Where should we live within driving distance of NJ?
February 7, 2011 11:47 AM   Subscribe

My husband's adventure in grad school didn't work out and now we need to find a place to move next. Help us figure out where to live!

In August, we moved to the NOVA/DC area from Gainesville, FL so that my husband could attend graduate school. He hated it, and we're not super happy living here, so we're trying to figure out where to go next. I work from home, and he's job searching (and thinking about getting a teaching certificate at some point), which gives us a bit of flexibility--but we're overwhelmed and not really sure where to look.

I really enjoyed a lot of things about Gainesville--it was green, pretty crunchy, preposterously walkable, and cheap, with a lot of accessible cultural and social stuff that we found appealing. We're mostly introverts, but I, especially, need some social stuff around--music and a cool bar or two and easily reached libraries and a few coffee shops--to be happy. However, we were not Floridians, and would prefer to live within driving distance of our families, who live in New Jersey.

We like the climate here in Virginia much better (yay snow!!!), but it's really too expensive for us, and culturally it's felt like a poor match. He's a bearded, scruffy goof-ball; I'm a heavily tattooed SF dork. We like places that are down-to-earth and welcoming and we haven't found that to be particularly the case here. And despite the fact that our neighborhood has a good walk score, the ridiculous traffic makes walking to even close places extremely stressful. And driving places extremely stressful, too. Basically, getting around stresses me out to the point where I'd often just stay inside.

The big caveat is that, despite all of the above, I'm not a city mouse and prefer to live somewhere where there are places to hike and be outside in the trees in addition to all that cultural stuff mentioned above. We are familiar with both Philly and NYC and I know, deep down, that I don't want to live in either place. Essentially, we're looking for a small city or a college town with the following:

-easy to navigate, especially by foot
-easy to get to hiking paths, nature stuff etc.
-somewhat pretty would be nice. I dig historic/old houses and that kind of thing.
-affordable, or at least more affordable than NOVA (which shouldn't be hard!)
-cute coffee shops or quirky bars and maybe a few organic grocery stores (the husband has celiac disease, so this makes it easier for him to eat)
-fun/welcoming geek communities--SF cons or meet-up groups would be great.
-one day's driving distance to New Jersey (8 hours max, but would prefer closer)

We're in our late 20s and early 30s and don't have kids yet, but might be considering it in a few years. We've talked about State College, PA or Richmond, VA, but we really know little about them and aren't quite sure if they fit the bill. Suggestions of places to visit/research would be awesome!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi to Travel & Transportation around New Jersey (48 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Except for the affordability part, Princeton meets all of your needs.
posted by amro at 11:51 AM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


(And affordability is in the eye of the beholder; I managed to live there on a salary of $38k.)
posted by amro at 11:53 AM on February 7, 2011


except for the weather, portland, or.
posted by violetk at 11:54 AM on February 7, 2011


oh, oops, didn't see the NJ requirement. scratch.
posted by violetk at 11:54 AM on February 7, 2011


Woodstock, New York?
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:55 AM on February 7, 2011


We're pretty familiar with the cost of living in NJ and would love to find somewhere cheaper--but we'll consider Princeton. It would make our mothers die of happiness!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:55 AM on February 7, 2011


Feel free to memail me with any specific Princeton questions.
posted by amro at 11:56 AM on February 7, 2011


New Hope?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:56 AM on February 7, 2011


Have you thought about Raleigh, North Carolina? The whole Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area is probably worth considering. No snow, but it fits a lot of your other criteria and it's almost exactly eight hours from Raleigh to New Jersey.
posted by kate blank at 11:57 AM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


For folks with similar requirements, North Carolina is frequently suggested.

If you like winter, you might also consider Ithaca, NY.
posted by box at 11:58 AM on February 7, 2011


Have you thought about going north? There are lots of areas in Massachusetts and Vermont that would probably fit the bill, if you're OK with the cold.
posted by MadamM at 11:59 AM on February 7, 2011


We'd consider places up north but know almost nothing about that area! Specific suggestions welcome.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:01 PM on February 7, 2011


How about Baltimore? It's got a good cultural scene and I doubt anyone would raise eyebrows at either of you. It's within driving distance of NJ, but the cost of living isn't outrageous.
posted by Leezie at 12:09 PM on February 7, 2011


Ithaca---not sure if its too distant
posted by vitabellosi at 12:11 PM on February 7, 2011


If you like the climate in Virginia, you should visit Charlottesville, VA. It's the most liberal of VA cities and might be a little more to your tastes. It's much "crunchier" than NOVA (which I consider the VA's armpit).

I grew up in Charlottesville and still think it's a great little town.

Richmond is a nice city but Charlottesville is quirkier and sounds more like what you want.
posted by dchrssyr at 12:12 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Northampton/Amherst area of MA is very crunchy and full of colleges. I don't know what kind of work your husband is looking for; a lot of these New England college towns don't have much in the way of jobs if you're not associated with the school in some way. You might look at places closer to Boston if that's not too urban for you.
posted by enn at 12:17 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


On preview, totally on the same page as enn!

Depending on how you feel about Boston, some of the Boston suburbs might fit the bill -- Somerville, Brookline, Jamaica Plain are all pretty and funky places. Cost of living is on the high side, but still probably less than New Jersey/DC area.

Also, definitely check out the Amherst/Northampton area of Massachusetts. Pretty hard to get any more geeky fun than that.
posted by EmilyFlew at 12:18 PM on February 7, 2011


What about other neighborhoods in DC? I just moved to Petworth and it fulfills most of your criteria. Bars and cafes in walking/biking distance; easy to get into Rock Creek Park; beautiful architecture; a beautiful library with multi-million dollar renovations complete next month; generally affordable. I'd be happy to show you my favorite cafe up here, or we could do a meetup!
posted by yarly at 12:23 PM on February 7, 2011


Boston/Cambridge/Somerville?
posted by teragram at 12:26 PM on February 7, 2011


Ithaca to NYC is about 5 hours, so similar for New Jersey, everything you want is there, but it does get very cold and the sun doesn't shine often.
posted by mareli at 12:29 PM on February 7, 2011


You might love Burlington, VT-- but the long winters will take some getting used to.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:33 PM on February 7, 2011


Seconding teragram on Boston, MA.

-easy to navigate, especially by foot

Walked from Fenway to Harvard Sq in about 4 hours

-easy to get to hiking paths, nature stuff etc.

doable with and without a car (about 30 min away from the city and you are in Thoreau's world).

-somewhat pretty would be nice. I dig historic/old houses and that kind of thing.

Boston Common?

-affordable, or at least more affordable than NOVA (which shouldn't be hard!)

Affordable enough for students is a good indicator.

-cute coffee shops or quirky bars and maybe a few organic grocery stores (the husband has celiac disease, so this makes it easier for him to eat)
-fun/welcoming geek communities--SF cons or meet-up groups would be great.

yes, yes, and yes.

-one day's driving distance to New Jersey (8 hours max, but would prefer closer)

4 or so hours without traffic.
posted by mooselini at 12:34 PM on February 7, 2011


Allentown/Easton PA is sort of like that.

Also seconding, look into Charlottesville, Baltimore (cheap, but maybe more city than you want), Ithaca (if you don't mind gray and cold), Northampton/Amherst. Many towns in VT. Providence is very cool, though again maybe more city than you want.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:35 PM on February 7, 2011


Seconding Baltimore, which is close enough for an easy day trip to explore. A good friend of mine who grew up in crunchy Northampton, MA, lived in Baltimore for 5 years and mostly seemed to enjoy it. Lots of quirky colonial architecture in the older areas around the Inner Harbor. I've explored a bit around Federal Hill (rents are not exactly cheap, lots of drunk 20-somethings on weekends, but tons of little shops and cafes along Light St. and Charles St.) and in the Hampden neighborhood just west of Johns Hopkins (check out W. 36th St. in particular), which is close to Druid Hill Park and the Jones Falls Trail.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 12:41 PM on February 7, 2011


Also, as much as I love Boston and its environs, if traffic stresses you out, DO NOT move there. You will go insane.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:43 PM on February 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Boston, actually most of eastern MA, is Not Cheap - the "affordable" places are college student ratraps, basically slums as the students are too cheap/busy to care about the state of the place, or actual slums.

Newport, RI might be interesting - very walkable and compact, quirky, artsy, close to Boston, driveable to NYC and Jersey, lots more affordable than Boston at the moment. There's usually something going on employment-wise for educated professionals, even if you have to commute across the bridges to go work at G-Tech, Amgen or one of the banks, but there's a Navy lab close by that uses a lot of contractors, who are based in or around Newport.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:57 PM on February 7, 2011


How about anywhere along the Hudson River in NY? Lots of small towns, hiking, schools - to teach at and send your kids to - easy driving to NJ, trains and buses to NYC...
posted by paindemie at 1:00 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I cam in to suggest the Raleigh, NC area as well. Not super walkable, but if you locate yourself in the right neighborhoods it is possible, and even if you don't, getting around the Triangle by car is pretty painless (though I'm comparing it to Boston, where I grew up, so take that with a grain of salt). It's on the border of your allowable Jersey commute as well, but just a fantastic place to live. My only regret about moving here from New England is that we didn't do it sooner.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:31 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Portland, Maine.

-easy to navigate, especially by foot
Portland-proper is about 6 square miles. The downtown peninsula (downtown, the old port, east end, west end and parkside) is about 2.5 square miles.

-easy to get to hiking paths, nature stuff etc.
Yep.

-somewhat pretty would be nice. I dig historic/old houses and that kind of thing.
In spades

-affordable, or at least more affordable than NOVA (which shouldn't be hard!)
Average price for a 2-bed condo: ~$150,000.

-cute coffee shops or quirky bars and maybe a few organic grocery stores (the husband has celiac disease, so this makes it easier for him to eat)
You just described 90% of the stores downtown.

-fun/welcoming geek communities--SF cons or meet-up groups would be great.
Huge alt-community. Basically the Liberal center of Maine.

-one day's driving distance to New Jersey (8 hours max, but would prefer closer)
~6 hours
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:37 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh dear lord not Princeton. As a long time resident, let me assure you it is not the place for alt- anything. Yes there's a Whole Foods and a locally run natural foods store, but that's it. No music/art scene. It is also ungodly expensive. You don't have to be living in Tara to be looking at 14k/yr in property taxes.

I've also lived in Chapel Hill NC and Ithaca NY -- both places have hugely better quality of life for the cost. Ithaca in particular is cheap/alt/beautiful.
posted by apparently at 2:02 PM on February 7, 2011


Nthing the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill recommendation. Durham in particular is awesome.
posted by pecknpah at 2:50 PM on February 7, 2011


I only know most of these by reputation, but the following places come to mind:
New Paltz NY, Ithaca NY, Albany NY, Bethlehem PA, Newark DE, Richmond VA, Pittsburgh (probably too big, but there's a lot to like there)
Good luck!
posted by willpie at 3:12 PM on February 7, 2011


Charlottesville is nice, and the area is very beautiful (CLAS 1992). But while it's cheaper than NOVa, I'd say it's pretty far from affordable (certainly way more expensive than Gainesville). And sort of like Gainesville, it's a little liberal area within a larger much more conservative environment.

Upstate NY generally hits most of those wants, IF you can get a job. I'll talk about here in western NY, but the same will probably be true for other places that don't twig the "Move to Buffalo? Really?" meter nearly so hard, like Binghamton or Ithaca.

-easy to navigate, especially by foot

Cities in upstate / western NY are generally old enough that while you'd want a car and could expect to need a car for some things, you'll be able to find an area where you could do a lot of your daily stuff by walking. Around here, you could live in Allentown in Buffalo proper. Or, if you want a less urban setting, you could live in Williamsville village, or here in Snyder, a treesy old first-ring suburb.

-easy to get to hiking paths, nature stuff etc.

There's stuff around anywhere in upstate/western NY; what the stuff is varies. Around here is (apart from the escarpment) pretty flat, so there's less and less pretty in the Buffalo area than there would be in Ithaca or Binghamton or (so I'm told) the Hudson valley.

-somewhat pretty would be nice. I dig historic/old houses and that kind of thing.

Depends on where you go. Lots of cities and towns in upstate will, again, be old enough that houses will have a bit of character. In Buffalo, you can pick up victorians that are liveable but need work and are in decent neighborhoods for ballpark $100-150K.

-affordable, or at least more affordable than NOVA (which shouldn't be hard!)

We have a 4-bedroom detached house in a lovely, treesy old first-ring suburb. We can walk to a few restaurants and shops at one end of our street and some more and some drug stores at the other, and when they finish remodeling it we'll be able to walk to the grocery store.

It cost $125K in 2007. 'bout the same now, probably.

-cute coffee shops or quirky bars and maybe a few organic grocery stores (the husband has celiac disease, so this makes it easier for him to eat)

Wegmans. We has Wegmanses.

Like I say, I don't really mean Buffalo/WNY itself, but just as an avatar for upstate. The catch is that if you don't have a job, the market is pretty brutal.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:33 PM on February 7, 2011


Austin, TX!
posted by jchaw at 3:35 PM on February 7, 2011


Oneonta! Snow, music & arts, colleges, outdoorsy, and the Glimmerglass Opera in the summer! As I've said here before, I'd move there tomorrow if I could. Even closer to NJ and cheaper than Ithaca. You could even check out Andes, but that's small. Close to Oneonta for fun visits, though.
posted by jgirl at 3:50 PM on February 7, 2011


Since you mentioned it, I'd pass on State College, PA. It's gotten much better over the past 15 years, with more development, etc., but honestly, it *really* feels out in the middle of nowhere (surprising, given how populated the rest of the state is). Every time I've been there, I felt the urge to get out as quick as I can.

Will second, however, looking into Pittsburgh; as mentioned above, it fits many of your criteria for size, culture, and cost (somewhat).

Adding to your list, you might consider Columbus, OH: a city, but not as big as many; culture related to the university; and rural areas nearby (although it's Ohio, there are some pretty, outdoorsy places around). Worth a look.

And, same as folks above, while I love metro-Boston, the cost of living's definitely a drag, and depending on where you lived and worked, traffic could suck.

One final place for your list might be Brattleboro, VT: often described as "a college town without the college," it might be worth a look, depending on your partner's employment needs. Reasonably close to the city resources of NY's Capital District to the southwest, not as far north as Burlington, but with the definite Vermont vibe going on.
posted by 5Q7 at 4:13 PM on February 7, 2011


Yeah, you might like Charlottesville..

-easy to navigate, especially by foot

Pretty much. The bus service is also excellent.

-easy to get to hiking paths, nature stuff etc.

It's near the George Washington National Forest and the Shenandoah National Park.

-somewhat pretty would be nice. I dig historic/old houses and that kind of thing.

In spades.

-affordable, or at least more affordable than NOVA (which shouldn't be hard!)

The cost of living is higher than Richmond, but lower than NOVA.

-cute coffee shops or quirky bars and maybe a few organic grocery stores (the husband has celiac disease, so this makes it easier for him to eat)

Yup.

-fun/welcoming geek communities--SF cons or meet-up groups would be great.

I don't have the right kinds of social contacts to answer that. (Charlottesville might be too small for what you're looking for, but you can still drive to DC and Richmond.)

-one day's driving distance to New Jersey (8 hours max, but would prefer closer)

It'll add a couple hours to your current drive.


You get access to an amazingly excellent university library with really generous policies to community borrowers.

Charlottesville is pretty insular and tends to think of itself as the center of the universe. This can get pretty old after a while.
posted by nangar at 4:24 PM on February 7, 2011


It sounds like you're looking for Providence, RI.

Why?

- close to beautiful coastal areas
- a few hours from the Appalachians
- creaky old houses
- quirky/artsy folk
- lots of cool coffeeshops, libraries, bars, etc where quirky/artsy folk hang out
- pretty walkable, very bike-able
- fairly cultural due to universities and proximity to NYC and Boston
- growing local food culture (and localist culture in general), close to NJ
- lots of cool coffeeshops, libraries, bars, etc
- not intensely urban

There are some downsides (wet winters, some over-the-top art school hipster culture, etc), but mostly it's a cool place to live.

Memail me if you want more info - i lived there for a while...
posted by narcotizingdysfunction at 5:04 PM on February 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ithaca. Western Massachusetts (Northampton/Amherst area). Both have winters that will be noticeably worse than New Jersey, though. You'd want a car in both places, but I've driven around a bit in both and driving was a lot less stressful than city driving.

The thing I hear about college towns, though, is that the job market can be particularly difficult if you're not working at the college; such places tend to be full of recent graduates and trailing partners of faculty, who tend to be well-educated.

Not Boston; I've lived in both Philly and Boston (well, actually Cambridge) and they strike me as about equally urban, so if you think Philly is too urban for you then Boston probably is too.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:36 PM on February 7, 2011


Nthing Charlottesville - such a beautiful city, very historic, very outdoorsy, a little quirky/crunchy (not so much as, say, the Vermont options above, but still there) only a little farther from NJ than you are now. I love this town to bits. The only thing I'm not sure about is the geek stuff.

Somerville/Cambridge is my current home and it's nice, but I hate the traffic around Boston even more than I did in DC. Ugh.
posted by naoko at 5:38 PM on February 7, 2011


+1 for Charlottesville. Sounds like you'd fit in well.

It would be great to get a little more information about what "affordable" means to you.
posted by emkelley at 6:28 PM on February 7, 2011


It would be great to get a little more information about what "affordable" means to you.

We're currently paying $1400/month for a tiny 1 bedroom apartment, and averaging around a hundred dollars a week on groceries that cost about $40 in Gainesville. We would like to be paying Less.

Thanks for all the advice, folks! Lots of food for thought and discussion. Feel free to chime in if you think of any place else and we'll let you know how it goes.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:41 PM on February 7, 2011


Considering what you are looking for in a place and that you want to be close to NJ, you just *have* to check out New Palz! Very funky/quirky small college town with some of the best outdoor potentials in the Northeast. Easy to get to NYC if you want and super fast to get to NJ.


-easy to navigate, especially by foot
*CHECK!

-easy to get to hiking paths, nature stuff etc.
*Double check! Watch out if your friends are climbers- they will invade you since it is some of the best trad climbing in the world.

-somewhat pretty would be nice. I dig historic/old houses and that kind of thing.
*CHECK!

-affordable, or at least more affordable than NOVA (which shouldn't be hard!)
*CHECK!

-cute coffee shops or quirky bars and maybe a few organic grocery stores (the husband has celiac disease, so this makes it easier for him to eat)
*CHECK!

-fun/welcoming geek communities--SF cons or meet-up groups would be great.
* Think so

-one day's driving distance to New Jersey (8 hours max, but would prefer closer)
* 40 mins to the border 2:30 to the I90 corridor.
posted by brorfred at 7:22 PM on February 7, 2011


Asheville! Gorgeous, crunchy, has a vibrant college/arts culture but isn't "cold" or huge like a big city, has seasons.
posted by ifjuly at 5:05 AM on February 8, 2011


Philadelphia. It has it all. Educational institutions, arts, culture, walkability, strong neighborhoods, close proximity to NJ.
posted by fixedgear at 5:09 AM on February 8, 2011


I'm in Providence right now, and not liking it much at all... I think it's mostly because I came here after two years in the deep woods of South Kingstown (turkeys and coyotes and fishing in my backyard), and eight years in Newport, which is my favorite place in the world ever.

Providence is dirty, cramped, city taxes on your car are downright extortionate, the roads are so narrow as to be claustrophobic, and it's too hilly to really make a car-free lifestyle work, tho plenty of people try.

But... Providence is very affordable. If you don't want to live in a really nice tenement on the East Side or in the Armory for 800-1100/mo, you can get a whole damn house for under a hundred grand close to Providence College or RIC. Not the most sterling neighborhoods, but dude, it's Providence - the sterling neighborhoods are a five minute walk away. The place is teeny.

The food here is amazing, second only to NYC on the East Coast in terms of quality and availability, but not as diverse as DC (where I once had Afghan cuisine!). If you want to make your own amazing food, there are two Whole Foods and an independent grocer with high-end groceries, and the supermarkets have a surprising variety of organic and locally grown food available. Some top tier fish markets, bakeries and delis, too.

The RISD Museum is a world class art museum. Live music scene is dicey, and usually only what's playing at AS220 is worth going to, unless it's in an unlicensed underground venue. There's four colleges with interesting things to do on-campus in the city - Brown and RISD are top tier schools, PC ain't bad, RIC is terrible academically but fun, but Johnson and Wales has no campus life at all.

You're around a 45 minute drive to some amazing beaches, small coastal New England towns and nature preserves with great hiking, kayaking, sailing and fishing, and less than two hours away from New Hampshire skiing or NYC nightlife.

I still like Newport better.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:20 AM on February 8, 2011


Gonna put in another recommendation for Northampton/Amherst. College-y without suffering from being only a college area, Northampton's got its own culture going on. I grew up there and don't remember the winters being nearly as bad as other parts of New York or New England; I think its proximity within the valley keeps the worst of the snow out.

New York and Boston are both a short drive (3 and 1.5 hours respectively), and New Jersey's not too much further. If you're familiar with Questionable Content, it takes place in a slightly-exaggerated version of Northampton. 2 Dunkin Donuts, a Starbucks, and yet there are still multiple independent coffeehouses thriving. I recommend the Woodstar Cafe.

Downtown's walkable, but there's tons of surrounding nature and parks. I'm not really outdoorsy so I can't give specifics, but earthy-crunchy friends and boy-scout friends both abounded. On the sci-fi front, there are minor conventions and college clubs that keep that scene going. Organic's kind of Northampton's middle name. Extra plus is the gay-pride parade and overall openness and accepting nature of the town that's been a mainstay seemingly forever.

Finally, with regard to historic, Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge was mayor of Northampton and made his home here. In general, you can't really throw a stone in New England without hitting something historic, but Northampton is not a new town, and you'll find plenty to discover.
posted by explosion at 6:44 AM on February 8, 2011


So! Tomorrow we're heading up north to apartment hunt in the Hudson Valley area of New York (we'll probably end up in one of those little towns like Beacon or Rosendale). The husband's applying to the MAT program at SUNY New Paltz and we are psyched about checking things out. And we wouldn't have ever considered the area if it weren't for metafilter.

Thanks, guys. You're the best.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:52 AM on June 6, 2011


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