If you want to live in an uncool place there are some tremendous advantages that come with it. I’m talking really uncool places, not the type of places where great masses of hipsters congregate to demonstrate their individuality by being different together, but really living in a place that other people stay away from in droves.
One advantage which comes from living in a supremely uncool place is that it tends to be inexpensive. Most of what follows is an explanation of how I became so twisted that life in a decaying northeastern industrial city just seemed better to me than any of the alternatives. In the end, it has meant that I’ve been able to live well beyond my means while staying well within my means.
This thing I have for cities, my love of urban life in general, and of downtown Springfield in particular is something that has been a part of me for about as long as I can remember. When I was in junior high my mom decided to get a part time job and she chose to work for a local retail establishment that had two outlets; one at a mall, and the other downtown. The idea for her was as much about getting out of the house as it was about making money and it was spurred on, in part at least, by the fact that I, the youngest of her children, was leaving elementary school. I think it was that little twinge she felt knowing that on some days I would come home to an empty house that caused her to leave me bus money to visit her at work once in a while.
While the impressions left me by these events are deep, my memories of them are vague. There was, at that time, a more elaborated bus system in the city, one which wasn’t totally reliant on the “spoke and hub” concept which now exists and so travel to both locations was easy enough for a twelve year old to handle. The mall had a t-shirt shop, and there were girls there. Apart from that, I just remember being bored. Downtown, though, there was something energizing about the people and the buses and the storefronts and the buildings. When I would leave the shop and begin to explore the streets right around it, I felt as though I was part of something larger and grander than myself. I don’t know how I would have said it then, but I know that I would have told you that I thought downtown was cool.
In high school I always wanted a window seat on the bus, true story, so that I could see both what was going on on Main Street as the bus came in to the downtown from the South End, and so that I could keep up with the changes in the streetscape that were happening every day it seemed back then. I honestly didn’t think of this behavior as unusual until one kid on the bus said to me: “Shultis, why are you always looking out the window?” I told him. I don’t remember how he responded.
I went away after high school graduation, but after 5 years in Utah and in Spain I knew that I wanted to return to Springfield and live downtown. I was newly married at the time and was not finished with my education and it turned out that with two full time jobs and a full time university schedule we could still get by with one car because we were living downtown. The truth is, it would have been fairly easy to get by without any car, but it was nice to have, and as that 10 year old Toyota Corolla had been a gift from my mother (All that “Leprechaun Shop” money I bet!), it didn’t require a huge financial sacrifice.
Apartments downtown provided great access to cheap public transportation, AND I could work in the same neighborhood where I lived and not have to pay anything in commuter costs. All that and the apartments themselves were cheap. They were inexpensive because demand for them was low. The “constantly changing streetscapes” I mentioned earlier were a function of a time in the late seventies when there was a boom in downtown construction and renovation. The push to bring people back to the downtown led to at least three very large apartment complexes coming into existence downtown: Morgan Square, Armory Commons, and Stockbridge Court. Apart from that there were a handful of smaller residential projects which came online at more or less the same time. All together they constituted an over-build of moderate proportions which lead to downtown housing being relatively cheap.
This was “consumer surplus” run rampant for me! I could live in the place I most desired, and pay rent as though it were completely undesirable. Spectacular. Of course, it was a symptom of the fact that the city’s decline was continuing, but I had no control over that. When the time came for me to stop being a renter, and to become a homeowner I have to admit that I looked not only outside the downtown, but outside the city. As I have said before, although I knew I loved downtown, I wasn’t yet a crusader like I am now. We did look at a condominium complex which had been carved out of the bones of my old high school, but it was priced well beyond our means. At first. We went to view some units of the Classical Condominiums, but we could tell that the saleslady, perhaps rightly, didn’t take us very seriously as buyers. While we turned to other possible options a strange thing happened: demand for condos fell off a cliff statewide as a part of a general real estate bust in Massachusetts and all of the vacant condos at Classical were going up for sale at auction.
We ended up getting one of the largest units in the place (1,500 sq ft) with an indoor parking space and a 500 sq ft “hobby room” for about 40% of the original asking price. We became “auction people”. Having plunked down perhaps more than twice as much for about half the space, some people in the complex, understandably, found our presence irksome. I don’t think it gave them any satisfaction to know that even the auction prices didn’t represent the bottom of the market, and nearly comparable units were bought for even less in succeeding years.
All the while my budding career in education had been progressing and I had managed, very much by accident really, to end up in the much better remunerated ranks of Connecticut teachers. Living so close to the Mass/Conn border I was able to engage in a sort of arbitrage in terms of my salary and my cost of living. While teaching is generally thought of as a modestly rewarded profession, Connecticut teachers are among the highest paid in the nation and a teacher can go from district to district as a “free agent” and look for a better deal. Being in a very high demand specialty I was able to more than quadruple my take home pay in a period of 9 years by going first from Massachusetts to Connecticut, and then to another district in Connecticut( and completing my Master’s in Spanish Literature). All the while paying on a mortgage well under $100,000. It pays to have strange taste.
Fast forward another decade, and I’m now living in a huge Victorian townhouse, one which gives my daughters their own separate space of around 1000 sq ft each, while my wife and stepdaughter (and I) occupy the two middle floors of the building. My wife telecommutes and I do a daily “reverse commute” ( no traffic) to the leafy green suburbs of northern Connecticut (about 15 minutes… No bus line…bummer). My youngest is still away at college most of the year, but my oldest just graduated and is running a budding art studio out of her basement space and works at the museum complex a block away to keep herself in brushes and pigment. My wife and I walk to our favorite German(actually my sister in law has found a better one),Italian, Mexican, Indian, and Lebanese restaurants when we feel peckish (“esurient, oohungry-like” or some Welsh word), we walk to do our banking, we walk to our favorite “entertainments”; and all for nearly nothing.
In conversation with colleagues I’ve determined that what I pay for my mortgage, property tax, and insurance is about half of what they pay for their mortgages alone. All because I love what they hate. I get all my trash and recycling picked up, my step-daughter gets full day kindergarten, and I get free admission to the Springfield Museums, while they get 1/2 day kindergarten, lug their own trash to the dump, and their towns don’t have museums.
I’m not going to lie. When I know that suburbanites are looking down their noses at me for the choice I’ve made to live in a beat up old city, call it schadenfreude if you will, but it makes me feel great to know that I not only love the life that I live, but their dislike of that life helps me to live it very cheaply.
And I can’t thank them enough for that!