I've noticed a trend on this site. New people join and write a post that goes, "I'm thinking about leaving the city, and the other towns I'm interested in are A, B, and C. But how do I choose which is the best one for me?"
This is totally a fair question. And it's one of the questions Mari and I were exploring when we started this site in the first place.
But now I realize that there is only one real way to find a new town to call home: You must visit other places.
Now, I know, for those of you who currently live in the city, this is harder than it sounds. Getting out of New York City is no small undertaking, and often entails waking up at the crack of dawn, 3 forms of transportation, wads of cash, and physical exertion the likes of which non-New Yorkers have never experienced. Getting out of New York City is a goddamn pain in the ass.
Added to the physical barriers between you and the rest of the world, are the psychological barriers. Living in New York, you've been brainwashed into believing that other places actually do not exist. This might sound silly at first, but if you really think about it, you'll recognize that you really do think that. Just a little bit. I know I did.
"OK, fine," you say. "But why is it so important to visit all these other places? Why can't I just read a bunch of research on The Best Cities in America, ask my friends, post on websites, and find a clear winner?"
I'm so glad you asked!
1. Research is surface. I'm one of those researcher types myself. I research the crap out of anything before I buy it, try it, or visit it. And I did the same thing before I left New York. I looked at Best Places lists - best cities for arts, food, entrepreneurs, healthy living... even sleep quality. I poured over city statistics regarding crime, education, cost of living, diversity, and healthcare. And while lists like that helped me see some "hot city" trends and gave me a few ideas for places I never would have thought of, it certainly didn't show me which town was right for me.
2. You fall in love with a place based on how it makes you feel. Choosing a new hometown based on Best Places profiles is like choosing a spouse based on an online dating profile. Every town looks amazing from certain angles, Photoshopped and tightly edited. For example, these are both Detroit...
The only way to tell if you click with a city is to go on a date with it - spend a couple days getting to know it in person. Walk the downtown streets, drive through neighborhoods, check out the local grocery store. On paper, Charlotte and Asheville both seemed like viable options. In person, we crossed Charlotte off the list within the first hour of being there. If there's chemistry, you'll know it - and you won't be able to get it out of your head.
3. You learn what you really want by trying things on. I thought that after New York, I wanted to live in a mid-size city, like Austin or San Francisco. I thought I would feel "trapped" in a smaller town. But here I am in Asheville - a town with fewer than 100,000 people. And I love it here. It turns out that I was done with the hassles of city life - high rent, long commutes, crowded airports - and really wanted a low-stress existence in the mountains. But I never would have recognized that before I visited.
4. Everyone's different. You would think that if we were all drawn to the same city (i.e. NYC), we would all want to live in the same city after that. But our idea of what we want at this next stage of our lives is different because we have different upbringings, past experiences, and goals - towns that rubbed us the wrong way, weather we can't stand, job market requirements. Do you want to raise kids or find a great singles scene? You can find 10 people to tell you they love city X, and ten others to tell you they hate it. You can only rely on your special blend of experiences and expectations to direct you to the right place.
SO... what exactly am I recommending? Three simple steps!
STEP 1: Put together a list of the places you're already thinking about. Check out a few Best Places lists to see if any other cities pop out. Then prioritize that list based on the ones you're really curious about. You may say you don't know where to start, but I bet you have a pretty good idea of where you'd check out first.
STEP 2: Plan one trip. Buy plane tickets to the first place on your list. Lug all your crap to Laguardia, arrive at your destination, and remember how refreshing it is to be outside the city. Stay for a few days or a week. Talk to locals about why they like living there. Have a real estate agent give you a tour of the major neighborhoods. Explore things you would do as a resident, not a tourist.
STEP 3: Go back to New York. Mull it over. See if you find yourself fantasizing about the town you visited. Think about how that place made you feel. Is it the "happy place" you visit mentally when you're stressed about other stuff?
Repeat as necessary. Things should start falling into place after that. If you end up having a crush on one town, make a longer visit, visit during a different season, start applying for jobs, looking for homes, and see what happens... In my experience, that first step is the most daunting.