Why Is It so hard to Say Goodbye to New York City?

Many New Yorkers who left during the pandemic have sought ways to replicate what they love about New York in their new hometowns.

By guest author Jennifer Miller from the News York Times

Nine months after Julie Fishkin moved from New York City to Portland, Ore., she was still following the Brooklyn-based website, Park Slope Parents. A few weeks ago, at something of an emotional nadir, she posted on an active thread called “PSP BK Stay or Go” — “Honestly for me, this has been like grieving a major loss.”

Ms. Fishkin, 39, has lived most of her life in New York City. Before the pandemic, she ran an e-commerce business out of the 850-square-foot apartment in Fort Greene that she shared with her husband and two small children. In March 2020, the family of four moved to Ms. Fishkin’s father’s house in Pennsylvania.

But by the end of last summer, a decision loomed: return to Brooklyn or move on? She turned to a Facebook Group called Into the Unknown, billed as a place for New Yorkers who “are considering — willingly or otherwise — to join the exodus from N.Y.C.”

The family chose to head west to Portland, Ore. And for a time, things were great. Their rental house had a yard. The neighborhood was lush. Once a week, Ms. Fishkin’s daughter Cleo attended a forest school called Rewild Portland. Life seemed idyllic.

“The more I talk about it, the more perfect it sounds,” Ms. Fishkin said over the phone last month. “But for whatever reason, it just feels off. Maybe because I’m this neurotic Jew — walking to the Park Slope co-op with a stroller and bags and two kids in solidarity with the other schlepper doing the same thing — here nobody schleps.”

Many of the estimated 400000 New Yorkers who left the city in the early months of the pandemic have since returned, but among those who moved permanently, many have found the transition to be emotionally fraught. This is certainly true for longtime New Yorkers, whose identities are intertwined with the city’s energy, diversity and culture. As much as New York expatriates may romanticize the schlep, they are also mourning it, especially as the city starts to reopen. This has some people grappling with their decision to leave, even if they know they aren’t going back.

“Finding the right place to live is often like finding the right spouse,” said Katherine Loflin, a consultant who studies emotional and sociological attachments to place. “Just like you can date or marry a place, you can divorce one.”

Ms. Loflin, whose background is in marriage and family therapy, called Covid a “forced divorce.” People often separate, not because they fall out of love, but because an unforeseen event breaks up the marriage. “You’ll have regret, because the relationship didn’t run its course,” she said. “You find yourself on a new journey when you’re still not out of love with where you were.”

Ms. Loflin helped pioneer the study of “place attachment”— how our bonds to a specific location help individuals and communities thrive. A decade ago, she served as lead consultant on the Soul of the Community project, a three-year Knight Foundation study of 26 communities across America. Ms. Loflin found that strong place attachment depends on three factors: the ability to enjoy social opportunities, pleasing aesthetics and a sense of belonging or welcoming.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that many New Yorkers who moved out of the city are looking for an approximation of what they left behind — albeit with backyards and extra bedrooms. An analysis by Apartment List for The New York Times found that between July 2020 and July 2021, New Yorkers searching for homes in nine major metro areas predominantly looked in urban and downtown neighborhoods. (For example, 65 % of New Yorkers searching in Miami listed the urban centre of Brickell as their first choice.)

New Yorkers also prioritized access to public transportation above the average renter, even in cities that are not known for their transit systems. And a large percentage of New York expats searched for short-term leases, between one and six months. “This signals that many New Yorkers aren’t sure their new home will stick, and they may be testing the waters,” said Igor Popov, the chief economist for Apartment List.

Public transit and walkability helped sell Patricia Brett, 57, and her husband Tom, 65, on the Cleveland Heights, Ohio home that they bought in March 2021. After riding the subway for three decades, the couple was determined to own just one car. To lessen their reliance on driving, their new house is a 15-minute walk to the Rapid Transit light rail, and Ms. Brett, a visual artist and retired architect, appreciates the similar commute on foot to a sizable art supply store.

She can also reach the Cleveland Museum of Art on foot in about half an hour. But her first trek, made in 28-degree weather through medical campuses and industrial neighbourhoods, was sobering. “I miss the MoMA, and I miss the walk through Central Park to get there,” she said.

Ms. Brett chose Cleveland because she has family nearby and because she would have room to make art. (During lockdown, she lost her shared studio space on East 91st street, which was just a few blocks from her apartment.) But a vibrant art scene was also nonnegotiable. “Being able to just take the subway to Chelsea and have that energy with other artists was such an important part of my life in New York,” she said. Before relocating, she identified certain “swaps,” like trading the Art Students League in Manhattan for Cleveland’s Zygote Press, an artists’ workshop in midtown Cleveland.

Even so, she misses the serendipity of New York. She recalled how she happened upon a yarn store near her apartment full of chatty knitters when she was just out walking one Sunday. “To find those little communities in Manhattan was amazing,” she said. “The walkability lends itself to people dropping in and hanging out.”

Charlotte Morgan, a native New Yorker and general counsel for Adore Me, an online lingerie business, had always imagined such a New York life for her family. “My 6-year-old son knows all the subways by heart,” said Ms. Morgan, 38. “I thought I’d raise the kids running around under the giant whale at the Natural History Museum on Sunday mornings.”

A few years back, her husband was offered a terrific job at his firm’s Houston office. Back then, Ms. Morgan couldn’t bear to leave. But when the opportunity arose again mid-pandemic, she knew it was time to go.

It wasn’t easy. “I cling dearly to the fact that Manhattan is the center of the universe,” she said. In February, she went house hunting in the Houston suburbs. “When we were in the car and got more than 10 minutes from the city center, I had a panic attack,” Ms. Morgan said. Ultimately, the family settled in Houston Heights, close to downtown. Their home shares an alleyway with a coffee shop and is close to an urgent care facility and a Pilates studio. “It allowed me to hope and believe that it won’t be a completely suburban existence,” she said.

But no existence, no matter how urban, can replicate New York. “Whenever I see movies or shows or anything filmed in New York City, my heart hurts for it,” said Zey Halici, who moved with her family from Brooklyn to Venice, the neighborhood in Los Angeles, in January 2021. “When I left the D.C. area in 2009 for a life change and job opportunity in New York, I never missed D.C. like I miss New York now.”

Ms. Halici, 37, describes her current neighbourhood as “hipster Williamsburg meets Coney Island.” She works in marketing in the alcohol industry and feels comfortable among the local creative class. But she’s been spending a lot of time at a local cafe and bakery called Gjusta, because the atmosphere and, especially, the bagels remind Ms. Halici of home.

“The new place is not the old place,” Ms. Loflin said. “You hopefully chose the new place for a reason, so your job is not sitting home and mourning New York, but getting out and finding what makes it tick.”

Ms. Halici gets that. She’s pregnant with her second child and the family is moving to a longer term rental in Culver City. She says it’s only a matter of time before 60-degree temperatures cease to feel like T-shirt weather. “My New York transplant friends all say, ‘Watch, you’ll become sensitive to the cold very soon,’” she said.

But the cultural differences will require more of an adjustment. “In New York, everyone is very straightforward, and they don’t have any qualms saying no to something,” Ms. Halici said. “In L.A., it’s ‘Yeah, that sounds great.’” Then they don’t show. She wonders if people are just trying to be nice or if the traffic (and lack of super accessible public transportation) makes committing to plans legitimately difficult.

Samantha Allen, 28, a home editor at Forbes Advisor, moved to Denver from Park Slope last November. She still walks faster than her friends and often wears all black, which is not common in Colorado.

Her New York directness also hasn’t always paid off. In Brooklyn, she successfully negotiated a rent reduction from her landlord when she discovered her apartment’s windows weren’t up to code. In Denver, she tried the same when the construction of a Hot Chicken restaurant in her building created agonizing noise. “They were like, ‘Rent’s not up for negotiation,’” Ms. Allen said. “I thought, if you can negotiate rent in New York, can’t you do that anywhere?”

But some of the cultural changes are refreshing. “Here ambition is focused on elevating your lifestyle, like climbing the next fourteener,” she said in reference to Colorado’s mountain peaks that rise above 14,000 feet. “Here, where you work isn’t even a secondary question.”

Yet she has actively sought out fellow New York transplants. When moving, she turned to a Facebook Group called I Moved to Denver. “It was a safety net for me, knowing that so many New Yorkers were coming here,” Ms. Allen said. Whenever she met fellow former New Yorkers, they “bonded immediately.”

The Facebook group was created by Laura Young, a New York expat who also runs New Denizen, a blog that covers Denver life “from a New Yorker’s perspective.” To Ms. Young, 40, this means having “strong and discerning opinions” when it comes to food, culture and the arts. She said that “when ex-New Yorkers in Denver talk to each other, the highest compliment would be, ‘This place could easily make it in New York City.’”

Of course, the pandemic convinced many New Yorkers that “making it” in New York City wasn’t worth the struggle. Instead, they’ve decided to bring what they love best about the boroughs to their new homes. Seon John, co-founder of The John Bennett Group, a real estate developer, helped roughly a dozen New Yorkers relocate to Atlanta during the pandemic. Many of them are West Indians from Queens who believe they can build their own slice of the city down south.

“Since they grew up in New York, they’re ahead of the curve here,” Mr. John said. “They see opportunity, what these areas are missing.” Their businesses are often restaurants, lounges and clubs. Georgia natives call them “new urban,” but to Mr. John, they’re just New York. “The core feels New York, the atmosphere feels New York, the food tastes New York, the heart is New York,” he said.

Heart is what Ms. Loflin calls “the secret sauce” of place attachment. And New Yorkers have a lot of it. “You have a sense of pride to say, ‘I’m a New Yorker,’” she said. “There’s a culture around New York, there’s 9-11, all this stuff where New York can be America’s city.”

Ms. Young, of the New Denizen blog, understands this. “When New York has its grip on you, it can be scary to leave,” she wrote in an email. “I just tell them to be brave and just do it. Worst case scenario, they move back to New York; best case scenario, they are living a happier, more fulfilling life.”