Find Ourselves a City to Live In
April 3, 2013 1:30 AM   Subscribe

We're a family of two writers and a preschooler, looking for resources & advice on picking a place in the US to move to.

My wife and I are writers and freelance editors/translators, which is to say most of our work is location-independent. We're currently living in Germany (long story), but we're looking to move back to the States soon.

Before we left, we lived in New York, and my wife's family is from there, so the NY area is a likely candidate -- but we'd rather not move into the city proper again. Big city bustle isn't as important to us anymore as quality of life, a little space & quiet, and affordable rents. Health care, day care, and schools will be an issue. (The kid's turning 4 in the summer). We'd enjoy a bit of an artistic community, a few decent restaurants, maybe an art house theater and an independent book shop -- but we don't need much more than that, as long as there's Internet. A body of water or an actual beach would be a major plus.

Places we're tossing around include Jersey City, Portland, New Orleans, "somewhere in California," and what the NYT calls "Hipsturbia" (ugh).

Can you recommend specific places/neighborhoods anywhere in the US, or handy online resources for researching this? So far, I've found,, but it seems there must be more & better.

Thank you.
posted by muckster to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
A body of water or an actual beach would be a major plus.
Madison, Wisconsin

It's got good schools, it's walkable, lots of used book stores, etc.

My wife and I lived there for 3 years during her postdoc.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:59 AM on April 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Berkeley, CA -- extremely family centric with all the trimmings of what you mentioned (artistic communities-- which the city cultivates really well, restaurants, etc.). Perched near the shoreline and a short ride away from San Francisco proper. The area is generally very safe; though, keep in mind that the closer you are to the UC Berkeley area, the more "college-y" it'll feel. A lot of farmer's markets, healthy living, healthy eating infused in the neighborhoods. Again, from personal experience, quality of life in Berkeley will be contingent on what neighborhood you pick. West Berkeley, for example, is very up and coming, but is still in the process of being gentrified and is a "mixed-use" neighborhood, so you'll get some industry mixed in with the residential homes.

Pasadena or South Pasadena, CA -- more on the suburban side of things, but it's got solid roots in the arts movement (literally, Arts and Crafts Movement-- visit the Gamble House!) that gives it more panache than the typical suburb. Very safe. A lot of everything, and great schools from what I hear. Rents seem to fall toward the higher end of the greater LA area, but again, that will vary. You've got the Pasadena Playhouse right there as well as a slew of other venues scattered within a 20-30 mile radius. I'm not sure what your car situation is, but Pasadena has direct Metro lines to various parts of LA. LA's public transit/light rail is in its infancy, if you will, but expanding quickly.
posted by chloe.gelsomino at 2:36 AM on April 3, 2013

Also consider Gainesville, FL. Like most college towns, you get the small-town atmosphere, but with good schools and lots of culture, and right now the cost of housing is quite reasonable. There's an art-house cinema, a ginormous indie bookshop just up the road in Jacksonville, and good food from a variety of ethnicities. It's surrounded with open space and natural areas for hiking, biking, and exploring. If you want a bigger city, Jacksonville, Tampa, and Orlando are an easy day-trip away, and all three have frequent and inexpensive air service to the NYC area.
posted by penguinicity at 2:49 AM on April 3, 2013

While I whole heartedly LOVE Berkeley, I feel I must point out that it is crazy expensive and the school system is a crapshot. From my understanding, students are not automatically assigned to their neighborhood school. Instead, schools are assigned via lottery. So you could spend lots of money to live in North Berkeley and have your kid end up going to a lower performing school in South Berkeley. (And I say this with minimal criticism. I lived in South Berkeley for 5 years and love the area, and even have friends who teach there, but the schools are not so great.)

In the Berkeley area, I would also recommend Albany (not as walkable as Berkeley but close enough to drive to Berkeley), or the Rockridge area of Oakland (has lots of art/shops/restaurants and good schools). The Oakland/Berkeley area also has lots of really fantastic private schools. Marin County, across the bay, has amazing public schools and lots of nature and art. It is, however, very expensive.

Other places that sprang to mind when I read your question: Olympia, Washington. Santa Cruz/Monterey area. Some of the coastal areas new LA - Seal Beach is really nice, though these won't be cheap. The suburbs around Boston or Providence might also be appealing to you, and are closer to New York for family visits.
posted by Nickel at 2:58 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Small is big right now, yeah?

Here's a few places friends have moved in the past five years and really seem to be enjoying.

Pacifica is adjacent to San Francisco – probably thirty minutes driving. It's a lovely little seaside community popular with young families and people keen on having access to glorious San Francisco whilst maintaining a small feel.

Santa Barbara is not exactly a small town, but it remains a wonderful community with a quality of life that is quite high.

People seem to disappear into Chapel Hill and exist in a semi-permanent state of bliss.

Portland (Maine) is oddly fascinating. It's quite far from the rest of the world, and the people that live there seem to like it that way.

Ojai is a hidden gem of Southern California. It's got Los Angeles right around the corner, but then also exists in its own state of mind.

Find Your Spot is a bit spammy but is a convenient way to get a list of 20 small towns with lots of facts at hand.
posted by nickrussell at 3:02 AM on April 3, 2013

Great recommendations here. However, I came to recommend Northampton, MA, which fulfills the additional criteria of being close to NYC (basically a 3 hour drive). It's smaller than all the other places mentioned, but is a really fantastic mix of "culture" and nature. Good schools, affordable (I love the SF Bay Area, but the nice parts are pretty pricey), good restaurants, and a really nice community. If I were unconstrained by a job, Northampton would be very, very high on my list of places to live.
posted by Betelgeuse at 3:40 AM on April 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

Portland ME is great -- 2.5 hours to Boston, maybe 7 to NYC. The Amtrak line to NYC does require a change through the subway from the Downeaster to the Acela/Northeast Regional, but is totally doable. Nice ocean, lots of outdoors. The downside is that rents are fairly high in the cuter neighborhoods -- my relatives there had to move out to an exurb to afford a house. Health care accessibility in Maine isn't great, but what specialists there are tend to be in Portland, and you're not far from Boston, which has terrific accessibility.

If I were moving anywhere (and couldn't stay where I am), I'd try Charlottesville, Virginia -- college town, gorgeous low mountains, solid used bookstores. There was a school fieldtrip being led through the library, which has baskets for patrons. That being said, they've landed on a lot of "Best Town in America" lists, and I haven't been there for a couple years -- definitely one to research.
posted by pie ninja at 4:10 AM on April 3, 2013

Ithaca, NY, has pretty much everything you want and it's about 4 to 5 hours from NYC, close enough for a weekend trip but not so close that people will visit unexpectedly.
posted by mareli at 5:01 AM on April 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Take a drive up I-87 towards Woodstock and check out the towns along the Hudson; many of them have some interesting things going on. I don't know about schools, but houses are cheap (just insulate well so you don't blow it all on your utility bills).

If you don't need to be close to NYC, consider Asheville NC. Great bookstores. Great local beer and food. Public-supported arts scene. Live music. Decent schools. Cheap houses. Great hiking. No big body of waters but lots of river activity around Hot Springs and the French Broad.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 5:09 AM on April 3, 2013

Oh. Just NYT link and see that its about towns on the Hudson.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 5:13 AM on April 3, 2013

Nashville doesn't have water beyond a few lakes but I love it. Franklin, just south of here has great public schools or Nashville has a lot of good private schools.
posted by dawkins_7 at 5:16 AM on April 3, 2013

While purchase prices are high, the Penn-Alexander Elementary catchment in University City Philadelphia has rental prices for two and three bedrooms that are very inexpensive compared to other cities. You're sort of straddling the line between hipstery crunchy indie coffee, yuppy farmers market and new business corridor on foot and there's very good public transit to the downtown area.

From my travels I would also second Portland, ME being lovely and recommend the Triangle Area of NC as matching your needs. Ithaca, NY might also be a good fit but is a bit farther more insular and far from proper urban life.
posted by itsonreserve at 5:36 AM on April 3, 2013

Check out Hudson,NY.
posted by waterisfinite at 5:39 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Downtown Lititz, Pa. would be a good fit for you. Kid can walk to school next year. The town smells like chocolate all the time. It's near enough to New York to still see family and it is full of artists.
posted by myselfasme at 5:40 AM on April 3, 2013

I recently visited Burlington, VT and it might be what you're looking for. Lake Champlain is beautiful, cost of living is relatively low, and the creative class is well catered to. Lots of outdoorsy stuff to do, and it seemed like every public building I passed had some sort of childhood enrichment thing going on - kids taking pictures, kids drawing on the floor, kids sticking leaves on things. I never lacked a WiFi signal in the downtown area, and in my experience walking around the neighborhoods, every other home had public WiFi with signal names like "Internet Already Free" and "NoPornPlz" (and one "PornOK"). The above description of Berkeley actually reminded me a bit of it, but I bet the cost of living is less in VT.
posted by juniperesque at 5:41 AM on April 3, 2013

If you're considering New Orleans but don't want as big of a city, don't overlook Galveston, Texas. It's an island surrounded by water and beach, has the closest approximation of New Orleans-style and -period architecture, has good private schools, a state-of-the-art medical school and hospital district, and all the arts and food you might be interested in--hell, it was even mostly destroyed by a hurricane recently, just like New Orleans. It's also Southern, but with a strong port city influence of every race and creed of people you can imagine. But better than Louisiana, it has no state income tax, and a lower cost of living, and better than New Orleans it has a far lower cost of living and relatively little crime. It's small enough to where you can get to know people over time. Say hey to the folks at Galveston Bookshop for me.
posted by resurrexit at 5:47 AM on April 3, 2013

Madison and Burlington are both great, and both cheaper than most of the Northeast. Both are cold.

Pittsburgh is also cheap, a reasonably-large city, and has tons of well-endowed nonprofits and colleges from its era of industrial triumph, with relatively little polluting industry remaining. There aren't beaches but there are rivers you can make use of, in addition to amazing parks with plenty of hiking and whatnot. The architecture is some of the most beautiful you've ever seen, with all kinds of lovely old houses on winding lanes rambling up and down verdant hillsides. Squirrel Hill is a leafy walkable family neighborhood full of professors, and Shadyside is another lovely central neighborhood, though a bit yuppier in population. Rents are cheap but buying is even cheaper.
posted by akgerber at 5:57 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised nobody has stepped up to recommend a number of places in RI. Everywhere in the state is no more than 40 minutes from Providence, which has everything you asked for and more, plus you are within very easy reach of NYC and Boston. Towns like East Greenwhich, Jamestown and Barrington offer small town centres, school districts and a lot of artists and bookshops. And pretty much everywhere in RI you're on the water, which is great.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:58 AM on April 3, 2013

Seconding Ithaca, for the second hand bookstores and Wegmans alone.
But I was actually going to chime in with my old favorite, Staunton, Va. (it has even got a Shakespeare theater and a music festival). If you need something a little more urban and with a university nearby, of course, as someone else wrote, Charlottesville.
posted by Namlit at 6:07 AM on April 3, 2013

I love West Philadelphia as a young single person but dear lord, don't count on moving into the Penn Alexander catchment area that itsonreserve mentions and getting a space at the school. This year parents started lining up four days ahead of kindergarten registration to snag spots for their kids. The school switched to a lottery system in response to this madness, but the original "line parents" are still pissed, and I don't know what the prospects of getting into the school look like long-term. And that's to say nothing about the scramble to get into good middle/high schools later. It's like a mini version of the NYC school scramble.

If the idea of Philadelphia is appealing, I think Mount Airy might work better for what you want: awesome used bookstore, detached single family houses with more space, some solid restaurants, a fantastic park with actual hiking trails, and lots of young families in your boat.
posted by ActionPopulated at 6:33 AM on April 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've lived in DC or the close-in DC suburbs my whole life and would never live anywhere else. DC has all the amenities of a much larger city without the crazy pace-- world-class (free!) museums, theater, live music, great restaurants. The city itself can be expensive, especially in NW, but much of NE is totally affordable, transit-accessible, and quite lovely.

As for the suburbs, I cannot think of a nicer place to live than Takoma Park, and if TP is too expensive Mount Rainier is right over the line into PG County-- same lovely 1930s housing stock at half the price.

I just moved into a 1933 bungalow here, and I'm walking distance to the co-op natural foods grocery store, the dance studio, a mile from the new arts district they're building in Hyattsville. In Silver Spring, less than half an hour away, the American Film Institiute has their flagship theater, where they show new independent film and retrospectives of classic films on three screens. If I want to go into DC, I'm two miles from the Red Line and 1.5 from the Green. I can be on Capitol Hill in twenty minutes, enjoying Eastern Market. And I'm paying $2k in rent on a four-bedroom. It's kind of awesome.

I can't tell you as much about the schools because I don't have kids, but I grew up going to Montgomery County public schools and they're among the best in the nation. DC is a city with a lot of working professionals, so there are a lot of good day-care and after-school options-- I've worked for a few of them. And there's a steady supply of college students looking for babysitting or part-time nanny work.
posted by nonasuch at 7:54 AM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

The North Shore of Massachusetts.

No more than an hour to Boston by train, most towns have beaches within walking distance, huge artistic communities, and each little town has its own particular culture and interesting places to explore. Schools vary, and it can depend on the particular school experience you want kids to have, but most are very solid and those that aren't are improving rapidly.
posted by zizzle at 8:49 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Even the little neighborhoods and suburbs directly around Boston itself would be a good fit. You get all of the benefits of Boston (which doesn't have that "big city" feel anyway) and the east coast, but with the quiet, more affordable rent (well, depending...), good schools, etc. you are looking for. Cambridge, Brookline, Newton, Watertown, Arlington, Belmont -- all would be good!
posted by theuninvitedguest at 9:11 AM on April 3, 2013

I am from further upstate than that fucking (excuse me) Hipsterurbia article, which I think is stupid for many, many, many reasons BUT. A lot of the towns along the Hudson ARE very cute and livable with good schools and affordable housing. Weather's kind of shit, but if you like to ski or anything it would be a fine choice for your family.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:06 PM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

If Jersey City is on your list, I think you should also consider Montclair, NJ. It has many fantastic restaurants, an art museum, parks for your child, a great used bookstore, a hospital, an excellent weekly farmers' market, 2 train stops (a 30ish minute ride to NYC), etc. It is pretty much the perfect NYC suburb as far as I'm concerned.
posted by katie at 2:07 PM on April 3, 2013

I can't believe there are only three recommendations for Ithaca, NY so far.

the NY area is a likely candidate -- but we'd rather not move into the city proper again.

Ithaca is ~4-5 hours away from NYC. Not a "drive down for the day" distance, but certainly "head over for the weekend" distance. Regular bus service, including deluxe buses.

Big city bustle isn't as important to us anymore as quality of life, a little space & quiet, and affordable rents.

No bustle, check. As much peace and quiet as you want; the further from downtown you go the cheaper it gets to rent. Median house prices are around 200k, apparently, but go all the way to 7 figures at the very high end.

Health care, day care, and schools [...] We'd enjoy a bit of an artistic community, a few decent restaurants, maybe an art house theater and an independent book shop -- but we don't need much more than that, as long as there's Internet. A body of water or an actual beach would be a major plus.

This is like you're describing Ithaca. Home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, so pretty reasonable health care in town, excellent day care by all accounts, very good schools with extremely involved parents and lots of international flavor if you're in the right districts.

Ithaca has some excellent restaurants: Moosewood of the cookbook fame is still going strong, and we have pretty diverse international cuisine, although I still can't believe that our Mexican is so middling. We have a fantastic Farmer's Market; a thriving art gallery scene including Gallery night every month; a regular multiplex, an arthouse theater, and award-winning Cornell Cinema; a top-notch University art museum in an I. M. Pei-designed building; several book shops, especially used ones, and the famous and massive Friends of the Library sale; Gimme Coffee! started here; fantastic classical music at IC and Cornell as well as a vibrant folk / indie music scene; wineries, gorges, cross country skiing, Cayuga lake (40 miles long, 2 miles wide)...

Seriously, there's too much to list in a single comment. A car share program, public transport, "No fracking" signs all over town? Green Star natural groceries? Two college radio stations? Waterfalls, hiking trails, public parks, Cornell plantations? Summer concerts on the Arts quad? It depends on what's important to you.

Yes, we have internet access. Serious downside: the winter sucks. And we're gerrymandered into a Republican-majority district - for now, at least.

If you've read this far and are seriously considering this, feel free to mail me with questions.
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:32 PM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone! It's much appreciated. No idea what to mark as "best answer" since all of your suggestions sound promising, and it's going to take us a bunch more figuring out before we can actually pick a place, but all of this info is useful. So, thanks again!
posted by muckster at 1:13 AM on April 5, 2013

After living in La for years I would have to say that area should not be considered as the expensive real estate is prohibitive and the traffic is a deal breaker. Pasadena is included in this as well as Santa Barbara which someone mentioned above. Most of Ca is over-priced in terms of real estate and this makes it hard to find anything decent.
We recently checked out Asheville and it is NOT cheap as someone said above. Houses are now in the high 400's if you want to be in the cool part of town and this wolfed be considered a deal.
I don't know if weather is an issue for you but Ithaca is freezing and snowy in the winter so there is that as well.
We both like the shoreline of Ct. Where we are as it is small town life with better weather since its on the water and you have access to Providence ( one hour) NYC ( two hours ) and Boston also two hours. There is plenty of quality of life and you have e four seasons without the intense cold of say Vt. Or upstate NY.
Check out the towns of Madison, Old Saybrook, Essex and Guilford all with good schools and plenty of art scene represented.
posted by privatechef at 5:02 PM on June 18, 2013

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