For Andrew Joseph, the unexpected challenge of rural living was summed up in a single word: beavers. Joseph was enchanted by baby beavers swimming in the brook on his 4-acre property in the town of Saugerties, New York, where he and his partner, Paul Pearson, have been sheltering since March 2020.
“I quickly learned that they’re horrible, nasty creatures that wreak havoc and destruction,” said Joseph, the head of a Manhattan public relations firm who still maintains a home in Harlem. The beavers dammed the brook in three places, creating a swamp behind the house, and built a den that is “the size of a small van.”
Joseph, 51, applied for a permit to remove the animals and awaited a visit from a beaver trapper. After a preliminary visit, he never showed up again, though a bear did.
Then one night the couple heard gunshots from a neighbor’s property, and, lo, the beavers were gone.
Two winters into the pandemic, New Yorkers who moved to the suburbs, exurbs or beyond are taking stock of their low-density lifestyles. On the whole, their decision to relocate to places that frequently lack food delivery, municipal sewer systems and corner drugstores has been positive, judging from dozens of interviews and responses to questions on social media.
But even the most enthusiastic transplants remarked on a raft of unforeseen drawbacks: pests, property damage, social isolation, automobile dependence and a scarcity of health care and child care providers — conditions that locals have grappled with all their lives.
The less enthusiastic have pulled up stakes and returned to the city — or are hoping to do so if they can afford it now that New York’s real estate market is once again booming.
According to a report published in November by the New York state comptroller based on U.S. Postal Service change-of-address forms, a trend in migration from New York City following the March 2020 lockdown had reversed itself as of July 2021, motivated by the reopening of schools, offices and arts and entertainment offerings.
“In every month from March 2020 through June 2021, New York City lost more movers citywide than during the same month in 2019,” stated the report, which was issued before the omicron variant emerged. “But since July 2021 monthly net losses have been comparable to or even slightly better than 2019,” culminating in “an estimated net gain since July of 6,332 permanent movers.”
“Everybody has lots and lots of feelings,” said Rebekah Rosler, 42, founder of a Facebook group called “Into the Unknown,” which she conceived in spring 2020 for “those of us who have decided or are considering — willingly or otherwise — to join the exodus from NYC to greener pastures.”
The group, which has 13,500 members, is closed to reporters, so Rosler summarized the attitudes. At one pole are New Yorkers who were nudged by the pandemic into the premature fulfillment of a dream to leave the city and have not been disappointed; at the other pole are those who took flight more impulsively and are eager to return.
“Leaving has broken their identity,” she said.
Jasmine Trabelsi, 42, occupies the malcontents’ end of Rosler’s spectrum. In fall 2020, she and her husband, residents of Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, who both work in the tech industry, closed on a three-bedroom house in Woodstock, New York. Having already enrolled their 8-year-old daughter in a local school, they threw themselves on the mercy of the seller, who granted them two of the 15-minute slots doled out for viewing and accepted their bid in the mid-$600,000s.
Their sense of triumph did not last long. “We had a couple of friends in the area, but COVID is not a good time to move to a place where you don’t have a community,” Trabelsi said.
Many of the nearby houses were owned by seasonal residents or locals who had rented them, so the neighborhood had a transient feeling. And their own wobbly status as pandemic escapees who might stay or go discouraged easy attachments. The sense of dislocation made Woodstock seem to Trabelsi more like a vacation setting than a home.
Furthermore, they were on a mountaintop, and businesses and services (when they were open) felt remote.
The couple stayed until mid-August 2021, when Trabelsi injured her back and had trouble finding a doctor to treat it. They returned to their place in Brooklyn and plan to sell the Woodstock house after the ski season because their daughter enjoys the sport.
“What I found was that I’m a native New Yorker,” Trabelsi said.
Tara Silberberg, 53, also moved from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley and was knocked back by the feeling of alienation. Born in New York, Silberberg owns the Clay Pot, a design and jewelry boutique her parents founded in Park Slope in the 1960s, which she now runs online.
In May 2020, she and her husband, Adam Brightman, a film production manager, broke their Brooklyn lease and moved into their weekend home in the Columbia County town of Gallatin, New York, accelerating a scheme they had planned to realize at some vague time in the future.
“I was not quite prepared for how lonely it was going to be, and I’m very social,” Silberberg said.
To strengthen her ties to the community, she dived into the local politics of Gallatin and joined the board developing the town’s comprehensive plan. She also got involved with the Columbia County Democratic Committee.
Having been raised in rural western Massachusetts, where her parents retreated after a horrific 1973 acid attack left a Park Slope child blind, Silberberg said she speaks two languages: country and city. “I’m very direct, and the people on my board appreciate that about me. In the country, there’s a lot of couching and people trying to say something and not wanting to be aggressive about it.”
She is also schooled in the sometimes-operatic inconveniences of rural life. In the first year of her family’s Massachusetts sojourn, the 1930s gravity-fed water system broke, “and nobody knew how to fix it, and we didn’t have water for a year,” she recalled. “I understood that the country doesn’t mean it’s always picking daisies.”
Some transplants came to realize that urban density, the close contact with fellow citizens that seemed so threatening in a time of pestilence, was the first thing they missed.
In July 2020, Tisha Brown, a jewelry designer, moved with her husband and their now-6-year-old son to the Dutchess County village of Wappingers Falls, New York, from Forest Hills in Queens. They had failed to find an affordable three-bedroom city apartment where they could live with Brown’s recently widowed father-in-law.
The four-bedroom farmhouse they are renting for $2,700 a month sits on 13 acres with a swimming pool and would be almost anyone’s dream of country living. The driveway is nearly 1 mile long, plenty of room for Brown’s son to ride his scooter. But he would prefer to scoot on a sidewalk or in a playground with other children. That requires a play date and a car trip.
Brown feels his pain. “I can’t go for a walk up the block and run into friends; everything’s scheduled,” she said, adding that she blames COVID as much as the country for the crushing of spontaneity.
Brown said she was largely satisfied with her family’s decision to relocate. “But I definitely miss the lifestyle.”
In larger Hudson Valley cities, an influx of metropolitans has increased the chances for spontaneous street encounters. It has also put a notorious strain on resources. As towns like Kingston and Hudson look more like Brooklyn Heights or Carroll Gardens, with stylish shops filling out the brick architecture and cultural events blooming through the cracks of the pandemic, housing and health care have been stretched thin for everyone.
This was the situation Katie Muscarella from Cobble Hill in Brooklyn encountered when she landed with her family in Kingston in July 2021, after a yearlong stretch in Vermont. Despite early and strenuous efforts to find day care for her toddler daughter, she spent a month driving a half-hour, four times a day (in a leased car with mileage limits), to transport her child to and from the nearest preschool that would accommodate her. Not long after the move, Muscarella became pregnant with her second child and went in search of an available obstetrician who could deliver at the hospital she preferred. That took 14 weeks into her term and would have been 20 if she had not routinely checked back and ultimately found a sympathetic ear at one practice (she is due in June).
A freelance software developer married to an entrepreneur, Muscarella, who is now 38, said she was not complaining. “Though these things are challenging, I wouldn’t say I’m upset about it, considering I’m part of the reason for the added demand in the economy here,” she said.
Many New Yorkers have built-in virtues that help them adapt to their new lives: initiative, energy, perhaps a facility with spreadsheets. Home repair and renovation skills are not necessarily among them.
“I’m waiting here for my contractor to call me back, which I don’t want my contractor to read, or he’ll never call me back,” said a New York City transplant in Dutchess County. She asked not to be named so she could get some work done on her house.
“The homeownership thing is such a mind-bender,” said Rosler, of “Into the Unknown,” using a much spicier noun. A social worker and postpartum doula who said she was happy in her two-bedroom apartment in Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village (“a little utopia in the city,” she called it), she moved with her husband and three young children to Fairfield, Connecticut, a little more than a year ago. Since then, their house has flooded twice and played host to a dying air conditioner and two mysteriously shattered custom windows in her sunroom.
“I love the house. I love where we are. I don’t regret it. But some days I say I don’t know if I can do this again,” Rosler said, referring to the next repair job.
Big rural parcels also make harsh demands.
“I hurt my back over two years ago when I did weed whacking, one of the perils of country life,” said Annette Schaich, 58.
Schaich, a New York-based marketing consultant in the design industry, has spent the pandemic in a southern New Hampshire farmhouse she shares with her husband, Tony Conway, 71, an artist who grew up and was educated in the state. The couple are stewards of 20 acres, which has claimed a bit of their health. “Tony fell from a ladder when he was renovating the barn and broke his knee,” Schaich said. She added that there is an excellent hospital in the area.
She has no complaints about her rural life, though more takeout would be appreciated. She likes the people, the politics (which mostly align with her own) and not least, the beauty. She dons a colorful vest during hunting season without resentment, to avoid getting shot.
Some transplants described looking at their old haunts with new eyes after spending months on end in their adopted environments. When Brown of Wappingers Falls traveled to the Upper West Side recently to help an aunt recovering from surgery, she was appalled by the trucks and traffic. “I don’t miss this,” she said. She also noticed she had lost the capacity to haul bags of groceries, a task she outsources to her Subaru Outback.
Joseph of Saugerties, on the other hand, has reversed his idea of refuge. When his country house lost power after an ice storm ravaged Ulster County this month, he soldiered on for two days and nights before fleeing to his Harlem apartment. He has been returning more frequently as the city recovers some of its old vitality.
Saugerties, he said, “was the perfect place to ride out the pandemic, but my craving for urban energy — I’m hungry for that again.”