Forget the Suburbs, It’s Country or Bust

Forget the Suburbs, It’s Country or Bust

For some New Yorkers, being priced out of the city means it’s time to move to the woods.

Former Park Slope residents Steven Weinberg and Casey Scieszka bought and renovated an aging motel and farmhouse in the Catskills, where they now live with baby Amina. In the kitchen, they repurposed an antique barn door as an island countertop.CreditCreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

By Brooke Lea Foster

When Casey Scieszka, a freelance writer, and her husband, Steven Weinberg, a children’s book writer and illustrator, decided to leave Park Slope, Brooklyn, they didn’t consider the New York suburbs, where the yards were too small and the property too pricey. Instead, they moved to a house five miles down a dirt road — in the Catskills.

If you’re surprised to hear that two city-based creatives gave up their urban roots for life in the country, so were their families. Perhaps no one was more shocked than Mr. Weinberg’s grandmother and a friend of hers who once vacationed near the young couple’s new home in West Kill, N.Y. “The Catskills are over,” the friend said with concern.

Mr. Weinberg, 34, politely responded: “But you haven’t been there in 40 years. It’s different now.”

One could say the same for many of the rural hamlets, lush valleys and charming Main Streets of upstate New York: They’re changing, thanks to a wave of city folks moving in. Sure, the hemlock trees are still towering, the mountain ranges still majestic and the streams still rushing, but telecommuting has inspired a new crop of people to move to these sometimes wild, sometimes walkable and sometimes wide-open spaces. Priced out of the city, but armed with the possibility of working at home, some New Yorkers are willing to trade their walk to work for a walk in the woods.

“If you want to live on five acres, that’s never going to happen in the suburbs, so some people are looking farther,” said Jessica Fields, a real estate agent for Compass in Park Slope. In 2014, she founded Beyond Brooklyn, which helps people who want to leave the city figure out where to go.

She and her husband considered moving their family to Ulster County seven years ago — and while that is not entirely off the table, they are staying in Brooklyn for now. “We know so many people who have moved upstate or are curious about moving there. It attracts the people that want to be outside and make their own kombucha, but still want to stay connected to arts and culture.”

A 2018 StreetEasy report showed that when New Yorkers move within the tristate area, 6 percent go to Westchester and Rockland counties, while 12 percent wind up in New York counties north of there. (For comparison’s sake, 9 percent move to Long Island and 13 percent to New Jersey, whether to urban Hudson County or beyond.) Residents of the Bronx and Staten Island are most likely to move upstate (17 percent), followed by Brooklynites (12 percent).

“Ninety percent of my clients up here are from Brooklyn,” said Megan Brenn-White, a real estate agent in Kingston, N.Y., who left a 750-square-foot apartment in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, that she shared with her husband for an A-frame style house surrounded by woods in Ulster County that they bought for $255,000 in 2016. Ms. Brenn-White markets listings and interesting local businesses on an Instagram account with 6,500 followers, many of them potential or recent transplants from the city.

“Everyone wants the same things: to be within two and a half hours from the city, to have a cute town with a coffee shop less than 10 minutes away,” she said. “Sometimes they’re looking for a weekend house and sometimes — about 20 percent of the time — they’re looking for the reverse: a ‘full-time’ move where they’ll still go a few times a month to the city for work.”

City dwellers are being drawn north, in part, because of affordability. You may live in an apartment in Hudson, N.Y., within walking distance of Basilica Hudson, a former glue factory that now has a busy lineup of concerts, readings and food-related events. Or you may buy a rural farmhouse a quick drive from Beacon, N.Y., with its galleries, restaurants and shops. Either way, you could buy or rent a house for a fraction of what a one-bedroom apartment in the city would cost. Freeing up a chunk of income enables some people to chase their dreams, allowing them to open a business or live the kind of life they might not have been able to in the city.

Moving to Kingston allowed Anthony and Amanda Stromoski to open their dream business, Rough Draft Bar & Books, where you can order coffee or a glass of wine while perusing titles.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

In 2011, Amanda and Anthony Stromoski, who were living in Park Slope, discovered Kingston while weekending in the Catskills, where they liked to go camping. After wandering Kingston’s sidewalks for a night, and stopping in at the local craft brewery, they fell for the walkable streets and proximity to nature.

They visited several more times over the years and kept Kingston in mind when they were ready to leave Brooklyn. They briefly considered a move to one of the Rivertowns in Westchester, but decided they were ready for a bigger change and wanted to be closer to nature, said Mr. Stromoski, 36.

In 2016, he left his job as an assistant principal at a public high school in Brooklyn, and they bought an 1890 Victorian in Kingston for $311,000. Now they can see mountains from their windows. They made the decision, in part, because they harbored fantasies of opening a bookstore on Main Street.

For a year, Mr. Stromoski worked as a bartender while he and Mrs. Stromoski formulated a business plan. And in 2017, they opened the 2,000-square-foot Rough Draft Bar & Books, just a few blocks from their house. Here, “bibliotenders,” which is what they call their bartenders, will serve you a glass of wine along with a book recommendation; they also offer coffee and pastries from a local artisanal baker. Mr. Stromoski runs the bookstore, while Mrs. Stromoski, a health writer with Meredith, works behind the scenes.

“Opening this kind of business would have been close to impossible in Brooklyn,” Mrs. Stromoski, 36, said. “But here, it was more attainable for us.”

On their first day, one local after another popped in to welcome them, she said: “We feel really lucky to be part of such an amazing community.”


The Spruceton Inn, run by Mr. Weinberg and Ms. Scieszka, has an artist-in-residence program that accepts applications from those who want to spend a free week upstate pursuing creative endeavors. One of the first to stay was Stephanie Danler, who worked on revisions to her book “Sweetbitter.”CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

Mr. Weinberg, who grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Ms. Scieszka, 34, who is from Park Slope, were drawn to the Catskills by another kind of dream: They wanted to open an inn, a place where “people like us would go,” Ms. Scieszka said.

That meant buying (and painstakingly renovating) an eight-acre property with an aging seven-room motel strip, an 1850s barn and farmhouse with original pine flooring, and open land with a trout stream running behind it. They paid $370,000 for the property.

For the motel, they built a Pinterest-worthy bar, freshened up the rooms with rustic-chic furnishings, designed a glossy website and gave the place a lovely, albeit sufficiently hipster name: the Spruceton Inn. So far, the inn has been sold out nearly every weekend, and there is often a waiting list.

Still, while opening it was a lifelong dream, Ms. Scieszka worried at first about running a place that was so isolated, feeling the anxiety that New Yorkers often experience when leaving the city. New York is the best, and only, place to live in the world, isn’t it? That was five years ago.

“It took me three months of being out of the city to realize how good living in nature was for me, and that’s when I started to think, ‘What would I be rushing back for?’” she said.

Since then, they have started an artist-in-residence program: They take applications from writers and artists who want to spend a free week at the inn, which helps maintain a steady stream of interesting guests during winter. One of their first artists in residence, a writer named Stephanie Danler, worked on revisions to her book “Sweetbitter” there.

Ms. Scieszka and Mr. Weinberg now have a baby girl, Amina, whom Mr. Weinberg often straps into a Baby Bjorn when he goes fly fishing. She gurgles at the trout, he said: “I love that she’s growing up with a true connection to nature.”

Ms. Scieszka said she and Mr. Weinberg, who has been a guest writer at the small public elementary school nearby, don’t worry about getting Amina into school, as they would have in Brooklyn. “Out here, there’s only one choice, which in many ways is a relief,” she said of the closest school, 20 minutes away.

That it has fewer than 40 children in each grade is even better, she added: “The opportunity for the students to get individual attention from teachers seems wonderful to me.”

While transplants may worry about detaching from the frenetic pace of city life, some new upstate residents report that moving to the country connected them to the natural world in unexpected ways, filling a void left by the city with something they were not expecting: serenity. Living in the shadow of stunning mountain ranges and dense forests helps put things in perspective and shifts the focus away from stressors, they say.


Mr. Weinberg is a fly fisherman who heads out with his rod whenever he needs a break from his work writing and illustrating children’s books.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

Former city people might find themselves chopping wood (even owning multiple axes), growing some of their own food, heating their homes with wood stoves or learning to spot signs of wildlife, like the marks a buck makes when it rubs its antlers against a tree. At parties, they say, people talk about swimming holes and nature hikes rather than what they do for a living, and gathering around a firepit is as commonplace as a Manhattan power lunch.

“I had no idea that there were signs of spring besides not wearing a jacket,” Ms. Scieszka said. “Here, you’re tied to the seasons. You come to learn what plants come up first, where things grow.”

And while the winters can be, well, long, Megan Caponetto, a set stylist who moved to her weekend home in Ghent, N.Y., full-time in 2009, said that living up north has made her enjoy winter. “I love waking up and hearing the snowfall,” Ms. Caponetto, 49, said. “It’s so quiet. Winter used to be so horrible for me, so depressing. But up here, the land is so pretty in the snow.”

There is a sense among some that in living upstate, they are almost cheating: It’s not really the country. They can live deep in the woods or in a densely populated country town and meet like-minded creatives, foodies or artisans — and still be in New York City in less than two hours. In fact, easy access to the city has broadened the region’s appeal, as commuting once or twice a week feels doable.

Ms. Caponetto, who travels to Manhattan frequently for work, said she uses nature to center her before getting on the highway. “Even if I’m leaving at 5 a.m. to get into the city, I have a quiet moment every single day sitting on my porch and staring out into nature,” she said.

Russell Jones, a jewelry designer who left Park Slope for Hudson in 2013 after he got divorced, mostly works in a rented art studio near his 1920s bungalow. But once a week he takes the train down to New York City to teach at Pratt Institute. “It was less daunting to make the move up here at first because I still had that lifeline into the city,” he said.

He enjoys maintaining his connection to Manhattan, taking advantage of his weekly jaunts to see the latest show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or buy gemstones and materials for his designs. Plus, the train trip along the Hudson River is “magnificent,” Mr. Jones, 58, said. “I routinely see bald eagles flying alongside the train.”


Matt Dilling and Erika deVries (with their youngest child, Sequoia) are artists who consider their A-frame house upstate a sanctuary.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

That you can escape into nature with ease brought Matt Dilling, 39, and his wife, Erika deVries, 48, both artists, and their three children north in 2013, when they moved into their A-frame weekend house in the woods of West Saugerties.

Ms. deVries left her job teaching art full-time at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, while Mr. Dilling opted to move the production portion of his business, Lite Brite Neon Studio, which makes neon signs and has been featured in Architectural Digest, out of Brooklyn. His mortgage on a 15,000-square-feet warehouse in Kingston (for which he paid $505,000) was nearly the same as the rent on his former 1,500-square-feet studio in Gowanus. Taking the stress of finances out of daily life, he said, has enabled him and his family to live a more meaningful life.

Their children, who attended a Waldorf school in Brooklyn, love their new private schools upstate; one is at a Waldorf program in Saugerties and another is at a Woodstock school that bills itself as a “socially and environmentally mindful education journey.” (Their oldest child, Ms. deVries’s son from a previous marriage, returned to Brooklyn for high school and is living with his biological father.)

The move freed up head space, Mr. Dilling said. Now he has more time to spend with his family, and without the external stimulus provided by the city, he has done more soul-searching and become more spiritual. There is time, he said, for things other than work, like meditation.

Upstairs from Lite Brite Neon, he and his wife opened Cygnets Way, a studio that offers community yoga and classes in mindfulness practices, like sound healing. Ms. deVries also teaches bead-making and love-letter writing there.

“Before, it was hard to have time for an inner life,” Mr. Dilling said. “But nature has helped my mind quiet down and get in touch with what’s going on inside of me. There’s a strong connection up here to what’s larger than you, and it’s great when you don’t live inside a mental to-do list.”


Mr. Dilling said that living in West Saugerties, N.Y., where he and his wife opened a studio that teaches yoga and mindfulness practices, among other things, has allowed him to quiet his mind. “Before, it was hard to have time for an inner life,” he said.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

Those who have made the move, like Mr. Dilling and Ms. deVries, say they have a constant rotation of friends from the city coming to visit. And it’s easy to meet people with similar values.

“There’s truly an expat community up here,” said Ms. Brenn-White, the real estate agent.

The idea that you might move upstate to recreate a version of your city life, however, didn’t sit well with Grace Bonney, the editor of the lifestyle blog Design Sponge, and her wife, Julia Turshen, a cookbook writer. They bought a weekend house on four acres in Ulster County in 2014 because they wanted a larger kitchen and craved a closer connection to nature. After four months, they let go of their Greenpoint, Brooklyn, apartment and moved up to the 1850s farmhouse full-time.

The transition wasn’t entirely rosy. The more time Ms. Bonney, now 37, spent in her new home, the more perspective she gained about the Brooklyn migration. While volunteering for a nonprofit group, she worked with longtime business owners whose companies were being overshadowed by some of the trendier ones started by out-of-towners.

“Everybody loves the land here, but there’s a financial tension between new residents and longtime locals that’s palpable,” she said, adding that she was surprised and humbled by the concerns of locals who felt as if their towns were being taken over.

She and Ms. Turshen, 33, have since made a commitment to shop mostly at local stores. And they hire only local tradesmen, rather than bringing in contractors and designers from the city, something they often see others do.

By now, she said, they have come to feel at home upstate. They walk their dogs regularly at the Minnewaska State Park Preserve, 10 minutes away. And as a self-professed homebody whose work on Design Sponge has taken her to designer homes around the country, Ms. Bonney said she can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“There’s something special about this house,” she said.

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page RE1 of the New York edition with the headline: No Burbs: It’s Country or Bust. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


Published at Fri, 14 Dec 2018 16:10:19 +0000