Tell me about the cool city you live in: Northeast US edition
December 12, 2020 5:20 PM   Subscribe

I want to move next year. I don't know where yet, but I do know I want to end up in New England or one of the states bordering it. Please tell me about livable, affordable-sh cities.

I've been living in New Orleans for almost a decade, and it feels like it's about time to exeunt stage left, pursued by alligator. I miss hills and woods, y'all. I'm planning on a road trip to check out some cities when I can do that safely, but I need a list of cities to check out. Pennsylvania and New York State (but not NYC) are looking the most appealing, but I'm open to suggestions; I'm looking to get some places on my radar that maybe weren't before. My partner and I have service-industry jobs but I currently own my house, so we'd probably be buying a fixer-upper and living on a working-class income after that. It would be nice to live in a liberal or swing state. I've been to NY, MA, CT and NH (in winter, even), so I do have a decent handle on the geography and weather in that part of the world.

Things I like:

Victorian architecture
Some kind of arts/music scene
Good food
Offbeat/witchy stuff
Rainy climate
Access to easy hikes within an hour's drive

Things that aren't such a factor

Crime and infrastructure (they would have to be worse than they are in New Orleans to be an issue)
Schools (no kids)
Snow... within reason (so probably not Maine).

Thanks so much!
posted by Nibbly Fang to Travel & Transportation (36 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure exactly what "rainy climate" means to you (in the context of the Northeast, anyway), but I can check all your other boxes with:
Kingston, NY
North Adams, MA
Salem, MA (of course)
posted by minervous at 5:38 PM on December 12, 2020

+1 Salem, MA
You might also like Gloucester, MA
Providence, RI
Northampton, MA
Portsmouth, NH
posted by pazazygeek at 6:03 PM on December 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

For offbeat/witchy, check out New Hope, PA and surrounding Upper Bucks County PA. Old buildings, old history, weird history specifically, haunted caves, it's just weird here. Lots of natural beauty in Upper Bucks, easy drive to lots and lots of hiking. Look at High Rocks/Ralph Stover and Hawk Mountain and Bowman's Hill Tower and Ringing Rocks and Goat Hill Overlook and Haycock Mountain as some nearby hike spots, many with breathtaking high views. For weird, look at Mercer Museum, Fonthill and the Tileworks, and our "Rosicrucian" Pyramids. Politically, Upper Bucks is rural farmers and vote that way, though still an awesome place to live, but Central Bucks (New Hope, Doylestown) trend significantly wayyyyy more liberal. Real estate is cheaper in Upper Bucks. Easy access to NYC and Philly by car or public transportation. Nice art museums, small music venues, indy bookstores and record stores, weird old flea markets (Q mart!!), antique stores, historic homes.... Happy to answer any questions if it seems worth going on your list.
posted by MustangMamaVE at 6:03 PM on December 12, 2020 [11 favorites]

To be fair, I admit Bucks County is not a city. One could look at nearby Allentown or Bethlehem in Lehigh County, I follow lots of interesting art and restaurants there but have not lived there, personally so that stops me from being able to make an honest recommendation. Apologies for double post.
posted by MustangMamaVE at 6:07 PM on December 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Plattsburgh NY? Pittsburgh PA? Keene NH? Burlington VT is cool but a little pricey. I did kinda dig Salem too.

Tourist towns like Portsmouth seem extremely seasonal so keep that in mind.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:08 PM on December 12, 2020

Troy NY
posted by metasarah at 6:34 PM on December 12, 2020 [5 favorites]

there are places in the Hudson Valley that fit your criteria (Hudson/Catskill, Saugerties, Kingston, New Paltz, Rhinebeck)
posted by kokaku at 6:42 PM on December 12, 2020 [8 favorites]

Northampton, MA, ticks all your boxes, as long as you don't mind being 2-3 hours from the beach.
posted by bendy at 7:07 PM on December 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Came here to say New Hope, PA and the area checks a lot of your boxes. Checking out Allentown and Bethlehem areas also might meet what you want. If you really want to go to upstate NY, Rochester or Buffalo and those outskirts would also have a lot of potential for both work and good places to live.
posted by Nackt at 7:13 PM on December 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

+1 for Providence

It has:

Victorian architecture - tons of it, some very affordable
A great arts/music scene
Great food
Offbeat/witchy stuff - Lovecraft
Access to easy hikes within an hour's drive
Hills (all over town)

Also, Providence is an actual city where a bunch of these other suggested places definitely feel more like towns. Not sure how important that is to you.
posted by degoao at 7:19 PM on December 12, 2020 [12 favorites]

And a tad more about the Hudson Valley/Catskills/capitol region/surroundings... the west side of the river is cheaper (in price, taxes, and value, depending on county). And yep, it’s true — the farther away from the City, and direct mass transit, the cheaper you’ll find. If you want to be east side of the river (and near-ish trains to the City), check out Columbia County, the bottom corner of Western Mass, and the towns near Sharon, CT.

Two separate buddies of mine just bought supremely adorable houses near that area in CT at about $300k, and their taxes are surprisingly reasonable.

If you’re looking for more of a city, Albany/Troy are both cool. So is Kingston.
posted by functionequalsform at 7:21 PM on December 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Came to say Salem!
posted by athirstforsalt at 7:22 PM on December 12, 2020

Response by poster: These are great, y'all!

I'm probably looking for a city, not a town, but since I'm planning to road-trip through the area those suggestions are definitely not in vain.

I guess the whole East Coast has a rainy climate? I just like cloudy weather. Pittsburgh is one of the cities I want to check out, and when I found out it's overcast like 150 days a year, it was definitely a feature, not a bug.

I loved Salem when I visited, and I would totally move there, but it's just too expensive, at least in Salem proper. I'm kinda hoping for functional houses available under 150k or so.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 7:27 PM on December 12, 2020

Adding another +1 for Providence! Easy access to Boston, not terribly far to NYC, affordable by New England standards, really interesting neighborhoods and you have Brown and RISD for arts/culture/educational stuff.
posted by mccxxiii at 7:30 PM on December 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Seconding Rochester. Check out to get a taste of what the city (and suburbs) is about.
posted by Wild_Eep at 7:47 PM on December 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

@cheapoldhouses, if you don't mind instagram, is my daily haunt for daydreaming about buying a gorgeous, affordable house in a small town I've never been to. It's given me a routine of looking up these hamlets as a little pandemic-sized exploration of the country,, with plenty of examples in the region your interested in.

Justin Bond's instagram has me daydreaming about the Hudson River Valley quite a lot these days.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:01 PM on December 12, 2020

Glosta, MA is a great place but the winter is harsh. Cold, dark, and rainy like any NE coast, but since so much of the economy is seasonal, a lot of restaurants etc. close for the winter. Prepare to hole up.

As the others have said, Providence is probably the best bet, but have a look at New Haven, too. It been ages since I lived there, but good food. Local music scene. Good art and culture stuff re Yale. Close to NYC and good hiking. Not so witchy or Lovecrafty, but secret societies.
posted by Gotanda at 8:03 PM on December 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'd vote Pittsburgh for sure if you are leaning more towards kinda near New England. Amazing city.

Portland, ME is very beautiful but definitely has throngs of tourists.

Never been to Providence, and wikipedia says it's one of those cities that claim to be built on seven hills, but it looks really flat from tourism videos I just watched.

Burlington is barely a city, but it is beautiful.

New Hampshire is technically a swing state. Despite growing up in NH, I hardly ever went to Manchester, but I bet it's a bit of a hidden gem. Has an airport and is close to Boston, Portland and NYC (kinda).
posted by Corduroy at 8:26 PM on December 12, 2020

Pittsburgh is so hilly it has a goddamned bonafide funicular, which may not be witchy, but is definitely offbeat (and it was being ridden by locals as public transport when I rode it to boot!).
posted by Corduroy at 8:28 PM on December 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I've lived in Providence for the last decade and it fits the bill for basically everything you're looking for-- feels reasonably city-ish, lots of old victorians, decent music scene, good art scene, good food, takes pride in its quirkiness. It has a few big hills, but I wouldn't call it too hilly.

I'm a serious outdoor hobby person and I find the outdoors activities a bit lackluster personally, but if all you want is a stroll in the woods, there's plenty of those within 15 minutes of town and lots more within an hour's drive. I enjoy being near the ocean as well, fair number of places to hang out on rocks near the ocean or walk along the bay, and if course good beaches.

Housing is becoming less affordable-- finding something reasonably livable for 150k would be very hard. 200k would probably be doable for a fixer upper though.
posted by geegollygosh at 8:33 PM on December 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Cleveland, where you can buy a three story Victorian for under 150K.
Shows stop there on tour between Chicago and NYC.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:00 PM on December 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

What's your cutoff for something being considered a "city" vs a "town"?

It sounds like you might like Northampton, MA — my sibling lives there, and I've visited a couple times. It's pretty small, but a lot of the population is associated with the various mostly liberal arts colleges in the area, so if you're OK with a social scene that skews relatively young, there's a fair amount of interesting stuff that happens. It's a cute place in the classic New England way, and there's plenty of access to nature/hiking.

The wikipedia article on the Pioneer Valley may be of interest in learning about the area.
posted by wesleyac at 11:25 PM on December 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Excellent food in New Haven!!!
posted by 8603 at 4:22 AM on December 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I moved to the Hudson Valley about 5 years ago from a rust-belt city.

The natural beauty and landscape is legendary. It blows my mind still how many world-class musicians and artists live and work in the area. These influences are spread out over a large, mostly rural, geography.

The small cities in my part of the valley that I know -

Kingston, NY has been mentioned before.
It has oldness and some real quirky character. It has water and hills. It is adjacent to the Catskills and scads of other amazing woods and hills adventures.
Kingston is getting a lot of recent Covid-flight housing market pressure, so prices have risen sharply this year, but I suppose that is a sign of its good fundamentals.

Newburgh has not been mentioned.
Newburgh has a lovely location on the Hudson and a beguiling built environment - streets and streets of 19th C brick buildings. It has failed-state level urban issues in some areas, but this has created really insane gentrification opportunities. People from larger cities are moving in and buying distressed buildings and remaking them into beautiful places. It is exciting to see, but there's a lot of risk - but risk is exciting. Good Central and South American food - for now.
Great recreation opportunities in the area and easy transit to NYC.

Across the river from Newburgh is Beacon. Beacon has been gentrifying like crazy for a few years. On weekends and much of the Summer it is "Brooklyn-y" with visitors from, well, Brooklyn, &c. Lots of service jobs, but no longer much service-worker-affordable housing. The crowds aren't wrong - it is a nice little city. My jaded take is "nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded," but do check it out - it is fun!
posted by Glomar response at 5:44 AM on December 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I live in the 'burbs about 20 minutes from downtown Providence because we are raising a flock of kids. My job is downtown, at one of the colleges. (N.b.: the presence of a healthy college should be a guide for you: they always attracts you g people and fun stuff. Many are in bad shape but it's that's typical everywhere these days.)

It really is a cool city, despite the setbacks that COVID has dealt it -- which will be true of every place in America!

An old friend owns a huge Victorian house atop College Hill, near Brown University, and he cycles everywhere. He works sometimes in Boston or NY, and can catch an Acela train right near by at the train station.

It is a vibrant place that you should check out.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:19 AM on December 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's not quite clear to me if you are considering non-New england areas or not, but you do mention PA, and Philadelphia has everything you're looking for, in abundance.
posted by bearette at 6:38 AM on December 13, 2020

I’m not into nightlife so I can’t really speak to that and am taking “nice downtown with lots of non-chain businesses” as proxy “likely to have decent nightlife.” I’ll mention the following:

If you’re looking at Albany and Troy, also check out Schenectady, which has a couple of nice little shopping areas (Jay St and Upper Union St) as well as Proctor’s Theater. (Qualification for my opinion on this: I grew up there though moved away 30-ish years ago.) I think that at least two of my high school classmates are now in local(ish) bands. No significant Victorian homes that I remember but there is the Stockade downtown. Housing (probably not in the Stockade) may be cheaper than Albany and Troy.

In VT maybe check out St. Albans and/or Enosburg Falls. St. Albans is around 5K people and close to Burlington, but it’s definitely a (small) city. St Enosburg is tiny, about 2K, so likely to small for you - but there is a section of at least externally lovely old Victorian homes. They would cost a fortune to heat though, and may be split up into apartments by now.

There is lots of outdoorsy stuff near all of these.

Qualification for my opinion on VT - I haven’t lived in either of these towns but have spent a lot of time in northern VT over the last decade or so.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 6:43 AM on December 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I guess the whole East Coast has a rainy climate?

Not really, not like the Northwest, but the winters are definitely grey and wet lately as opposed to bright and sunny. I live in rural VT so not what you're looking for (Vermont's largest cities are about 8,000 people except for Burlington which is nice but not super affordable) but I also wanted to suggest that if Providence is a little too spendy you might look right outside it and look at Fall River (MA) or New Bedford. Fall River in particular is right up close to Providence, real estate is cheap and there's some fascinating mill town history there. It's a city with some problems that come along with poverty (and COVID) so some of this depends what kind of place you are looking for, but its worth looking at. Lots of great outdoorsy hiking areas near there.

The real problem with a lot of New England is that your choices are often "diverse and expensive" (college towns and the larger cities) or "homogeneous and affordable" (many small New England towns) or "diverse, affordable, with some large flaw" (Fall River has terrible schools but maybe if infrastructure is not a concern...). There is no place in New England that even approaches the huge vibrant diversity of New Orleans. You probably want to stick to Southern New England (MA, CT and RI) to avoid entirely unreasonable snow. That said, you could live near Salem MA someplace a lot cheaper (Nashua NH) and have access to all that stuff but be someplace more affordable.
posted by jessamyn at 8:36 AM on December 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

Upstate NY might be your best shot: I’d look into Rochester, Troy, Syracuse, Buffalo. Providence is a cool place also. Maybe Worcester, MA?

I grew up in VT and absolutely loved it, but Jessamyn is right that BTV is not super affordable, and places like Northampton, MA are probably in the same category.

I’d recommend Columbus, OH but it maybe lacks the topographical features you’re looking for.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:38 AM on December 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

nthing Buffalo, which is kind of a midwest/northeast hybrid imo, but it has amazing victorian-era architecture, a great creative scene and food scene, and is a formerly big city with a close, friendly neighborhood feel. It actually feels more northeastern than Rochester does, and more urban too. Definitely worth considering.

And since it's not mentioned here so far, I will toss Ithaca, NY into the mix. It is not a city! But it has a small-urban feel: a very dense, very walkable urban fabric. Thanks to the lakes and waterfalls, beautiful hikes abound. Ithaca also strikes a balance between Northampton and the Hudson-region small towns mentioned here, in that it's less expensive than Northampton but has a long-established (college-town) culture unlike the gentrifying Hudson towns (many of which, as described above, can have a becoming-NYC-exurb feel).
posted by marlys at 11:06 AM on December 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'm surprised no one has said Ithaca -- it's lovely there. Check it out if it's not too far outside New England for your liking.
posted by woodvine at 2:09 PM on December 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Hello from rainy Pittsburgh! We can definitely check all of your boxes. We live in the city proper because we didn’t care about school districts either, in fact my husband might have been on the funicular mentioned above (we call them inclines though).

I will give you my caveats about the city, because honestly I love it here and can’t imagine living anywhere else, but I want people to come here with eyes open.
* our public transit is... not great..
* I have been told that making friends can be difficult if you don’t fall into one via work. I had friends here when we moved, but have heard from single coworkers that we’re insular and hard to break in with
* the city proper always votes blue, but the surrounding area... not so much. Know that our Democrats are old school labor union democrats, so not quite the hippy liberals I embrace, unless you stick close to the university scene.
* our alcohol laws... are the dumbest in the country... they’ve gotten better recently (beer in some supermarkets, kinda!) but it’s a far cry from New Orleans

I can be very Mary Sunshine about convincing folks to move here (cheap houses! Great hiking! Look at the colleges!) so I’m taking a different tact... but feel free to DM me with questions. We’ve got a good group of Mefi folks here for sure!
posted by librarianamy at 2:50 PM on December 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Western new York is out unless you like multi foot snowstorms all winter. Look up lake effect.
posted by greatalleycat at 4:24 PM on December 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm in Newburgh as well, and it seems to fit the bill. It is rough around the edges, and that leads both to some rough things and some nice things.

Pittsburgh also might be a match (except it's more Mid-West-y than North-East-y). Feel free to message me about either.
posted by taltalim at 7:12 PM on December 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I live in the Pioneer Valley. As others have said, Northampton isn't remotely affordable -- you won't find a house for 300k, let alone 150k. But it's a fun place to live close to. Ditto nearby Easthampton, which has several restaurants that rival anything you'd find in a big city, multiple breweries, and a very cute little mountain.

Anyway, you should take a look at Holyoke, MA. It has kind of a bad rep in the area, but that's at least 75% racism (the population is very diverse, unlike... most places in the Valley). And there's a whole lot of interesting stuff going on if you know where to look. Happy to talk more if you want!
posted by catoclock at 6:58 AM on December 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

I know you said not too much snow so no to Maine, but I'd like to point out that southern Maine, like Portland and points south, is a vastly different prospect than northern Maine in almost every measure. If you're okay with New Hampshire then I think you'd be okay with southern Maine. Portland gets expensive but 30 minutes south are Biddeford and Saco, both well established large towns with cute downtowns, lots of independent shops/bars/restaurants, and friendly people. Lots of Victorian architecture, great sand beaches (hard to find in Maine once you're much farther up the coast), year round residents, and if you're into it there is a very active road running community in southern Maine. There's also good x-country skiing and you can definitely be at nice trails in an hour. Should you want a city Portland is right up the road, and if you want a big city Boston is a 2 hour drive, or train ride from Saco.

Biddeford has the reputation of being a little grungier (once upon a time the Franco-American mill workers lived in Biddeford and the mill bosses lived in Saco) but that isn't really a truth anymore.

Note from a local, Saco is pronounced "SAW-co" not "SAY-co."
posted by The Librarian at 3:29 AM on December 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

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