One year ago as I write this, I was packing up parts of my New York life and selling other parts of it in preparation to leave. At the time, I had just published the second part in a two-part series on this blog about the prospect of leaving New York, detailing my fears, frustrations and hopes of leaving the city I had called home for 22 years. I ended that second article by saying that I was headed for an exotic land called Cleveland.
The piece came onto the radar of a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who wrote a very generous two page story for the Sunday paper several weeks later. The tone of her article on a native Clevelander who was moving back to town after 27 years was very hopeful. The truth is that I was terrified. Could I build a life in Cleveland? What would I do? Where would I live? Who would I be? How/where would I fit in here? Even a few months into being here, those questions still taunted me.
Originally, my plan was to finish the lease in my apartment in New York, which would have kept me there through July of this year. But an urgent matter that I never mentioned in my interview for the paper was my mother. Her health was in rapid decline, and I had to get home. When I finally got here in mid November, she was in the middle of a 40 day stay in the hospital that included four trips to the intensive care unit. We thought we were going to lose her. We started calling friends to say goodbye when she took a dramatic turn for the better. From the hospital, she stayed at a nursing rehab for a few weeks before finally returning home in the first week of January.
Since I had no real work, no money and nowhere to live (and no furniture), the obvious arrangement was to live at my mom’s house and help her recover. So that’s what I did. For the past nine months, I had the unique opportunity to be of service to my mother in a very special way, shopping for groceries, driving her to appointments, taking out the trash, changing lightbulbs, curating shows for her to watch on Netflix… whatever I could do. I am thrilled to report that she is now able to do pretty much everything on her own again, adjusting to a new chapter in her life.
Over time, I gradually took my hands off the wheel as my mother regained her strength and control. In this first year as a born again Clevelander, I’ve managed to hustle up a gig here and a gig there, including my usual tricks as a digital/social media/web consultant, a freelance writer and… wait for it… an actor. Yes, between industrial videos and voice over jobs, I’ve made more money as an actor in Cleveland in the last six months than I made in the last 10 years in New York. I wasn’t necessarily pursuing acting work in New York anymore, but still. Go figure.
By the end of the summer, my schizophrenic skill set was generating enough money for me to look for an apartment in earnest. My original idea when I decided to move back to Cleveland was to look for an apartment in an area called the Gold Coast, which is a strip of chic apartment buildings built right on Lake Erie. Unfortunately, the buildings on the Gold Coast have a bug up their asses about dogs over 25 pounds – a deal breaker that essentially killed that idea for me.
Then I started hearing buzz about Downtown Cleveland – an area I hadn’t seriously considered. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no living downtown. It was a place where people like my father worked and then promptly left at the end of the work day. With the exception of the theaters at Playhouse Square and a few restaurants and clubs, there was no life downtown as I understood it.
Today is a very different story. Just this year, Downtown Cleveland passed a milestone in its population of full time residents. In 1990, Cleveland’s downtown population was less than 6,500, climbing to less than 10,000 by 2010, i.e. a growth of fewer than 4,000 over 20 years. But between 2010 and today, the residential population has jumped to 15,000 and is projected to hit 20,000 by 2020. Between new buildings and refurbished/repurposed old ones, there are currently 17 new residential projects in the works. With this growth comes more amenities, more restaurants, more features. And with so many features within walking (or bicycling) distance, living downtown looked possible without a car. So I started looking at options downtown.
After perusing different areas of the downtown scene, I narrowed my preference to an area called the Warehouse District, located in the northwest corner of Downtown Cleveland. With its proximity to The Flats by the river, two dog parks and other great places to walk the mutts, greenery, a handy grocery store and a little bit of a “pulse” in terms of street energy, I knew this was where I wanted to be. And to my delight, there were some terrific apartment options that had no size restrictions with dogs.
One of those terrific options was a new construction project that combined four century old industrial warehouses into a new residential complex that boasted loft-style units of various sizes and configurations, each including ample square footage, 14-foot ceilings, 8-foot windows, ridiculously fast internet, full kitchens with all new energy-efficient appliances and in-suite laundry. The other building amenities, like two private courtyards, a living room/lounge area, a roof deck, a gym, a yoga studio, a dog grooming “spa” and a heated garage (which would be great if I had a car), were very sexy features. In terms of design, the construction project was a beneficiary of historical preservation tax credits, requiring it to respect the building’s history with the original floor structure, exposed brick, columns and beams. It’s essentially an old warehouse exquisitely tricked out for modern living.
At the end of August, I made an appointment for a tour with a very nice guy named Greg, the property manager. When I first saw the place, all the common areas and three of the five residential floors were still under construction. The top two floors would be ready for occupancy by October 1. After seeing about five or six different units in my price range, I chose a nice 1,000 square foot one-bedroom with a simple layout, ample closet space, more cabinet and storage space than I know what to do with, and three huge windows with a view of Lake Erie. Greg invited me back down to see the unit again if I liked. He wanted me to be sure.
The next day, I filled out all the paperwork, cut the requisite checks for the first month’s rent and security deposit. The day after that, I signed the lease and became one of the first tenants in the building, joining the growing legion of Downtown Cleveland’s full time residents.
Coincidentally, at around the same time, the publisher of the quarterly supplement to Cleveland Magazine where I’d been freelance writing asked if I was interested in being the editor of a regular section on Downtown Cleveland. All signs indicated that this move downtown was right on time.
When I share this story with friends, the question most people have at this point is about money. Here’s the deal: My last apartment in New York City was a 460 square foot studio in a Hell’s Kitchen doorman high rise with a decent gym and a small lap pool. My apartment had three working burners, a 30 year old microwave and dishwasher, a below-counter bar fridge with no freezer, and no oven. The view outside my only window was a brick wall of the motel next door. My rent was $2,300/month, which was a good deal for the area and below the median rent for a studio apartment in New York City. (The average rent for a 750 square foot one-bedroom in New York City is $2,700 and lingers around $3,000 in Manhattan.)
The monthly rent for my new apartment in Downtown Cleveland is $1,450. (The two bedrooms with two full baths in the building from 1,200 to 1,500 square feet hover around $2,000/month, and the three bedroom/three full bath units have around 2,000 square feet and run just under $3,000/month.) For Cleveland, this is considered luxury. For this Manhattan expat, it’s the deal of the fucking century.
When I came to the building to pickup my keys on October 1st, Greg brought me into the apartment to show me how everything worked, like the various settings for the dishwasher, the water heater and the thermostat. When he left, I was alone in the apartment for the first time.
I thought about the past three years. The pain of leaving New York started in 2014 when my client and idol Joan Rivers died. Since then, I had been to six more funerals of people dear to me, including my own stepfather. Work had dried up, my finances were depleted, my belongings had been sold, and my home of 22 years was no longer my home. Added to that was the very real possibility of losing my mother.
With mom out of the woods, the job was about helping her get her bearings and then get my own. While I jokingly describe the last nine months living with her as “Grey Gardens Lite,” the truth is that it was a gift and an irreplaceable chance to show up. It was the end of a hard period of pain, heartbreak and exhaustion, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
So I stood alone and looked around the nicest apartment to which I’ve ever had keys, basking in the glorious light that poured through the windows, and cried. Because, for the first time in a long time, I felt hopeful, optimistic and genuinely happy.
Almost a year after leaving New York, it feels like my new life as a Clevelander is really just beginning right now. I’ve only lived downtown for about a week, and I find myself constantly delighted as I discover so many new things every day. Great old architecture, the lakefront, the river, the parks and cityscapes, the restaurants, the music scene, the arts, the people, the immeasurably easier access (and lower price point) to everything… Essentially, I’m loving it here and I’m looking forward to sharing with you.
Stay tuned. Much more to come.
Nighttime Cleveland skyline photo by TRG Reality (trgreality.com).