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This time last year, as friends and neighbors set off to shelter in place in second homes upstate, and colleagues made swift decisions to sell or end leases, and trade up or head for the suburbs, my family of five stayed put in our Brooklyn rental.
Everyone seemed to be going somewhere, even multiple somewheres. Take, for example, my neighbors who have been gone from New York City for over a year. First, they went to their place on Long Island. When they called mid-winter to see if my kids wanted to make some cash for shoveling snow, they were in Florida. "Of course they would," I said. I imagined my neighbors by a pool or playing tennis while the snow was pummeling us. Jealous? Of course I was.
However, while so many around me were scrambling to get out of the city this time last year, I was desperate to get my high schooler back to NYC from the UK—where he was studying—as international borders closed. My husband and I are both from England but our sons hold U.S. passports. When he walked in the door of our place in Park Slope and we were all together again under the same roof, there was nowhere else I wanted to be.
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We moved to New York City after a decade of living in California and have been renting the same place in Park Slope for nearly five years. Like most New Yorkers, we make the city work through a patchwork of funding. In our case, we rent out a place we bought on the West Coast, which in turn helps pay our rent here.
When our lease expired, we didn’t renew but kept on paying, so it became a month-to-month agreement, something my husband and I were comfortable with. It means we are only obliged to give 30-days notice if we want to leave. This suits itinerants like us. When the pandemic hit, and jobs and school went remote, we were in the perfect position to leave the city. But go where?
We have no relatives in America and no geographical pull to the landscapes of our past. OK, that’s not entirely true—I’ve idealized my rural English childhood until it aches but I also know the Wifi at my parents’ cottage could not handle all of us, even if there were enough beds for us all to sleep. And there would have to be peace talks brokered between their dogs and our cat. And we’d have to get there, with pets, and quarantine ahead of seeing anyone. You can see why it didn’t happen.
In those early days of spring 2020, it was enough simply to get through the day. Every siren marked another person in respiratory distress and my anxiety—checking Covid stats in New York, the UK, the U.S., and also in Hong Kong where my brother lives with his family—drove a desperate need to shelter exactly where we were. In the evenings we sat on the couch and I read Jack London’s novel “The Call of the Wild” aloud to my kids. Did I mention one of them is in high school? They generously humored me.
Writing about real estate and housing during the pandemic should have made me wise to every opportunity to change things up. My colleagues and I have written about the plight of those unable to pay the rent and also about how to negotiate with your landlord, where the deals are, the pros and cons of the city vs. the suburbs, and how to achieve a stress-free move. If you’ve written a forecast on New York City real estate for the year ahead, chances are you should have a sense of where the market is and how you can take advantage of it. Instead we got a dog.
By then, the city had a lot of empty apartments. It’s possible our landlord anticipated we’d leave in the middle of the pandemic if they didn’t agree to let us have a dog. (Now the dog is in our life, I’m well aware we’d probably do anything for her.) Our landlord reluctantly agreed, pointing out the pine flooring is softwood rather than hardwood and not very robust. She was right. We bought rugs.
My husband and I entertain ideas about what the next few years might look like—we are lucky that our jobs appear relatively safe. In our minds, we move to Manhattan, or we look for another rental in Brooklyn (with different flooring). Or we buy upstate, or the suburbs. Maybe we head back to California, or we return to the UK. We could buy something in the mountains, or rent something by the beach. We have the luxury of not being tied to one place but sometimes this feels less like freedom and more like simply being untethered.
The radius of our lives has shrunk over the years. While in the Bay Area we thought nothing of jumping in the car for the Marin headlands, or further afield to Tahoe or Big Sur. When we moved to New York, going further than Prospect Park elicited groans from our kids. Recently, in exploring what might come next for us, we went to a look at a property upstate. Somewhere near White Plains the dog threw up in the back of the car. We had to stop three times because everyone felt queasy. It was a relief to get home.
Few of us thought the range of our lives would be reduced to just a few blocks as it was at the height of the crisis. But if our geographic radius has shrunk, the cultural radius of our lives has expanded—New York’s rich diversity is unmatched—and with it our hearts.
Now that vaccines are being rolled out, we are watching our city emerge from the pandemic. In many ways I fell in love with New York City last year. Hearing the cheers for essential workers, the banging of saucepans, the blast of car horns, and standing on the stoop to join in the applause often made me heavy with emotion. The city’s relative quiet meant some noises were more piercing: the sirens, the seven o’clock clapping, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the cheers for Biden’s victory.
That’s not to say New York and I don’t have a complicated relationship. If I’m honest the West Coast was easier to love. But perhaps because you have to dig deeper in New York City, the small victories—fleeting as they have been during the pandemic—are that much sweeter.
Walking the dog in Prospect Park, my husband and I mused about our stasis. Is it just a recognition that we are older? That moving with three kids, a dog, and a cat just isn’t that easy? That we aren’t quite as nimble as we thought? Are we stuck? It might just be that what we have right now is working for us. Perhaps it’s not stasis, it’s that we find ourselves happily tethered. Instead of making plans for this year or the next we decide to take a longer view—think about where we’d like to be in five years' time. It might just be New York City.
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