Bright Lights, Big City: Boomers Head Downtown
After their four children were grown and on their own, Kathy Oden-Hall and her husband, Andy, (left) were ready to downsize. They sold their suburban Oklahoma City home and looked for a smaller house with room for entertaining. When they couldn't find one, they decided to ditch the suburbs for the city.
Oden-Hall, a public relations consultant, had been working with a client in downtown Oklahoma City. "I really loved the energy and vibrancy I felt each time I entered the downtown area," she says. "So we decided that the timing was perfect for us to try urban living."
In June, they moved into an apartment in Oklahoma City's Arts District, and the couple isn't alone in their decision to move into the inner city. Today, more than half of all Americans live in cities rather than suburbs or rural areas. By 2050, nearly three-quarters of the population will reside in cities, too, according to United Nations projections.
Even those who haven't made a move seem interested in the idea: Oden-Hall had so many friends and fellow empty-nesters express interest in her downtown adventure that she started a blog, Downtown OKC Living, to share her experiences.
What's the Attraction?
People who are returning to cities -- or moving there for the first time -- cite several factors in their decision. Like Oden-Hall, many head to the city to experience the excitement of a faster-paced, sophisticated lifestyle. "[The city] is so alive," Oden-Hall says. "The sights, sounds and smells of activity are bubbling around you all the time. We love the easy access to great restaurants, museums and entertainment. I also really love how easy it is to clean 1,200 square feet instead of 3,000."
Wendy Peck, (right) an empty-nester who moved from two acres in the Canadian countryside to downtown Winnipeg, loves "how there is always something going on," she says. "The country has a soul that is quiet, natural and relaxing, and at times a bit dull," Peck says. "The inner city has a soul that is bright and vibrant, absolutely alive, even if overwhelming and chaotic."
In Winnipeg, Peck most appreciates the city's walkability, public transportation, easy access to specialty medical services, ethnic foods, and the "much more interesting" people, she says.
In addition to excitement and diversity, cities can offer a certain charm and feeling of community that some find missing in the suburbs.
Kandice Bridges and her husband moved back to Dallas with their two children after spending two and a half years in suburban Frisco, Texas because "it didn't feel cozy, like our established, older Dallas neighborhood," she says. "I know my neighbors in my Dallas neighborhood better than I ever knew my neighbors in Frisco. I like the hustle and bustle of downtown, and having the Arts District close by. I take advantage of local organic produce co-ops and the vibrant farmers market downtown."
Bridges acknowledges that there are trade-offs, such as less house for more money and the expense of private school, but says, "I wouldn't want it any other way."
Some people move back to the city to escape problems they've encountered in the suburbs. Dave Armon and his family moved from New York's Westchester County to Manhattan in 2007 because their suburb was not culturally diverse enough for their tastes, he says. In addition, the suburban school's test scores were declining, there was an outbreak of a sexually transmitted disease at the middle school, and property taxes on their six-bedroom house were approaching $30,000 a year. "Boredom and too much disposable income equaled drug and alcohol problems," Armon says.
Cities aren't without their problems; the rates of homelessness and crime are often higher in inner cities, and some suburban conveniences, such as sprawling grocery stores, big-box stores and shopping malls, are nowhere to be found.
For many new city residents, those challenges are no worse than the challenges of suburban living. In Manhattan, for instance, Armon's daughters, 12 and 14, are happily settled into public schools, and the family finds there are so many activities to occupy their free time that boredom isn't an issue anymore.
In Oklahoma City, Oden-Hall sees homeless people sleeping on park benches as she walks to work each morning, "but they have never made me feel uncomfortable," she says. While she does visit a warehouse store every couple of months to stock up on some items, Oden-Hall prefers shopping at the downtown farmers market and locally owned shops.
For many, convenience is reason enough to move to the city. Bridges, who has always worked downtown, says, "Spending an hour and a half in traffic, one-way, was a nightmare. I now appreciate the 12-minute commute to work."
A Different Kind of Home
Finding a home in a city is a whole new experience. In the most densely populated areas, such as New York or San Francisco, new residents will find higher rent or mortgage payments, along with a scarcity of desirable apartments.
"Do what you can to re-set your suburban expectations regarding space, and realize that an apartment is someplace you sleep and have breakfast," says Robert Gall, who, with his wife, artist Lynn Gall, moved to Manhattan after he retired last December from Pratt & Whitney, where he was a contract negotiator.
Household conveniences that are taken for granted in the suburbs suddenly come with a price in the city. "Living downtown brings new things to the decision-making table," Oden-Hall says. "It's not just location. We don't need to worry about school districts any more, but how important is being able to park close to where we live? Do we need a washer and dryer in our unit, or is a nearby facility doable? What about a loft versus traditional bedrooms? Do we want a high-rise view?"
For those who aren't ready to commit fully to city life, an escape plan is common. Rather than purchasing a home in downtown Oklahoma City, Oden-Hall and her husband decided to "test drive" the city by leasing an apartment for six months. The Galls kept their loft in North Adams, Mass., as a place to return if their city adventure didn't work out.
Getting to Know Your City
Once in the city, it may take some effort for new residents to feel at home. "I would recommend getting to know the areas available to you and getting to know your neighbors," Bridges says. "Get plugged into different communities, whether that's your homeowners' association, a school community, church, professional association or joining the local YMCA. Definitely check out all of the local theaters, museums and restaurants, and embrace it. There are so many opportunities for adults and children."
Experienced city dwellers recommend diving right in to find the city features that appeal to you. "It takes a lot of research when you first arrive," Peck says. "Most of the really good stuff a city has to offer is partially hidden." She suggests starting by learning your own neighborhood. She did so by taking the local weekend paper for a couple of years.
"Eventually, I learned which groups and businesses constantly offered things of interest, and made a point of talking to people at events," Peck says. "Most of my current knowledge comes from things like-minded people directed me to." She also recommends learning the bus system, even if you drive, so you can avoid the hassles of parking at large events, and walking as much as you can to explore your new home.
On the other hand, if moving to the city is something you've considered for years, "just do it," Peck says. "There is nothing more tedious than someone who talks for years about doing something that they never do."
SecondAct contributor Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer based in Alabama.