I Thought I Wasn’t A City Person—Turns Out, I Just Wanted A Smaller City

published Jul 2, 2019
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When I was in high school, a classmate told me that I couldn’t handle living in a big city. Meaning, I wouldn’t be successful there, that I couldn’t make friends or handle a big-time job. I was appalled. I made my Facebook status Taylor Swift lyrics: “Someday I’ll be living in a big old city, and all you’re ever gonna be is mean” (a real anthem, honestly). I chatted endlessly with my friends about how offended I was. And, naturally, I then made up my mind that I had to live in a big city. And I had to love it.

By the time I graduated college, I had spent an entire year studying abroad, traveling to some of the world’s biggest cities. I maintained the opinion of my 15-year-old self: I was destined to live in a big city. When I got a job offer in New York, I said yes without a second thought, and imagined laughing in that high school guy’s face. Even as I spent my first night in the city crying—my mom helped me move into a 200-square-foot studio apartment and I realized that I knew no one and nothing about Manhattan, and that my rent was an entire paycheck and then some—I still felt confident that the feeling would pass. I would make friends. I would watch Sex & The City. I would love New York. I had to.

As time went on, I made a couple friends, I moved to a new apartment, and my longtime boyfriend (soon, fiancé) moved in with me. We got a dog. We got promotions. We were doing well, all things considered. But still, after three years, when people from back home would ask me how New York was, I couldn’t answer honestly. I mean, sure, it was fine. I had a job I really liked, an apartment with a cool view, a family unit I loved. I could navigate the city easily. I had some favorite spots. But when people would look at me and say, “So, do you just love it?,” I could never bring myself to say yes. I felt lucky to be living there and to be surviving it all, but I didn’t love it.

So when a major life event forced me to reevaluate what I wanted out of life, I began to accept that maybe I didn’t really like city living at all. My fiancé and I started to talk about moving, and my mind immediately went to the exact opposite of Manhattan. I had fantasies about opening my front door to go on a walk, maybe waving to a neighbor or two, then enjoying a long stroll without seeing another soul. I dreamt about silence, and being able to look out of the kitchen window and see nothing but trees and sky (or to even have a kitchen window at all). I let myself wonder if that stupid kid in high school was right: Sure, I loved coffee shops and boutiques and being able to walk to happy hour at my favorite bar, but maybe I wanted that quiet rural life even more.

Moving out of New York is a process, though, and we weren’t in a position financially to buy a house anywhere, let alone one with land. What we needed was something in between—somewhere that wasn’t New York, but where we could save money and commute into the city as needed while we made long-term plans. Somewhere closer to friends and family.

We chose Philadelphia.

The plan was to move to Philly until we saved enough money to buy a house with acreage and silence and maybe a nice neighbor or two. But once we settled in, my fiancé and I found ourselves talking about that future house less and less, and how much we liked Philly more and more. We don’t have a backyard yet, but we have neighbors who know our names and invite us over for drinks on Friday nights. I don’t have an unobstructed view of nature from my kitchen, but I do have a huge window that I’ve filled with plants. We don’t have the Met five blocks away, but we do have great restaurants and bars within walking distance—and the people who work there are now our friends, too. I have to say no to a lot of those high-profile New York events now, but I happily say yes to staying home and sitting on our front porch with wine. And I love it. When people ask me how I’m liking Philly, I don’t hesitate or pause or say, “It’s OK for now.” I answer immediately and fully: I love it. I do.

There is a popular narrative in television and film that New York is magical. That everyone who lives there is a small yet important cog in this giant, hulking bundle of energy. I used to believe that narrative—at least the first part—was bullshit. New York wasn’t magical at all: For me it was always more weird smells and sweating on the subway than it was twinkle lights and skylines. Looking back now, I think I had that wrong (although, let’s be clear: there are definitely a lot of weird smells). New York is magical, in its own weird, hard way. It’s much more sharp edges than it is warm fuzzies, but the city is still wonderful and alive. However, in order to truly love New York, and not just respect it, you have to abandon the idea that you’re really part of it at all. Because you aren’t. New York doesn’t need any of us, and I certainly didn’t feel like it needed me. I spent so many years failing at feeling at home there that I thought I needed to be in the middle of nowhere to be happy. Turns out, I just wanted something in between.

There’s a lot of pressure on all of us to know instinctively where we’ll be happiest. You’re led to believe you should know in your core whether you’re more of a mountain person or an ocean person, whether you’re built to thrive surrounded by ample tranquil space or an endless herd of people. In reality, I think we’re all probably somewhere in between. I put so much pressure on myself to love New York and to be a “city” person that I didn’t even let myself consider if another, smaller city would make me happier. It was easier to just accept that I was one or the other than to try to find something that worked in between.

I still sometimes think about living somewhere with more space or more land or more trees, but I think about it less than I used to. It’s not because I still don’t love those things, but because I feel connected to where I live now. I feel like I’m a part of my street, my community, my neighborhood. I’m in it. Weird city smells and all.