Lori Cheek never planned to leave New York City. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in her native state in 1996, she had packed up a Penske truck, driven to Manhattan, and never looked back.
Her plan was to become a famous architect. But — as happens to many people who come to New York City to realize their dreams — Cheek’s ambitions shifted but never faded. Instead, she started a dating app based on missed connections called Cheekd. She met the same 17 people for drinks every Sunday night (they called it “Church”). She funded part of the rent for her $3,300 two-bedroom Lower East Side apartment by serving as an Airbnb host. She loved her life. “I was a New Yorker at heart,” she said. “Hurricane Sandy, 9/11 — nothing was going to make me leave. Nothing.”
And then: COVID-19.
Suddenly, it was impossible to make rent as an Airbnb host. A dating app based on missed connections is harder to market when no one leaves their homes. And Church? It went online.
It became clear that the life Cheek had loved and nurtured for 24 years was not only something she couldn’t afford anymore; it was something that couldn’t exist. But as uncertainty replaced ambition and income evaporated, where could she go? She decided to return to her hometown.
Much has been made of the absconding upper crust of New York City — the graphic swirls mapping the COVID-19 diaspora of second home owners, abandoning the city in its darkest hour, perhaps taking the infection with them. But that narrative doesn’t account for all the regular people making heartbreaking, gut-wrenching decisions to call it quits on the Big Apple.
I’m among the longtime New Yorkers who’ve returned to the places from whence we came, grappling with surrendering our New Yorker identities, with the feelings of failure — and freedom — that come from going home again, and with guilt about leaving the city.
“I’m having a hard time not being there but I’m really glad I’m not there,” my friend Mary Bergstrom said, from the road in South Dakota, in her pop-up trailer, before the signal disappeared.
Some, like Bergstrom, left because they have incredibly dangerous health problems. She returned to her native Montana in the hopes of staying alive.
My reasons were less dramatic: Mostly, I fulfilled a deep desire for outdoor space. My longing to leave preceded the pandemic. I’ve spent the past eight years — since my second child was born — trying to free myself from our below-market-rate, duct-taped-together-but-beautiful fourth floor walk-up in Brooklyn. I searched endlessly for a place that somehow had all the best parts of New York — the vibrancy, the culture, the walkability, the people, the food. And fewer of the bad parts — the schlep, the expenses, the competition for resources, the competition for everything.
Raising a family in New York City depleted me, but one glimpse of the skyline peeking out from behind the trees (or the sound of old men harmonizing bebop on the subway), and my love was reaffirmed. I couldn’t fathom staying, but I couldn’t gather the courage to leave.
Now I’m back in Saratoga Springs, the tiny city in upstate New York where I lived as a young child until my parents divorced when I was five, where I spent summers and holidays and one weekend a month after that, and where I longed to live because of its architectural beauty, proximity to the Adirondacks, and walkability. When I was young, it was a hippie refuge — full of faded glory, romantically rundown, and super-cheap.
We came here because it had affordable, furnished short-term housing, and enough family and friends nearby that if my husband and I both got sick, we’d have people to bring food or supplies for our kids. We thought we were coming for a month. It’s been four.
Jessa Fisher wasn’t planning to leave, either. She’d been living in downtown Brooklyn since 2011, tolerating the difficulties of life with two small kids in a one-bedroom for the city she loved.
Then, her six-year-old hit the jackpot — a slot at Brooklyn New School, one of the borough’s most diverse, progressive, and sought-after elementary schools. She was elated. “Then immediately I said to my husband, ‘You know what this means? We can never leave.’”
But the thought was always in the back of her mind: Their situation wasn’t sustainable. Her building — an old, crappy walk-up amid sparkling new high rises — could be torn down. She and her husband would discuss returning to their native Rochester, “But the price was so good for the location that we were just like, ‘Well, we’ll just keep staying here until something happens.’” Also: Rochester. There was “the boring factor,” as she put it, the weather, the not-New Yorkness.
Fisher works at the Park Slope Food Coop, but her husband, an ICU nurse, couldn’t find a job in the city (even during the pandemic). Once lockdown in their one-bedroom began — with no school, no childcare, and no breaks — the sparkle of New York City faded some.
So when Fisher’s husband got a job offer in Rochester, there were few reasons for him not to accept it. “[Without the pandemic], it would have been a lot harder of a deliberation and I would have fought it more,” Fisher said. “I honestly don’t know if we would have moved if the pandemic hadn’t happened.”
They bought a three-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot house on a third of an acre in a suburb of Rochester for, after a bidding war, $185,000 — the cost of a parking spot in their Brooklyn neighborhood. They moved while the city was shaking with protests — 20 police cars swarmed their block, helicopters swirled overhead.
The word Fisher conjured to describe her attitude prior to the move was resigned. After the move, it shifted to relieved. “My parents kept on asking if it felt weird to be here,” she said. “It doesn’t feel weird at all. It feels very natural. It’s been a very smooth transition for all of us.”
Rochester is in Phase 3 of reopening — coffee shops, farmers’ markets, and parks are open to the public. There are people on the streets. They see their kids’ three sets of grandparents every week. “It’s quiet and peaceful and relaxing. You can just walk outside and you don’t have to carry a bike up four flights of stairs,” said Fisher. The pictures of New York City on her phone make her sad, but the relief-to-regret ratio is way in favor of relief.
Living in the suburbs full-time was not something Fisher had ever imagined for herself; her kids will have a very different kind of childhood than the one she had. But she’d never imagined a pandemic, either. While the disease has disrupted and shut down certain parts of our lives, our cities, and our society, it has also ushered in new possibilities. One door in a fourth floor walk-up closes, and another on a suburban street opens.
Besides, it’s not like Brooklyn is becoming more affordable. The folks at StreetEasy told me that rental inventory is up 9 percent since the pandemic, but the search for apartments is up 15 percent, and rents are likely going to increase on apartments with pandemic-friendly offerings like in-unit laundry and outdoor space.
“I noticed the housing prices in Carroll Gardens haven’t changed at all,” Fisher said.
The city a lot of us are grieving isn’t available right now, which softens some of the pain. “It’s easier knowing that if I was in New York, I wouldn’t be doing what I was regularly doing,” Cheek said. “Going to the gym, meeting my friends for happy hour. I walk around the city. I pop into Whole Foods every day. My life wasn’t going to be the same.”
The fact that her social life was no longer possible made Madison Hall’s decision a little easier. The 23-year-old data journalist had been sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Bushwick with a couple. She lost her job in mid-March and went to visit her parents in her native Houston. She didn’t come back. “I really like the city, but with everything shutting down and most places not hiring, it doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Her parents lost their family home in Hurricane Harvey in 2017, so the home she returned to was a two-bedroom apartment in an unfamiliar complex that she’d hardly spent any time in. “Home can’t be home anymore,” she said, speaking of both Houston and New York.
Hall said it has been “a weird struggle” living alone with her parents. While they’re incredibly supportive, she feels her world has shrunk. Their apartment is no bigger than the one she left in Brooklyn — and that one actually had a private yard. She can’t go out with friends or develop a new relationship to the city where she grew up. But there’s an upside, she said: “I’m saving a ton of money.”
I get it. I used to romanticize my hometown so much that I’d cry every time I left it to go back to Brooklyn. When I first got back here, 16 weeks ago, each stroll took me through a graveyard of memories. Here is where I smoked my first cigarette (age: single digits). Here is where I learned to drive. Here is where I taught my dog Taj to go down the slide. Here is where my long-haired high-school boyfriend first kissed me. Every corner evoked a memory that I couldn’t tell my kids about until they were older — ghosts everywhere.
Then the ghosts faded. 7 p.m. up here is just another hour. Cars drone by on the busy street. At our local Black Lives Matter rally, one woman drew what she thought were peace signs on the sidewalk in the park. They were actually Mercedes symbols.
Living here has cured me of my romantic notions about Saratoga, and yet I still love it. It’s a pretty town with an inflated sense of itself and overpriced real estate, which is how a lot of people up here think of New York City. And it’s a town where I know just a few people, but they’re people who have loved me deeply and been there for me for most of my life.
Lori Cheek has found silver linings, too. She’s sharing a three-bedroom home with her parents in a tiny town 30 miles from Louisville. “I’m back in my childhood room and it’s just bizarre,” she said. But her parents are cool. “I really do feel like I’m hanging with my buddies.”
Still, like so many people, Cheek is in limbo. “I can’t keep living out here with my parents. I’m 47. I need to get my life on,” she said. She applied for an apartment in the Butchertown/NuLu area of Louisville, where she has friends, in a building with a pool and a co-working space. “The neighborhood felt like Williamsburg,” she said. In non-pandemic times, there’s a great restaurant scene, craft breweries, and distilleries. But the virus is raging there, and it’s impossible to know when Cheek will be able to safely enjoy the city’s many offerings. But getting a foothold is important because, as she says, “I felt as if I was pulling the plug on NYC, I at least want to have something to look forward to.”
Cheek, for her part, is psyched for her unexpected Kentucky chapter of life. “I was mourning, but there’s a level of excitement with it, too,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re forced to do things, there’s some magic on the other side of the wall. I’m hoping that’s what’s going to happen to my life here.” She does have to get used to some things about life outside New York. “I haven’t driven in 25 years,” she said.
Watching videos of the protests, struggles, celebrations, and of New Yorkers cheering on essential workers, has been painful. “All the cool creative things New Yorkers are doing right now to survive the pandemic — I feel like I gave up on everybody,” Cheek said. Her body and her belongings may have gone south permanently, she added: “My soul is still there in New York.”