Take me home, country (or city) roads
February 10, 2013 11:09 AM   Subscribe

Please help my spouse and I find a new city. We currently live in Northern Virginia and are looking for a change of scenery.

My husband and I currently live in Arlington, VA (in the Crystal City neighborhood). We moved here in 2011 after six years in Fairfax County, VA mostly because he couldn’t deal with the long, long commutes any more. We’re now two minutes from his office and reasonably closer to mine, but neither of us are happy. It’s taken many years of talking about it, but it seems that both of us are now ready for a change. MeFites, can you help us?

What he wants:
-A decently-sized city. He grew up in the middle of nowhere, and won’t countenance small towns. Mid-sized cities would probably be ok, but any place really small is right out.
-Some place with a reasonably healthy economy, where he can earn decent money - we both work, but he’s the primary earner, as he makes 2x as much money as I do.
-Sports. We’re both big sports fans, particularly baseball, and he loves to go to sporting events.
-A place that’s outdoor-friendly, particularly bike-friendly.

What I want:
-A cost of living that’s lower than the DC area’s. A huge part of my anxiety living here is because I fear we will never be able to afford the things that are important to me, like having a child and owning a home. (Yes, I go to therapy.) It needn’t be super-cheap, just not out-of-control expensive.
-GREEN. We live in a mid-rise building above a busy intersection and Route 1, and looking out my window is like being punched in the soul. Everything is grey and brown, and I desperately want a garden. I also want a yard - I don’t care if it’s a tiny one, or even a xeriscaped one, but I want one. We had a long commute from our old place, but at least we had trees!
-Decent weather. Although I don’t mind cold winters, I don’t think I can handle constant rain, so places like Seattle and Portland are not tops on my list. I’m from the South, so heat doesn’t particularly bother me.
-Quiet. I am a country mouse at heart, and although I will never get to live in the cute small town of my dreams, I would prefer not to be awoken EVERY SINGLE NIGHT by honking horns and fire engines.

Other notes:
-On employment: we’re both federal contractors, but are certainly not married to working for the government. He’s a programmer/statistician/project manager, and I’m a GIS analyst.
-Neither of us are interested in changing neighborhoods in the DC area. I have lived here since 2001 and have never liked it, and I’m not interested in giving it more time.
-We both crave a place that is more relaxed and has some personality. The blandness and transience of the DC area is troublesome to my husband, and we’re the polar opposite of the super Type A, work-obsessed types we keep meeting.
-Places we are currently considering are Denver, Nashville, and Atlanta.
posted by timetoevolve to Human Relations (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Nashville's fantastic. Decent weather, beautiful housing stock near downtown, gorgeous nature in the suburbs, very cheap, relatively low traffic (no public transport though, and sometimes awful traffic), good college and pro teams, amazing music, and burgeoning other-kinds-of-arts scene. It not the most prosperous town but there are jobs (more than in many other areas of the south). I'd live there in a second.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:16 AM on February 10, 2013

Eugene, OR is really nice.
posted by discopolo at 11:18 AM on February 10, 2013

I grew up in NoVa and understand the blandness you're talking about. It's a great place for kids in a lot of ways and the schools are excellent, but yes it's expensive and getting overtaken by strip malls and subdivisions so I get it.

When I read your description I thought Nashville as well. Have you been there, though? I think it's important to spend a little time in a place before making the decision to move.
posted by sweetkid at 11:19 AM on February 10, 2013

Austin's an incredible, lively place with a booming economy and lots of jobs. You also have the Cult of UT Sports: going to a UT football, basketball, or baseball game can rival a professional sport. You have the Spurs down in SA, and a lot up in Dallas if you need the pros. You also have AAA Round Rock, which is one of the best minor league baseball stadiums I've been to. They funnel up to the Texas Rangers right up the road, so you can follow the growth of the system.

Aside, Austin has great food. It has great music. Sure, it gets hot as hell in the summer, but the central TX hill country is a gorgeous area with cooler summer nights than you think.

It really is a wonderful place. I don't live there any longer, but I do miss it.
posted by xmutex at 11:21 AM on February 10, 2013

Also, you are surely aware, but there are some beautiful suburbs of Baltimore that are a lot more feasible to check out than some place far away. Something like Catonsville or Towson is a totally different world than NoVa.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:24 AM on February 10, 2013

New Bedford mass. puts you near the cape and islands, close enough to Boston to see the Sox, and is inexpensive at least by NYC standards. You can be in New York in 3 hours from there for true big city feel.
posted by vrakatar at 11:26 AM on February 10, 2013

I moved to NOVA from Atlanta. The cost of living is going to be much lower in Atlanta, but traffic will be painfully similar to DC. How about staying in VA and looking at Charlottesville or maybe Roanoke?
posted by COD at 11:33 AM on February 10, 2013

Austin, definitely. But Baltimore also comes to mind, as does - in all seriousness - Pittsburgh. It's the very model of post-Industrial Rust Belt; much quieter, much more white-collar (an economy driven by tech, finance, medical, and education), and much greener than most people think. Also, pretty cheap by Bos-Wash standards.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:38 AM on February 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

St. Louis is known as the best fans in baseball. You can get a really nice little 2 br, brick house with a yard for 140k in the city proper. There's a lot of sprawl, but you don't have to deal with it if you don't want to (we don't. Ever.)

Lots of cycling. The Great Rivers Greenway is developing more trails, and in Illinois all the old railways are already a grid of bike uninterrupted trails.
posted by notsnot at 11:40 AM on February 10, 2013

I grew up in Denver, and while it has changed enormously since I lived there, I think it hits your criteria. The weather is four seasons, but tends to be sunny even when it is super cold outside. The mountains are always lovely to see and make orienting yourself really easy. The economy does tend to be more boom-and-bust than DC (but DC is buffered by the Federal Government, so everyplace else is going to be more cyclical than DC.) People tend to move there for the outdoorsy lifestyle.
posted by ambrosia at 11:42 AM on February 10, 2013

Austin sounds like a potentially good fit. Ditto Boulder and Denver. One of the few things that I know about Atlanta is that the traffic is awful. I've been there a few times, though not recently, and it has never struck me as a place I would especially enjoy though YMMV obviously.
posted by kat518 at 11:47 AM on February 10, 2013

Best answer: I grew up in NoVA and I understand your pain. I live in Minneapolis and love it. I'm on a librarian's salary and I will be able to buy a house someday, which just wouldn't happen in the DC area. Good for biking, lots of people garden despite the short growing season, and there are GIS jobs here -- I'm not super familiar with the field but I know there are GIS people working for the airport commission and the Department of Natural Resources, just off the top of my head. No shortage of other tech sector jobs either.

I also lived in the Triangle area of NC, about ten years ago. Cost of living may be too high at this point, depending on where exactly you live, but it seems like it might be a good country/city compromise for you. It's beautiful and green and the growing season is wonderfully long.

(FWIW I would not count Charlottesville or Roanoke among decently sized cities.)
posted by clavicle at 11:48 AM on February 10, 2013

Of your 3 preferred choices so far, I'd pick Nashville.

Atlanta is going to have a gigantic water crisis over the next decade and it is unbearably hot and humid there in the summer, but I love the culture.

The towns outside of Denver are great, but Denver itself is a massive sprawl. It's really a challenge to get across town easily.

Eugene Oregon is nice medium sized town but the job market isn't great.

Portland is still a great city and they have done a great job controlling sprawl. It has a fun youthful vibe. Tech and Web are still booming there.

And finally, I'll put in a plug for my new hometown, Oakland, CA. It's fun, interesting, diverse, and although the city government is broken, the city is recovering post recession. Rents are high, but not DC high (that woud be across the Bridge in San Francisco). The part I live in, near the Lake is a bit like Sesame Street. (friendly, and there is one of every kind of person you can think of) I love it.
posted by bobdow at 11:55 AM on February 10, 2013

Austin is great if you can hack the weather. I definitely wouldn't call it green, though. That's one reason I left... because of the weather, everything is shades of brown. Blah.

Baltimore would totally fit what you need. Lower cost of living, plenty of places to bike (both urban and in nature), cheap houses with yards and parks all around. Excellent sports teams. Perhaps you've heard of our football team?

Neighborhoods that you might dig are Hamilton, Lauraville, Hampden or Catonsville, depending on how important walkability is.
posted by youcancallmeal at 12:37 PM on February 10, 2013

I'm originally from the south and moved to Pittsburgh last year, and I'd totally endorse it as a great mid-size city, with not-too-terrible weather, lots of sports, and a robust economy. Lots of parks, even within the city, and the cost of living here is crazy low. Its safe, pretty, and there are a lot of unique and varying neighborhoods.
posted by tryniti at 12:42 PM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm originally from Cleveland, and have also lived in the DC area. Cleveland fulfills all of your requirements- it has beautiful leafy suburbs like Shaker Heights and Rocky River, lots of sports, a variety of walkable and bikable areas, great parks, and friendly people. Its economy has been better off than much of the country recently, traffic is a breeze, and there is a small but decent subway.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:53 PM on February 10, 2013

Charlottesville! Better yet, the bedroom community of Crozet!
posted by 4ster at 1:14 PM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: sweetkid, he's spent significant time in Nashville on business trips. I'm from Knoxville and have visited Nashville many times, so we're familiar. We're planning on visiting together too, of course.

Charlottesville would be perfect for me, but too small for him. Also, he's from Roanoke and hates it (unfortunately, because it's stupid beautiful).

Thanks for everyone's suggestions - we'd love to hear more!
posted by timetoevolve at 1:54 PM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Columbus, Ohio.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:15 PM on February 10, 2013

Decatur, GA.

Outside Atlanta, but inside the perimeter. Lots of trees, nice houses, great downtown. The town is invested in becoming more walkable than it is (which is already pretty walkable) and bicyclists are active. Age diverse. Income diverse, but gentrifying. Many very good restaurants and bars. Downtown apartments and condominiums, neighborhood houses.

Hot and humid in the summer. We experience at least a week of 100 degree weather every summer.

Braves, Gwinnett Braves (AAA), Falcons, Hawks, Gwinnett Gladiators hockey.

The town is divided by active train tracks, but I'm never woken up by the trains.
posted by donpardo at 3:18 PM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

We just went through the same soul-searching, and have settled on San Antonio, TX. It's the 7th (?) largest city in the US, with a cost of living to match Midwestern cities like Omaha (where we live now). We'll be going to an area north of SA called Boerne for the better school district, but it's not any worse than Arlington to DC.

It hasn't suffered the same housing bubble, or at least not as extremely, as the rest of the nation. USAA (military insurance) is headquartered there, and my husband (programmer) is already working for them.

SA is definitely outdoor friendly, with a pretty great climate. Spurs NBA team; not sure about baseball options. Big, but not too big. Definitely has personality!

Also, no state income tax, just like TN. I'd have to argue against Denver because of the cost of living factor, and against Atlanta for that reason and because I just never liked that city, even having spent some time there.

And Austin is just a short car ride away, too! Tons of awesome music scene stuff, SXSW, etc.
posted by wwartorff at 3:24 PM on February 10, 2013

Best answer: We've got your green and bike-friendly right here in Minneapolis (and St. Paul). Cold, but it's just a matter of having the right underwear and outerwear. Cost of living is lower than most places. Quiet can be had in many city neighborhoods and most suburban ones. Visit now and if you like February, you'll love the rest of the year!
posted by lakeroon at 3:27 PM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I live in Atlanta, and I think it's worth a look. It's not the right place for me, but I can see how other people could really love it.

-It does look and feel like a big city, for the most part. Lacking in great public transportation though.

-The economy seems decent to me. I've heard we have higher unemployment, but there seems to be a fair amount of jobs out there. They may be outside the perimeter, though, which could make your commute 30mins to an hour depending on where you are and where the job is.

-Don't know much about sports, but I know we have the Braves and the Falcons and people seem generally into sports around here though not fanatically so. (Could be my circle.)

-Good amount of parks, we have the beltline trail, and I see bikers frequently. I will say our traffic sucks and I'd be too scared to ride a bike on the streets myself, because the drivers are crazy.

-Cost of living is reasonable. The most desirable intown neighborhoods pretty much start at 350k and many are upwards of 600k though. That being said there are definitely many affordable neighborhoods - intown ones are usually higher crime but doable, and then there are all the suburbs and we have tons and tons of those.

-There are a lot of trees. I think it's a pretty and green city.

-You'll be used to the summers. I don't think they're that bad but then I grew up in the south. The winters are nice and mild and I love that.

-You can definitely find a quiet street/neighborhood to live in.

The drawbacks of Atlanta to me - you may or may not care about these things:

-School system is poor intown, with the exception of the most expensive neighborhoods, and I have no desire to live in the suburbs, nor can I afford private schooling. To be fair, this is a very common problem in cities.

-Lots of churchy folk, which makes me uncomfortable.

-Tends to be pretty status/wealth motivated - not necessarily in the "live to work" way that you mentioned in DC, but more about general appearances. I'm used to and prefer places/cultures that don't value having money and things so highly. (Of course, there are exceptions, the entire city is not like this, but it's too pervasive for me.)

-The traffic is bad. Seriously. Ugh.

-Atlanta is the biggest city in the region, but that doesn't mean it will feel like a city from the northeast or anywhere else. It's southern. It always will be. There are lots of people from outside the south but there are even more from the south. This is the place where many people in the south go to be in the "big city" and you can definitely feel that flavor. It's harder for me to pick it up because I grew up in this region, but my wife is from the midwest and she talks about this a lot. If you like southern culture this will be no problem for you, but keep it in mind.

-The crime is somewhat high. There are few neighborhoods I'd feel safe walking around late at night. My wife has had several scary experiences while running in the mid-morning (being followed, screamed at, threatened, etc) and panhandlers like to come up to your car and bang on the windows/roof. We live in one of the nicest/safest neighborhoods as well. Again talking about intown Atlanta proper, I know nothing about the suburbs.

All in all Atlanta is a good mid-sized city with a decent vibrancy to it. It has some really beautiful historic houses and a lot of cute neighborhoods. There are mountains and beaches fairly close - not the most beautiful, but they're there. If my wife wasn't so sure she wanted to leave, I think I could find a place to be happy here. That's it I guess. Memail if you have any specific questions.

(On preview: Decatur is cute. To me it feels more like a neighborhood than a city because it's so small. And if you find a job in midtown or downtown or anywhere but east on 1-20 it will be an annoying commute. Safe and good schools though.)
posted by ohsnapdragon at 3:31 PM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

To clarify - a commute to downtown or midtown Atlanta from Decatur is easy, about 30 minutes. Going up I-75 or I-85 isn't too bad because it's a reverse commute. I don't have any experience with an I-20 commute.

Crime in Decatur is low. We have stretches of burglaries and car break-ins, but violent crime is rare.

The school system is very good. Property taxes are high.

Decatur is in, but separate from, Dekalb County. Dekalb County, both the government and the school system, is a cesspool of incompetence, corruption and graft. Very little of that impacts us.
posted by donpardo at 4:08 PM on February 10, 2013

I wouldn't recommend every neighborhood in my beloved Philadelphia to you; most are going to be noisier and more densely urban than you want. However, I want to put in a specific plug for Mount Airy and some parts of Germantown. There are lots of separated houses with yards there, not the row homes you see in much of the rest of Philly. There are small walkable strips of shopping and restaurants, but the feel is much more "small town within a city" than "bustling downtown." (And if you want bustling downtown on occasion, the train will get you to it.) You'd be near the best urban hiking park there is, by my estimation. You also wouldn't be far from the Schuylkill River Trail, where you can walk or bike miles through Philly and beyond. Phillies games are great fun. I don't know what the job market's like for your fields specifically, but there are definitely jobs around.

For what it's worth--Mount Airy is where many people from my Philly neighborhood move when they have or are considering kids and want more space and quiet.
posted by ActionPopulated at 4:09 PM on February 10, 2013

Have you considered Memphis? Neither my husband nor I are originally from here but came due to jobs, etc. and absolutely love it. No traffic, a wonderful midtown area (where we live), affordable cost of living, amazing food. Memphis is not the most bike friendly city but we are making progress - bike lanes have been put in on several midtown streets and we also have a green line bike trail that connects midtown to east Memphis.

Check out the I Love Memphis blog for much more info, or email me!
posted by elisebeth at 4:22 PM on February 10, 2013

Madison, WI. One of the best sports towns around, bikeable almost more than driveable, tons of government-esque jobs, basic fabulosity.
posted by Madamina at 4:33 PM on February 10, 2013

How about Tampa/St. Pete? Baseball and low cost of living.
posted by mareli at 5:11 PM on February 10, 2013

Bloomington, IN. Sports, density, beauty, culture. Affordable. Might be too small for your husband, but I still think you might give it a look.
posted by minervous at 5:14 PM on February 10, 2013

Minneapolis came to mind immediately. I'll also 2nd Oakland, except cost of living is high.
posted by silvergoat at 6:33 PM on February 10, 2013

If you want to stay in-state, Norfolk/VaBeach/Williamsburg VA meets most of your criteria, except for only minor league sports teams. Many, many jobs (odds are, whatever contractor you work for probably has an office there).
posted by k5.user at 7:04 AM on February 11, 2013

St Louis sounds like it would fit most of what you described, although it's not the most bike-friendly city, there are a decent amount of trails (especially Rails-to-Trails). Some parts of the city (like the Shaw/Tower Grove area) are very progressive and eco-minded. The economy is fairly solid, although there is quite a bit of sprawl beyond the city limits where some of the bigger employers have taken up. It terms of a baseball town, it can't be beat.
posted by slogger at 7:06 AM on February 11, 2013

The towns outside of Denver are great, but Denver itself is a massive sprawl. It's really a challenge to get across town easily.

I.... totally disagree with this! I live in downtown Denver and have a job that makes me travel around the city to different locations. I can get to any part of Denver (out near the airport, any corner of the city) within 1/2 hour. Weather is great here. We've had about 5 days of snow so far this winter, and it generally melts within a couple of days so there's none of that sad black snow hanging around. You could easily buy a home in a nice part of town for under $250k here. Rockies games are lots of fun -- Rockpile (bleacher) tickets are 4 bucks per person. Lots of outdoorsy stuff to do and the city is easy to navigate. And I find the cost of living to be ridiculously low here.
posted by jabes at 8:36 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

New Orleans. Hits all your criteria, especially "more relaxed and has some personality."
posted by Ardea alba at 8:40 AM on February 11, 2013

I absolutely recommend Pittsburgh. Moved back three years ago from NYC and love it here. Cost of living is low, there are so many green places in and around the city, and easy to get around.
posted by amicamentis at 12:34 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Denver/Boulder has a couple of GIS companies, including Digital Globe (which just merged with GeoEye, they have offices near Denver, too).
posted by troika at 9:24 AM on February 13, 2013

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