Where the Urban Dream Life Is Going Cheap

New York is all about what could be,” says David Cloyd, a 34-year-old musician who moved to the city from Austin ten years ago. “You know: The potential. The possibilities.” He’s echoing, of course, the aspirational mantra that’s lured a million hopeful dreamers to New York before him. And in exchange for this promise of limitless possibility, this tantalizing what-could-be, New York requires of these dreamers that they pursue two simultaneous lives: the romantic, invigorating, spectacular life you imagine for yourself, and the expensive, often dispiriting, intermittently grueling day-to-day life you have to lead in order to keep that dream life alive. This is exhilarating. This is exhausting. This is what New York is all about.

And for Cloyd, at least, all those possibilities finally seem within reach. After moving to Brooklyn, he met his wife, Jaime Herbeck, a managing editor at Picador. He’s been signed to a New York label, Engine Company, and his first album, Unhand Me, You Fiend!, is scheduled to come out in January. Now the couple is thinking about kids. What could be!

Except that this musician, David Cloyd?

Um, he doesn’t live in New York anymore.

He lives in Buffalo.

Until last May, Cloyd and Herbeck were living in Sunset Park, in Brooklyn, and they were barely making it. They ate mac ’n’ cheese for dinner. They couldn’t afford to go out with their friends. They wanted a family, but “there was no room in our Brooklyn equation to have kids unless we put them in a closet,” Herbeck says.

Then one night, Herbeck, who’s 30, found herself browsing online listings in Buffalo. (Why Buffalo? She comes from Buffalo. And like many young Buffalonians, she got out as soon as she could.) “We were like, ‘Okay, the prices are great,’” she says. So they looked at some photos. “And we were like, ‘Okay, they’re really nice apartments. They’re really big. And right by the park.’”

And all of a sudden, they found they were staring at a very different what-could-be life: the one they’d be able to have if they were willing to leave New York.

So they traded their one-and-a-half-bedroom apartment in Sunset Park—the one they describe as “disgusting and so small and just awful,” and for which they paid $1,300 a month plus an extra hundred for a storage space because the landlady wouldn’t let them use their own basement—for a three-bedroom apartment on a tree-lined street with a living room, a dining room, a basement, a front and back porch, stained-glass windows, and a separate office for Herbeck. All that goes for $795 a month, a price that, Herbeck points out somewhat sheepishly, as though she’s revealing a guilty indulgence, is at the top end of the rental market in Buffalo. But can you believe it—an actual office! With French doors that open out to the back porch that she can leave propped open all day. “My old ‘office,’ ” she says, “was a desk crammed into the living room next to the TV.” Now Herbeck can work at home doing freelance proofreading for her old employer while Cloyd teaches music lessons—something he couldn’t do in New York, not with all the competition—and still has plenty of time left over to get his album ready for its release.

In the end, it came down to a simple decision. “Do we want to move to an apartment that’s a lot less space for a whole lot more money, just to stay in New York City?” says Herbeck. “Or do we want to change our lives completely?”

Welcome to Buffalo.

Some people will read this as a story of defeat. They will look at Herbeck and Cloyd and think, They came; they couldn’t cut it; good riddance. That’s also a familiar New York narrative, one that’s especially comforting to those of us who stay and stick it out. Because, sure, stained glass and spare bedrooms are nice and all, but no one moves to New York because they think they’re going to get a great bargain on an apartment. You move here because you want to live in New York City.

But I am here to tell you that this is not a story of defeat. Rather, it’s a story about choices. It’s a story about reaching that pivotal moment when the dream life you imagined for yourself in New York no longer seems attainable or attractive, or simply no longer seems worth the wearying chase. It’s a story, admittedly, about the kinds of people who have the luxury to move away, just as they once had the luxury to choose to move here; that is, people not pulled to one city or another by family obligation or job transferral, but rather by some grander idea of who they are and where they might best fit. (Then again, if you ask Cloyd and Herbeck about their choice to leave, I doubt they’d use the word luxury. In fact, they’d started to worry, back in Sunset Park, that with all their expenses they wouldn’t be able to afford to move at all. That they’d be stuck in New York.)

Living in New York may be more expensive than ever, but let’s face it, it’s always been hard. That, oddly, is part of its appeal. You test yourself against the stresses of the city. If it’s not the expense, it’s the overcrowding. If not the overcrowding, then the crime. If not the crime, then the tension, or the roaches, or the smells, or the guy screaming obscenities at you for no reason on the stifling subway platform while you wait for a train that’s jam-packed and twenty minutes late.

So people talk idly of leaving. They talk of Portland, or Berlin, or Toronto. (Okay, I talk of Toronto.) Or they secretly hold on to their own personal Buffalo: a hometown they occasionally investigate, just to check in on housing prices. They imagine new lives for themselves in a kinder, cheaper, easier, more manageable mini–New York. A place that’s cosmopolitan but not nearly as crowded. A city with a few good, if not world-class, restaurants. And maybe some extra alluring touch that’s peculiar to their tastes: an intriguing arts scene that’s just under the radar, or easy access to tall trees and open air, or the promise of a backyard that’s bigger than a Twister board.

But the problem is, you can’t simply leave New York—you have to quit New York. You have to admit to yourself and the world that you’re packing it in, calling it a day, turning out the lights. You have to walk away from, as Joan Didion put it, “the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.” (It should be noted she wrote that in an essay about her decision to leave New York.)

So what about you? Can you, oh jaded New Yorker, imagine yourself living somewhere else? And if so, can you imagine that somewhere being a place like Buffalo?

I know it may not be the most natural nor appealing destination. Buffalo knows this, too. But Buffalo would like you to give it another look. To this end, a few hopeful locals have organized an annual weekend-long event called Buffalo Homecoming, the point of which is to lure you to Buffalo and entice you to consider moving there.

Which is how I found myself spending a long weekend this summer at Buffalo’s Hampton Inn & Suites, planning to interrogate some actual ex–New Yorkers who’d relocated, or were thinking of relocating, to Buffalo. The hotel is in downtown Buffalo, which, like many downtowns in many midsize former industrial powerhouses turned postindustrial afterthoughts, is a sketchy patchwork: grand and impressive turn-of-the-century architecture (like the monumental Art Deco City Hall), nondescript, boxy, this-could-be-anywhere office buildings, and looming gaps in the skyline that give the impression of missing teeth in an untended smile.

Buffalo has seen hard times for a long time, but as a city, it has reason for new hope. The popularity of the book The Rise of the Creative Class, by Richard Florida, released in 2002—the first of four books by Florida on the imperative for cities to attract a certain kind of young creative professional—has given places like Buffalo a blueprint for economic revival. When I interviewed Buffalo’s mayor, Byron Brown, he quoted directly from the Florida playbook. The city is striving to be more bike friendly. It’s supporting co-op housing for artists as a way to draw people back downtown. “We have all the amenities to attract the creative class, and to build on the creative class that already exists here,” said Brown. The good news is that Buffalo has qualities that tend to attract creative people: cheap rents, derelict industrial buildings, the romantic aura of a faded empire. The bad news is that a lot of other Rust Belt cities do, too, so Buffalo competes with every Pittsburgh and Milwaukee and Toledo on the map. In The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida ranked the attractiveness of American cities using both a “Tolerance Index” and a “Creativity Index.” Out of 49 cities, Buffalo ranked 47th in tolerance and 48th in creativity.

Here are a few things you probably know about Buffalo: It snows a lot. It’s the birthplace of Buffalo chicken wings. The Bills, the local NFL team, are famous for losing the Super Bowl four times. In a row.

Here are a few things you probably don’t know about Buffalo: The city’s median income is $28,000, and with nearly 30 percent of its citizens below the poverty line, Buffalo is the second poorest city in America. (Number one: Detroit.) The median home price is just $60,000. (“And if you spent $300,000,” says Mayor Brown, “you’d be close to living in a mansion.”) In 2007, the American Planning Association named Elmwood Village in Buffalo one of America’s “Ten Great Neighborhoods.” (Also named: Park Slope.) In 1901, Buffalo was the eighth largest city in America, a booming industrial metropolis, and the site of the World’s Fair. By 2008, thanks to white flight and industrial decay, its population had dropped by half, from a mid-century high of 580,000 to about 270,000—fewer people, in fact, than lived there in 1901. As a result, large tracts of Buffalo are essentially abandoned, turned into “urban prairie,” full of boarded-up buildings and weedy vacant lots. The silver lining of this exodus is that you can drive anywhere in Buffalo in ten minutes or less, a fact that was repeated to me often by local boosters, including the mayor, which always struck me as odd—like claiming the best thing about living in a ghost town is that there’s never a line at the movie theater.

My first appointment is a lunch with Dean Brownrout and Jana Eisenberg, a couple in their mid-forties who moved from New York City six years ago. He’s from Buffalo, she was raised in L.A.; they met in New York. He was in the music business (he signed the Goo Goo Dolls to their first professional contract); she was a freelance proofreader.

Brownrout moved to New York in the early eighties, fulfilling his promise to himself to get out of Buffalo by the time he turned 21. He remembers living in Soho in 1983, back when “I had the largest place I would ever have in New York and I paid the least amount of money. By the time we left in 2002”—when he was living in a bachelor pad near Union Square—“I was paying the most I’d ever paid for the least amount of space I’d ever had.” They moved to Buffalo almost a year to the day after September 11; when I ask why, Brownrout says, “A big plane flew into a big building. Priorities changed. We got married.” They thought about New Orleans. They thought about upstate New York. Then one day Brownrout’s mother phoned and suggested, “Why don’t you move back to Buffalo?” “And for the first time in twenty years,” he says, “I thought, That’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard.

“Look, it wasn’t like we were sick of New York,” Brownrout continues. “It wasn’t like, ‘Wake up and smell the urine—let’s get out of here!’ We love New York! But we decided to try something else.” Now they live at what he describes as “one of the nicest addresses in the city,” a sixteenth-floor apartment that costs $500 less a month than what he paid for his bachelor pad in New York and from which, on a clear day, you can see the mist coming off Niagara Falls. Brownrout works as an art dealer, specializing in vintage art from western New York, so the couple spends a lot of time at the celebrated Albright-Knox Art Gallery, situated right by Delaware Park—elegantly designed, like several parks in Buffalo, by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Not that there aren’t trade-offs to their new lives. When I ask them what they miss most about New York, they answer immediately, “the restaurants.” (Poking at my gummy pad Thai, I silently commiserate.) When Eisenberg got a job writing theater reviews for a local paper, Brownrout would only grudgingly accompany her to shows. “I’d just be sitting there thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I saw Malkovich in Burn This,’ ” he says.

“I don’t miss my old life in New York. I only miss the life in New York I know I never would have had.”

But when I ask Eisenberg what she misses most about New York, she says, “I don’t miss my old life in New York. I only miss the life in New York I know I never would have had.” What they’ve done instead is construct a life in Buffalo that is, ironically, much closer to the New York life they once imagined for themselves than their actual New York life ever was, or ever would be.

Newell Nussbaumer has never lived in New York City. He has not, in fact, lived anywhere for any significant amount of time outside of Buffalo. But if I’d met him out of context, I’d have assumed he lived in San Diego and spent his nights sleeping on his surfboard on the beach. Nussbaumer, who’s 40, arrives at my hotel on Saturday morning wearing blue-tinted sunglasses, his blond hair pulled back in a short ponytail. He’s riding a tandem bicycle with his girlfriend, Amelia Schineller, on the back. Nussbaumer is the publisher of Buffalo Rising, a free monthly magazine and Website he started in 2003, mostly because he realized that there wasn’t a single media outlet in the city that ever said anything upbeat about Buffalo.

As we head out on our scheduled bike tour—Nussbaumer, Schineller, their friend Tim, and a couple named Jason and Sara—it quickly becomes apparent that, in his capacity as media mogul and tireless advocate and general dude-about-town, Nussbaumer’s become a kind of unofficial mayor of Buffalo. Every few blocks we pass someone who waves and shouts, “Hey, Newell!” or “What’s up, Newell!” Suddenly, a thought occurs to me: If I lived in a place like Buffalo, I could be Newell Nussbaumer, too.

And that’s before we arrive at Newell Beach.

It’s not officially called Newell Beach. That’s just what his girlfriend calls it. (The term makes him squirm, actually.) But as we park our bikes and look over this small, 150-foot patch of sand, where the boulders and deadwood and debris have been cleared away, right there on the rocky shore of Lake Erie, it’s quite clear that, were it not for Nussbaumer, this beach would not exist. Because Nussbaumer got it in his head one day that the good people of Buffalo deserved a beach. So he went to City Hall, met with the appropriate councilman, and convinced that guy, too.

Voilà: Newell Beach.

“You see all kinds of people here now,” Nussbaumer says. “I met a guy from the inner city who brought his daughter down here, and she was building a sand castle. He said to me, ‘She’s never in her life been to a beach before.’ ”

And here’s the thing: You can bike around Buffalo and point to a lot of things and say, “Newell Nussbaumer did that.” That week he’d been to City Hall with a group of cycling advocates and had persuaded the city to convert some of its old parking meters to bike stands, which is part of his grand scheme to make Buffalo the most bike-friendly city in North America. (Current title holder: Portland, Oregon.) Later, at the offices of Buffalo Rising, Nussbaumer explains how most of his staff are unpaid interns, who work for free not because they’re hoping to scrabble their way up some media ladder (in Buffalo, that ladder has no rungs) but because, as he says, “they know they’re helping to create this city where they want to live.” I think of the many valiant unpaid interns I’ve known in New York, and while most of them were working hard to create their own lives, not one of them (or at least not the sane ones) imagined they were helping to create New York City.

After further consideration, I doubt I could become Newell Nussbaumer if I moved to Buffalo, because that job is clearly taken. And I have to admit that the small-town, everyone-knows-your-name thing doesn’t appeal to me—escaping this is, in fact, a big reason why people move away from a place like Buffalo and go to a place like New York. But we tend to think that one of the consequences of leaving New York is giving up all sorts of opportunities. And yet, one quality common to everyone I meet in Buffalo is that, like Nussbaumer, they see opportunity everywhere. Where you see a boarded-up building, they see a future arts co-op. They use the phrases blank canvas or blank slate a lot. For example, there’s the abandoned police station we spotted across the street on the last stop of our bike tour. It’s a squat, single-story building, overgrown with weeds, straight out of some end-of-civilization zombie movie, right down to the PO ICE station sign with the missing L. This vision struck me, the New Yorker, as hugely depressing: an overt sign of Buffalo’s decline—look, even the cops packed up and took off.

The Buffalonians, however, saw it differently.

“That is so cool,” said Tim.

“We should take that building, do something with it,” said Jason.

“We should make it into a club!” said Tim. “We could call it the Station.”

“It’s crying out to be something,” Jason said.

If you’re really interested in Buffalo’s sense of possibility, you should talk to Lesley Maia Horowitz. She’s a petite woman in her mid-forties, with sandy-blonde hair and a fondness for funky miniskirts. She grew up in Buffalo, a typical misfit, the one who worshipped David Bowie and swooned for the local punk rocker, then got the hell out as soon as she could. Now she lives in Manhattan. She and her partner, Dominic Sinesio, have, if I may say, a very glammy-glam New York life. They run the design firm OfficeLab. They specialize in brand management, and they’ve handled, among others, the branding of the Soho Grand and the Hotel on Rivington. Horowitz’s current New York life is, I imagine, not that different from the one she once imagined for herself when she was plotting her escape from Buffalo.

And yet, almost every weekend, she flies back home. She’s not exactly sure why. But her stab at an explanation sounds familiar to me. “This place just feels like there’s so much still left to the imagination,” she says.

Horowitz has, for example, befriended a guy named Aaron Bartley who runs an organization called PUSH Buffalo. Bartley, who’s 33, grew up in Buffalo, went to Harvard Law, got involved in community organizing in Boston, then moved back to Buffalo to see if he could put the city’s abandoned buildings to good use. (There are roughly 10,000 abandoned houses in the city, half of which are now on an official to-be-demolished list.) PUSH takes ownership of these derelict houses, fixes them up, then moves in a family in need of a home. The family pays rent into an escrow fund, and after two years, the money can be used as a down payment on a house of their own.

On my last day, Horowitz and Bartley take me on a tour of one of the most depressed parts of the city. It seems a strange way to end my visit, but fitting as well, as these neighborhoods, with their rows of empty houses each available for $1, represent exactly the kind of possibilities that drew the two of them back.

“It would be easy to make Buffalo the new Williamsburg,” says Bartley as we drive down another abandoned avenue. “There’s already a good arts scene, and you could easily import one tenth of Brooklyn here. But for me, the challenge is, I think this city can be something more than that.”

He doesn’t yet know exactly what. He, like everyone else in Buffalo, is in the process of finding out.

When we think about leaving New York, we usually think about what we would lose, and rarely about what we might gain. To that end, prospective destinations are measured by how similar they are to here. Philadelphia is New York, but cheaper. San Francisco is New York, but gentler. It’s the “squint” factor: Well, if I squint, it’s like New York, sort of, and I guess I can live with that. When I went to Buffalo, I expected that to be the sales pitch: It’s a mini big city with parks by Olmsted, a few very nice neighborhoods and a really good museum. It’s pseudo–New York! This, after all, is how struggling cities sell themselves, especially in the post–Creative Class world, as though they’re designer-knockoff versions of more attractive destinations. We’ve got many of the things you love, at a fraction of the price!

But that’s not what I found in Buffalo. I found it appealing for a different reason: not for how similar it is to New York (which is not very), but for how different. New York will always offer you the singular opportunity of testing yourself against the best, of sharpening yourself against the city’s fabled grindstone. Hopeful people will always scrape together their savings to come here, to split a one-bedroom apartment with five other people, whether that’s in Greenwich Village (then) or Bushwick (now). But New York, for all its mythology, is no longer a frontier. Buffalo is a frontier. And when you think of the actual frontier, you’ll recall that no one ever packed up and moved West to a gold-rush town because they heard it had really good local theater. They moved looking for opportunities. They moved for the chance to build a new life for themselves.

This, ironically, has always been the siren song of New York City: the chance to turn yourself into someone new, to live the life you’ve always imagined. But what a city like Buffalo offers is a very different promise of what could be. It offers the chance to live on the cheap and start a nonprofit organization, or rent an abandoned church for $1,000 a month, or finish your album without having to hold down two temp jobs at the same time, or simply have more space and a better view and enough money left over each month to buy yourself a painting once in awhile. A city like Buffalo reminds you that, beyond New York, there are still frontiers.

David Cloyd and Jaime Herbeck still think about living in New York. If money had not been an issue, they say they would never have left. But when I ask Herbeck what she’d say to anyone else thinking of leaving, she responds with something obvious but which, in the struggle to craft our New York existences, we often disregard. “Just remember that there are other places,” she says, “and other people live there, with perfectly happy lives.”

As for Cloyd, he doesn’t feel like he gave up on New York or that it gave up on him. Rather, having moved away, he gets to enjoy the best gift the city gave him. “I feel like I’ve been wearing a suit of chain mail for the past ten years,” he says. “Now that I’ve left, I can finally take it off. And I get to enjoy my strength.”

Where the Urban Dream Life Is Going Cheap