ready for at this point in my development. But I did do most of the cooking, so there’s that.

Burgers for everyone!

Why Independence Day is the Most Suburban of Holidays

I’ve written before that Independence Day is pretty much the best holiday of the year.  Compared to other holidays, it’s a breeze. You hang out by the pool, throw some stuff on a grill, and watch other people blow stuff up.  You don’t have to do a lot of traveling, or feel the pressure to visit family you don’t really like, or do a lot of difficult cooking (4 different types of stuffing!).

But something else recently occurred to me: Independence Day is the ultimate suburban holiday.  It’s the one day of the year when it is incontestably, incontrovertibly better to live in the suburbs than in the city.  Why?

  • You need a pool.  You can’t celebrate the Fourth of July properly without being able to take a dip.  You want to spend the day in Central Park sweating your face off, that’s fine, but after a few hours you’re going to be thinking about jumping the fence on the reservoir or taking a wrench to the nearest fire hydrant.  Otherwise, you can go to one of those city pools, which are apparently very exciting.
  • You need a grill. And not one of those crappy portables that you can put out on your fire escape in violation of like a hundred building codes, which can barely singe a decent piece of meat.  You need a big, manly barbecue.
  • You need outdoor space. Now, some lucky people in the city might have a small backyard, or a deck or something, but that’s not enough for a proper Fourth of July party. You need grass. You need places to sit and take a nap in the sun.
No, if you want to do the Fourth of July properly, you need to be in the suburbs. It’s like the ultimate revenge for us suburbanites — you want to live in the city, with your hot people and your great clubs and fantastic restaurants and your culture and all that?  Fine, but on the Fourth of July, you’re going to be BEGGING to come visit me so you can sit by my pool and eat my hamburgers.  BEGGING, I tell you!
And that’s really what happens. You know how difficult it is for me to get people to come visit us out here in the suburbs?  Impossible.  No one wants to schlep for our annual super bowl party, much less a random weekend night.  Why would they leave the city to come hang out with us. The only hook I have for the Fourth of July:  a pool (not even mine, but my parents’ house is ten minutes away and well-provisioned), a grill, and a great view of the fireworks from my condo in Nyack.  Suddenly, people who won’t take my calls the rest of the year are lining up to hop a train to Tarrytown.
Sweet Revenge!!!

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.

Understanding the “Bridge and Tunnel” Crowd, and Why There Aren’t Any Good Clubs or Lounges in the Suburbs

When I resigned myself to a life in the suburbs, one of my goals was to try to find nightlife opportunities that would give me some semblance of the experiences I used to get in the city.  Now, let me be clear that I was not a big nightlife guy in the first place.  In my 20s, my usual nightlife routine was a night playing pool at the lost and lamented Amsterdam Billiards or getting a beer in a neighborhood bar.  Part of that was that I was, as they say, “living in the 80s and making in the 30s”, so I didn’t quite have the bankroll to hit a club. It’s a lot more fun to go clubbing if you are (a) a rich guy, or (b) a hot girl.  I was neither of those things.

Even as I got older, though, and could afford the club scene, it was really only something I did once in a while.  Maybe if I’d been single, or liked dance music music, or liked standing, or liked tinnitis, or couldn’t do the math on the cost of buying a bottle of Grey Goose for $350, I would have been a bigger fan.  But it just wasn’t my thing.  Maybe once in a while we’d get together with a group, get a table at a club, and put a big hole in our credit cards to enjoy a night out, but it really had to be a special occasion.

Otherwise, as I got older, my main nightlife routine would be hitting a “lounge,” which is really a euphemism for “a bar that has the drink prices of clubs because it has couches.”  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate having couches in bars.  The world needs more couches.  And I guess I like lounges because they aren’t as loud, so you can have a conversation.  The world needs more conversation, too.  You can’t really talk in a club, which is actually generally a good thing because most of the people in the clubs don’t have much of anything to say beyond “hey, nice shoes.”

So when I say that I was hoping to find nightlife opportunities in the suburbs, I’m really talking about those kinds of lounges — places with couches, where you can have a conversation, maybe with a bartender who makes interesting drinks that involve something called “muddling.”  Drinks that involve “muddling” are always much more expense than the non-muddling variety, but they sort of justify the fact that you went out at all — if you’re going to just mix vodka and soda, you can do that at home.  You need a fancy bartender in some couchy lounge to make you something with 15 muddled ingredients.

Here’s the thing — they don’t exist in the suburbs.  They. Don’t. Exist.  There are no lounges.  In fact, there are no clubs, nowhere that you can, if you wanted that experience, go to dance and listen to music and become insensate from the ringing in your ears.  What you have in the suburbs is simple: bars.  Just bars. No couches. No muddled drinks. No dancing.

It’s actually a lot worse than I thought. I figured that with all the people who get exiled from the city to the suburbs every year, some entrepreneurial type would realize that there’s a market for an “urban-style” lounge or club that would appeal to people who don’t want to just sit in a bar and, moreover, don’t want to have to schlep to the city to go out.

But I was wrong, and here’s why.  People who live in the suburbs who want to get an urban nightlife experience go to the city.  Whether they are 25 year olds who want to dance and listen to music without words, or 35 year olds who want to go to drink complicated drinks and sit on couches, they all have something in common — they want to do it IN the city. That’s the whole point.  They want to escape the suburbs for a night and feed on the urban energy and excitement.

Hence — the “bridge and tunnel” crowd that everyone in the city complains about when they go to clubs and lounge.  Oh, boy, there’s nothing worse for the reputation of a club/lounge than to get tagged as a “B&T” place, because then no one who actually lives in the city wants to go.  So the urbanites stop coming, and eventually the B&T people realize that they’re schlepping 45 minutes and paying $50 for parking to hang out with people from their neighborhod, so they stop coming. And then the place shuts down, while the B&T people start chasing wherever the urbanites went to.  It’s a vicious circle.

And that’s the point.  The people in the suburbs don’t really care about the music, or the muddled drinks, or the couches — what they want is the feeling of being a part of the urban excitement for a night.  If someone actually opened a hipster club/lounge/whatever in the suburbs, it would be the absolute worst.  By definition, EVERYONE in the place would part of the B&T crowd, except that they wouldn’t actually have to cross a bridge or burrow through a tunnel to get there.  Even worse, the people most likely to end up filling the place would be the very B&T people who aren’t even urbanized enough to want that hit off the urban pipe.  They’d be like the junior varsity to the B&T crowd, people who don’t even care about getting that authentic vibe.  In other words, that suburban hipster lounge would be like the worst place on earth for an urban exile.

That’s why those places don’t exist.  And that’s why my nightlife over the past three years has narrowed down to the occasional trip into the city, or game night at the condo.  In other words, despite any ambitions I might have had to maintain any kind of urban cred, I’m a typical suburbanite.

Ouchy.

REVISITED: Does Having a Dog Prepare You For Having a Kid? The Answer — Not Really

About a year ago, before I ever had a kid, I wrote about how I thought that having a dog would prepare me, at least a little, for having a child.  After all, once you have a dog, you have to clean up after it, feed it, and you can’t go away for a weekend or something without taking care of it.  All true.

That said, now that I have a baby, I realize what a schmuck I was.  Babies are much tougher.  First of all, I never realized simply how stupid babies are. The dog is stupid, but at least has a survival instinct that keeps him, for example, from jumping off our deck.  The baby is not only stupid, but seems to have no interest in staying alive.  I spend a lot of time just trying to keep him from killing himself: babyproofing cabinets, putting up stair guards, etc.  Still, he keeps finding ways that could put himself in danger. Maybe he’s depressed.  Can babies get depressed?

Of course, there are other difference.  Having a dog didn’t prepare me for how needy a baby is.  The dog will usually just chill for a while, sitting in corner or in his crate.  Babies require a lot more attention.  I sort of knew that, but I sort of thought we could occasionally plop him down in a pack-n-play, away from all the dangerous things that he likes to sneak around to, and take a nap.  That doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

So, yeah, it’s a lot more work. But all that said, I do think that having a dog is one of those milestones on the road to maturity that you pass on the way to having a child.  That is, the “I am mature enough to care for others besides myself” continuum goes like this:
  • Get a plant.  Try to keep the plant alive.  If the plant dies, stop here. Don’t get any other living things that might depend on you for their survival. If the plant lives, though, then keep going.
  • Get a dog.  Try to keep the dog alive.  If the dog dies because you forgot to feed it for two weeks, stop here.  Go back to getting a plant and start over. If the dog lives, though, then keep going.
  • Have a baby.  Try to keep the baby alive.  Definitely do NOT kill the baby.  Practice is over.

So far, so good.  Most of my plants are still alive, the dog is doing well, and so far I have managed to keep the baby alive, despite all his best efforts to off himself.

First a Dog, Now a Baby: My Poop-Filled Life

I used to have a poop-free life.  Not completely poop-free, of course. I had to deal with my own poop.  Not a whole lot of fun there.  But at least it was only mine. One person’s pool.  Ahh, the good old days.

Then I got a dog, and that was the end of the poop-free life. I had to deal with poop pretty much every day. On a good day, it was a good poop: a poop on the grass, during our daily walks, while I was armed with a baggie. Or a poop on the wee-wee pad in my bathroom, which has become Kozy the Dog’s designated “inside poop zone.”  On a bad day, though, a bad poop: a poop, say, on the living room rug.  But good or bad, there was poop.  Every day.

Now I have a baby, and my life is nothing but poop. Bad poop. People warned me, but I never quite appreciated how babies are basically poop machines.  They’re amazing, these little tiny beautiful creatures, constantly pumping out an astounding flow of truly ghastly poop.

How do they do that? What kind of unholy alchemy is this? This transubstantiation of liquid into solid, or at least something that is partly solid.  You put in a little bit of harmless-looking formula, and you get back a noxious miasma of inhuman sludge.

People ask me what’s the biggest change now that I’ve moved to the suburbs.  That.  That’s the biggest change.

  • City = Poop Free
  • Suburbs = Poop Filled

Now, I know that I can’t blame it on the suburbs.  It’s really more correlation than causation.  I know that. But of the many things that I miss about living in the city, right at the top of what is a pretty long list is this: the loss of my poop-free life.