In the summer of 2016, I wrote a piece pondering the question of whether it was time to leave New York City after twenty two years there. In the years I’ve been doing this blog, it was easily one of the hardest posts to write.
The post came at a time when work prospects had dwindled, threatening my ability to merely pay rent. I had hit a wall and I was sick of the struggle in an increasingly expensive city and really stressed, as I detailed in the original post. I was also blowing that tired horn that old-time New Yorkers blow about how much New York had changed from the city they moved to.
At the same time, I was facing a personal struggle that I didn’t include in my essay. My 80-year-old mother had become very ill with heart and respiratory problems, beginning what would become a three-month stay in the hospital, including four stretches in the intensive care unit. My siblings and I weren’t sure if she was going to make it. As the youngest of five, and the only one without a spouse or children (or a job at the time), coming back home to Cleveland was the right thing to do.
But I wrote 250 word essay about how I handle the problems in Cleveland and keep going.
Cutting to the chase with mom, she rallied and she’s doing alright today, living on her own again. But for my first year in town, I lived with her in her house in the suburbs, doing what I could to help her recover from a harrowing time. I was a grocery shopper, a driver to doctors’ appointments, a medication dispensary, a dining companion and anything else I could be as she gradually regained her strength. It was a privilege and an invaluable experience to be able to show up for my mother like this.
During that first year at mom’s house, I also managed to hustle up enough work to enable me to move into my own apartment when mom was ready to be on her own. And so began what I’ve come to call the Cleveland Experiment.
In the fall of 2017, I had the good fortune of finding and moving into the nicest apartment I’ve ever had in the nicest building I’ve ever lived in. In Cleveland terms, this brand new, 1,000 sq ft, a one-bedroom loft in a converted warehouse in Downtown Cleveland sits on the “luxury” spectrum, but for a New Yorker, it’s a bargain at $1,450/month. (And did I mention I have a washer and dryer in my unit?) The process of moving wasn’t too stressful, but there were times where it felt like there was too much to do. From packing and labeling items to making sure everywhere was clean/repaired and getting in touch with companies like Cars Arrive Auto Relocation to help transport my vehicle to the new house, moving could have been a lot worse. But it was all worth it in the end.
All told, the Cleveland Experiment has had ups and downs. A consistent silver lining throughout has been my living situation. When I’ve shared photos online, friends from New York have virtually salivated over what I’ve got. A great apartment is a crowning achievement of New York living, and my current situation in a New York context would make heads explode. It’s a stunning repurposing of a century-old warehouse complex that includes an exquisitely landscaped courtyard with fire pits and grills, a dog courtyard, a huge “living room” lounge with work tables and a bar, dry cleaning service and a roof deck. Many units have patios and balconies. To top it off, the building management should win an award for its attentiveness and proficiency. If my building and all its amenities were transplanted to Chelsea or Brooklyn, the rent for my suite would easily be north of $5,000/month.
It’s a great apartment. An amazing apartment, actually. And in an absolutely fabulous building. But there is more to life than a fabulous apartment.
In spite of my glorious living situation, other aspects of my Cleveland Experiment have me missing New York very much. This is not to say that Cleveland isn’t a great town to live in. It is. But as time goes on, against the backdrop of my own life experience, I find myself hitting walls – professionally, socially, geographically.
Professionally, I haven’t really found a groove in Cleveland. I’m a creative in the shape of an actor, a writer and a creative consultant of sorts. There is work, but it isn’t very lucrative. As a one-man band, I don’t want ten clients, which is what I’d need to do if I really wanted to fly here. I want two or three really good ones. The money people are willing to spend, whether it’s for social media, content creation, magazine writing or new media (all of which I’ve done here), really adds up to “survive” money as opposed to “thrive” money. I’ve written before that Cleveland is cheap. It is. But for a creative, it can be cheap in more ways than one.
As an actor, I’ve had more work here in the last two years than I had in the last five in New York, especially with voiceovers. It’s been nice to get back into that game. But the fees for the work in this market are very low. In the two years since I signed with my agent, I’ve seen maybe two or three jobs that pay a fee with an actual comma in it. And after the agency takes its 20%, it’s even less exciting.
In the last two years, I worked briefly as a contributing writer and editor of a local magazine, also often taking the accompanying photographs. In that time, I was also the proud co-host of the first podcast produced by WCPN, Cleveland’s NPR station. It was about Downtown Cleveland. In addition to co-hosting with the amazing Amy Eddings, I designed the show’s logo and branding, co-wrote copy, authored one of the episode companion essays, took photos, launched and managed the show’s social media. Between the two of us, Amy and I worked our asses off and created a great show with really engaging conversations.
Just for fun, I also work a few nights each week as a manager in a popular restaurant up the street, which is a low-commitment job that offers engagement with polite society and an opportunity to practice jokes and social skills. It’s not a huge check, but I don’t expect it to be. I basically do it to get out of the house.
This is not to say I haven’t enjoyed the work I’ve done here. I have. Even the restaurant gig puts me in front of some interesting characters, which can be fun. And I’ve made some nice connections with some truly fantastic people. But the problem is that none of these connections and experiences seem to lead to a sustaining paycheck for a guy with my skill set. The compensation is more commensurate with a hobby, a side hustle or a supplement to something else that actually pays the rent and the health insurance premium.
I wrote a piece last year suggesting that Cleveland is a very affordable and wide open option for freelancers who aren’t tethered to a specific geography. As a creative freelancer, this has been my experience. But my highest ticket clients whose retainers pay my bills are based in New York and elsewhere, not here. When I have a meeting with a prospective Cleveland-based client, I go in with very careful expectations about the ratio of the budget and the scope of work.
Along with the professional and financial, there are some social issues for me. To be clear: Cleveland is a great city with a lot going for it. And its renaissance/rebirth is a great boon for a town that’s had some real challenges. But Cleveland is a place best enjoyed by heterosexual sports fanatics who eat meat, love drinking, live in athletic casuals, drive a car (the bigger, the better) and work in banking, commercial real estate, healthcare, insurance, law or some form of sales. Unfortunately, I’m none of those things and I’ve had, to be honest, a really hard time fitting in and finding a groove here, especially as a sober man in a town with a lot of people who drink like it’s a job. I’ve met some wonderful people, and I adore my neighbors. But in terms of a best friend or a buddy, it’s been a lonely haul.
As most people know, I don’t have a car. Unfortunately for me, Cleveland and its surrounding areas are built for sprawl, all best accessed by an automobile. Without one, even with Uber and Lyft, it can be hard to enjoy all of the great things about Cleveland. Public transit funding and infrastructure in Cleveland is pretty dismal, producing a questionably reliable system that might (or might not) take you where you need to go. For the basics, like grocery or pharmacy, it’s all pretty doable in Downtown Cleveland, even though there is no proper bicycling infrastructure to speak of, downtown or anywhere else in the city, for that matter. But in a downtown that stumbles with the language of “walkable, workable, livable city,” I still need to borrow a car to do several things like taking my dogs to the vet because there isn’t one nearby. In general, you can’t really “wander” here and stumble into something without a car. There are some nice local features, but without a car, one’s access to Cleveland’s disconnected pockets of wonderful is limited. This is a car-dependent town. Based on the evidence and the lack of any real observable action suggesting otherwise, it probably always will be.
And about that sprawl… I grew up in suburbia, and I lived in suburbia for my first year back in town. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the suburbs, and a lot of people seem to really like them. But here’s my problem: I hate suburbs. If I never had to step foot in one again, I’d be totally fine. And the Cleveland experience is all about the suburbs and single-family homes and lawns and the need to get into a car for absolutely everything from going out to dinner to getting a tube of toothpaste. That’s just not a value system or model of living that works for me. My family, a lot of old friends and some fabulous people are out in the suburbs, and it’s always nice to be invited to this and that, but there is absolutely nothing new anyone can try to sell me about suburban life. I want nothing to do with it.
I love city living. I love being within walking distance from any cuisine, from Central Park, from a movie theater, from a pharmacy, from an intimate café… I love being able to take my dogs for their last walk at 11:00pm, bump into a neighbor, share some local gossip and duck into the neighborhood pizzeria for a slice or the corner bodega for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. That doesn’t happen in Cleveland, where most people are in a car, where everything except a bar or a nightclub seems to close at 9:30, where “vibrancy” is equated with partying like it’s 1999. When I take the dogs out here at 11:00pm, I feel like Will Smith in I Am Legend. In the interest of a positive and thriving city experience for a guy who likes density and doesn’t do car or suburbs, I’m not feeling it.
Again, I think Cleveland is a great town doing some amazing things as it works to reinvent itself. I would encourage anyone who is looking for a nice quality of life and a good bang for the buck in a small/medium size suburban town to give Cleveland a look. And God help a non-Clevelander or anyone who’s never been here who tries to badmouth it in front of me. But after three years, going all-in with the total experience, I’m feeling like I’m in a relationship that just isn’t working. It’s a relationship with which I’ve really tried hard. So, no, Cleveland, it’s not you. It’s me. I’m a city boy at heart, and I miss it terribly.
As I re-read my original posts about leaving New York from three years ago, I’ve had to ask myself some hard questions about what would be different if I went back. I can’t just do the same thing or have the same outlook and expect a different result. I still stand by the words I wrote then, but I’m sitting here with three years in Cleveland after twenty-two years in Manhattan, which has inevitably created a different lens and a considerable shift in my perspective. Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have until we lose it.
Yes, New York is crowded. But I miss that density where you can hear five different languages in the span of a city block. Yes, New York is dirty and messy. But it always has been (it’s kinda in the brochure). Yes, New York changes. But it always has and always will, which is part of what makes it work. Yes, New York and its residents have an attitude. But so do I (even though the myth that New Yorkers aren’t nice is just that: a myth). Yes, New York is fast-paced. But I’m decisive and impatient. Yes, New Yorkers say the F-word a lot. But “fuck” is one of my favorites.
During my last weeks in the city before I moved back to Cleveland, I was out with my cousin at a television premiere. We were all dressed up and starving, opting to leave the party and head to Veselka in the East Village for some quality late night delicatessen. When we got there, we were joined by the show’s director and some old industry people I hadn’t seen in ages, laughing and sharing stories about new projects, insider dish and whatnot. It was like a scene in a Woody Allen movie. I shared a cab home with an old friend who was with us. In the cab, before I dropped her off, we talked about hanging out more and possibly working together. (She didn’t know I was thinking of leaving New York, and I didn’t have the gumption to bring it up at the time.)
So many amazing things that happened for me in New York were sparked from nights like that. Acting gigs, other work opportunities, friendships… It’s a city about connections, opportunities and relationships. And only in a city with a density like that, where you can be walking with a friend and run into another friend and get invited to something that could change your night or even your life, can that happen. Yes, one needs the skills and the wherewithal to pull off the opportunities that came from those situations. But the keys are the opportunities, and New York is loaded with them if you know what to do.
After I dropped my friend off on her street, the cab continued up Tenth Avenue to my apartment. On that ride, looking out the window at the city passing by, I felt unbearably sad, knowing that that kind of night – the most recent of many – would never happen in Cleveland. But at the time, I had to go.
I love Cleveland. I really do. But my time growing up here, until I went away to college at 18, was time I associate with my father, who died during my freshman year. Since then, my visits had been Christmases, a week or so in the summer, the occasional wedding and several funerals, the hardest of which was the burial of my beloved stepfather, Bob Scott, in 2015. Cleveland often feels like an emotional cemetery for me, full of emotional landmines that blow up unexpectedly. Just the other day, I started to cry as I walked past my dad’s old office in the Hanna Building in Downtown Cleveland, remembering the days he used to bring me to work with him when I was little. That kind of thing happens more than I’d like to admit.
I’ve also mourned my mom’s decline. Even though she made a miraculous recovery from the health scare that propelled me back here, she’s “getting up there,” as we say, and is declining in other ways. It’s hard. But she’s doing alright, all things considered. As for help from her children, my two brothers and their wives live within a mile of her house, and my oldest sister and her husband are just a few miles further. (I, the one who lives downtown, am actually the furthest away.)
So here I am, missing New York and wanting to go back. Overall, my Cleveland Experiment has been totally fine, truly. I just miss the city. This places a great deal of work in front of me and a lot of feelers to put out. If I had an opportunity that enabled me to trade my beautiful 1,000 sq ft converted warehouse apartment in Downtown Cleveland for a 500 sq ft studio in my old neighborhood in Hell’s Kitchen, I’d start packing tomorrow. For the moment, my job is to find or create such an opportunity. And I will. An upbringing in Cleveland and two and a half decades in New York taught me how.