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When Stacey, a recent divorcee, moved from New Jersey into Manhattan to live solo for the first time, she chose the Upper East Side for its good value, easy commute, and because the area isn’t always “on.” Although she is thrilled with her shorter commute, great dining options and vibrant social scene, she discovers that living in NYC is not a good fit for her. Here’s Stacey’s story.
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland but moved to New Jersey to be with my boyfriend (now soon-to-be-ex-husband). We lived in Cliffside Park, NJ, a fairly diverse neighborhood in Bergen County, in a luxury high rise overlooking the Hudson, for 16 years.
I loved that the area had people with different ethnicities and because there were good public transportation options, as well as a garage for our car. My building was composed of retired people and young couples like us who were just starting out.
But the area could also be considered a bit snooty, since we lived on what is considered “The Gold Coast.” I didn’t feel particularly close to my neighbors, I knew maybe one or two others on our floor very casually. I did like having a doorman and the front door staff was excellent—having them made me feel safe in the building.
[Editor's Note: Brick Underground's series “Transitions” features first-person accounts of what it’s like to move from one New York City neighborhood to another. Have a story to share? Drop us an email. We respect all requests for anonymity.]
Still, I loved the amazing view from my balcony. I had water views and could see clear to the Upper West Side. I could also see the George Washington Bridge, Riverside Cathedral, and Grant’s Tomb. If I leaned a bit off the balcony, I could even see down to the Empire State Building. One of my favorite things was being able to see the sunrise in the morning or have a late-night cigarette from it.
Another plus: We even had a pool!
Our one-bedroom apartment was fairly spacious at 1,000 square feet plus balcony, and offered us a dining area, living room and king-sized bedroom. We had ample closet space and room to hang art on the walls.
I was fairly content there, but there were certainly some drawbacks. The building’s board was pretty awful; they liked to make it seem like residents had a say in any building improvements but would always end up overriding our preferences. They consistently spent unnecessary money on terrible renovations and chose awful contractors, which ultimately lead to the Cliffside Fire Department fining them. It was a total mess. The building also prohibited pets and having grown up with pets, this wasn’t ideal.
Probably one of the most stressful things about living in NJ and working in Midtown East—I am an office manager for a hedge fund—was my commute. It could be a real crapshoot. While I was lucky to have express bus stops nearby that would take me directly into Port Authority, where I could catch a subway right to work, as the years went by the towns along my route attracted more and more people and made my commute absolutely terrible.
I was in the middle of the route, and the busses were so crowded that if I wasn’t at the bus stop by 6:15 a.m. I couldn’t get on a bus until well after 7:30 a.m. There always problems with the Lincoln Tunnel; one never knew when there’d be a lane closing, an accident, or weather conditions which could slow things down for up to an hour.
So, when my marriage dissolved, I knew I didn’t want to stay in New Jersey. The cost of rent, bus passes, and metro cards made no sense. The area of NJ I lived in was essentially a suburb of NYC, with prices to match.
I like the UES because it’s quiet, there’s a neighborhood feeling but not always “on.” I also work on the East Side, so it made sense to look for an apartment with an easy commute. This would be the first time I would be living alone, so many change in such a short time were stressful, exploring living in Manhattan was also exciting.
In NJ, I split some living expenses with my former spouse and some we each paid on separately. So our mortgage, maintenance, and total living expenses had been a bit murky. I never had a clear understanding of them, since he paid and my name was not on anything.
When I opted to move, I looked for the lowest rent possible. Still it takes up roughly 40 percent of my income. I’ve cut some expenses by moving out—I no longer have a landline or cable—but I think my rent, which I pay myself, is now about the same or even more than our NJ apartment. Other expenses are manageable: My cell is about the same, because I used to pay for a family plan for myself, my spouse, and his mother. My electric bill is way less, even in hotter months. I also save about $160 a month not having to buy a NJ transit monthly bus pass and I buy my monthly MetroCard pre-tax.
I saw a bunch of apartments in various areas of the city, and I chose a one bedroom roughly half the size of my NJ apartment because it is in a clean, safe, and quiet walk-up building on a residential block. My unit faces the back side of the building, so while there isn’t a view of the Hudson, it’s quiet and dark at night. I feel safe on the street and in the building. Because I was not used to living alone that was really important to me. While I don’t socialize much with neighbors, the other residents are relatively quiet and friendly.
And even though my building is old and not very charming, I do have very high ceilings and hardwood floors, which is very nice. It’s also great to have a delineation between my bedroom and living room instead of a studio—which are roughly the same price in the area. The building is well kept and doesn’t smell—that’s always important.
The walls are plaster which makes hanging things a challenge. Not having an elevator or doorman is a bit of a change, but thankfully packages are usually put inside in the hallway by our mailboxes and bigger items can be delivered to my door. The boiler seems to have a lot of issues—no heat or hot water every few weeks—which is quite annoying! The management company is really good and responsive though; I only had one issue getting a ticket completed. One annoyance has been an ongoing ant problem. Still, it’s better than some NYC horror stories like roach or rat infestations.
My building has a small laundry room in the building, but I opt to send my wash out. It’s relatively cheap, less than $1 a pound. In NJ I paid $1.50 to wash and $1.75 to dry per load but machines were on our floor. It could really add up when you are washing and drying for two people. Now I typically spend about $20 every two weeks for laundry and don’t have to waste any time doing it.
And my commute is a dream! I live near the Q and 4, 5, and 6 trains. The route I take depends on how motivated I am feeling. The 6 leaves me directly at my office building, but it’s a longer walk to the station on the home end. The Q is closer to my apartment, but about nine blocks from the office. I also have the M86 crosstown bus a block away. I never have to travel more than 30 minutes, which means more time to myself.
When I lived in NJ most of our social activity was in NYC anyway, so I can now still go to any spot I once enjoyed but without having to wait for the bus to get to the subway. We’d meet people in the city often—most would not venture to me to NJ—so living in Manhattan saves me lots of time and makes doing things at night after or on weekends work easier.
I can still get see the water easily, although this time it’s the East River Hudson. Whenever out-of-towners come to visit me, I always take them to nearby Carl Schurz Park for an afternoon of drinking and people watching. I am also within walking distance of Central Park and Museum Mile.
My building is pet friendly so I can finally have cats! One of the first things I did was head to the ASPCA a few blocks away and adopt two, who came to me complete with NYC-type names: Challah and Babka! (I guess it is fitting there is a kosher bakery right down the block!) Finding room for their kennels and litter box is tricky in a small space, but I have made it work.
As for grocery shopping, in NJ we had ample options, especially because we had a car. But I am certainly not suffering for great options on the Upper East Side. I live right by Fairway, there’s a Whole Foods just a few blocks away, a ton of 24-hour bodegas, a C-Town right on my avenue and a slew of take-out places along York, First and Second avenues. There are plenty of fruit carts, which I prefer over most of the neighborhood’s grocery store’s produce sections. I don’t grocery shop as often as I did in NJ—my kitchen is way smaller. I have no counter space, which is frustrating. I try to shop at smaller locally owned stores for things like pet food and miscellaneous items. Having that option instead of box stores like in NJ is pretty cool. I tend to order from Instacart for larger orders and heavy items; I live in a walk up on the third floor and I’m lazy as hell. I don’t want to carry things up two flights of stairs.
In NJ we cooked but we also order in a lot. The Cliffside Park area has some great restaurants and my favorite was Sabor Latino on River Road.
On the Upper East Side there are great dive bars as well as high-end eateries, and everything in between. The Penrose is great for late-night dinners or brunch, Schaller & Weber for imported noshy snacks, and the Heidelberg just next door is a great German spot. Flora Bar at the Met Breuer is by far my favorite brunch spot. It’s pricy but so worth it.
I have lived here for over a year and my lease will be up in a few months. I think if I was absolutely in love with living in NYC, the nabe, and the apartment, maybe I’d consider staying longer, but it feels like my time here is about done. Some part of me feels like I wasted these 16 months because I didn’t do the “typical” NYC thing—out every weekend at clubs/bars, but at the same time, being 40, I don’t know that I needed all that. Being truly alone for the first time was the experience I needed most and being able to do it in NYC is wonderful. I’m lucky I have a job to support me, no kids, or other serious obligations.
However, I know it’s not sustainable for me long term, financially or mentally. I don’t plan on living in the tri-state area for much longer. I think it’s time to explore another part of the U.S. where things might be cheaper and a bit easier overall.
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