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Brooklyn Couple Survives House-Hunting Trip to Jersey Suburbs
By Stuart Green and Jennifer Moses
26 March 2017
“To help you find your grassy niche, many brokers have expanded their services by offering seminars and guided tours of the suburbs, sometimes connecting buyers with their agent counterparts beyond the boroughs.” from “How to Pick the Right New York Suburb,” in The New York Times Real Estate section (March 19, 2017)
Larry Rabinowitz-Chen and his wife, Zephyr, had always loved their sun-filled, pre-war, 700-square foot, third-floor walkup in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. But with the arrival, in 2016, of triplets, Yoko, Binky, and Syd, they began to think the unthinkable: moving to the suburbs. Like many die-hard Brooklynites, they’d grown to love the vibe of their neighborhood: triple venti-soy-no foam lattes at Caffeine Heaven; fixed-gear bike shops; and diversity (where else could you find such a balanced mix of graduates of both the good and not-so-good Ivies?). Yet they knew they needed more space.
Where to start? Would the couple be able to find a town with just the right mix of locally-sourced vegan restaurants and kid-friendly houses of worship that would welcome atheists like themselves? And what about the commute? For Mr. Rabinowitz-Chen, a money manager at Vulture Management, a boutique hedge fund where he puts in 16-hour days, and Ms. Chen-Rabinowitz, a free-lance video game designer, close proximity to the city was a must.
Although the couple had once flown out of Newark Airport, and had of course taken the jitney to the Hamptons on numerous occasions, they were both perplexed and overwhelmed by the prospect of looking for a house in the suburbs. What to do? Where to turn? That’s when Ms. Rabinowitz-Chen stumbled upon an online ad for a workshop called “Beyond the Edge: Finding the Right Idyll for You and Your Family.”
The class met twice a week for two hours in the basement of the downtown Brooklyn ACLU office, serendipitously located just two subway stops from the couple’s home. The syllabus included such need-to-know topics as “The Big Yellow Bus: Is it Right for Your Child?,” “How to Walk Your Own Dog,” and “Neighbors: The People on the Other Side of the Fence.”
Buoyed by their new-found knowledge, the couple decided it was finally time to venture out. They’d heard some good things about the town of Montclair, NJ. “The therapist-to-resident ratio was comparable to what we’d known in Brooklyn,” Ms. Rabinowitz-Chen said. And the couple were particularly impressed by the fact that Montclair (median home price, $710,000) was considering declaring itself a “Sanctuary City.”
“Of course, we weren’t prepared to go out to God Knows Where on our own, where anything might happen,” said Mr. Rabinowitz-Chen. “So when we found out about Gentle Landings Orientation Center, we knew we’d be in good hands. Ninety dollars an hour for an engaged and knowledgeable tour guide seemed like a bargain.”
The 11-mile train trip on NJ Transit’s Montclair-Boonton line was a big step. “But, you know what?” Ms. Rabinowitz-Chen said, inhaling and exhaling deeply, “it wasn’t nearly as scary as we’d feared. The conductor was nice and all the stations were well marked.”
Fortunately, their home relocation consultant, Felicity Henry, not only told them exactly which train station to get off at (there are several in Montclair), but met them at the station with Xanax, water bottles, and a typed itinerary.
First stop: a visit to the Unitarian Universalist Church, where they met with head of the nursery school, and, over green tea, discussed the challenges of raising multiples in a patriarchal, hetero-normative, capitalist culture. Next up: the Anthropologie store in downtown Montclair, where Ms. Rabinowitz-Chen was delighted to find exactly the same clothing as sold in the Anthropologie store in Park Slope.
Then Ms. Henry took the couple on a drive-by tour of several area food purveyors, including a King’s, a Whole Foods, and a large Shoprite. Though Ms. Henry explained that the Shoprite was known for its large array of fresh produce, her clients declined to venture inside. “It’s totally understandable,” Ms. Henry commented. “Especially on a Sunday, which is when everyone and their great aunt is there. The Shoprite can be overwhelming.”
Luckily, it was a bright, warm spring day, and the weekly Farmer’s Market, first started in 1992, was in full swing. As the couple walked past offerings including wild-caught Bluefin tuna, organic persimmons, and artisan asiago, they began, by their own recounting, to feel that maybe they could make this work. But it wasn’t until they encountered the homemade hummus stand, where they chatted with the stand’s owner, Mohammed Saiid, a recent refugee from Aleppo, that the deal was sealed.
By June, the couple had settled on a $1.1 million, 5-bedroom Victorian on a leafy Upper Montclair side street. “We were a bit overwhelmed, at first, with the prospect of living so far from the civilized world we had known in the city. We could never have managed it on our own.”
Fortunately, the Rabinowitz-Chens were able to tap into a wealth of resources designed for new suburbanites like themselves. Within a month of moving in, they had already signed up for several seminars, including “How to Find a Gardener Who Won’t Be Deported,” “What to do When the White Stuff Falls in Your Driveway: the Essentials of Snow Shoveling in Six Easy Lessons” and “Essex County Real Estate Taxes: How to Evade Them (Legally)” ($700, cash only). “That last was a life saver, obviously,” said Mr. Rabinowitz-Chen.
Now that they’ve lived in suburbia for nearly a year, Brooklyn seems like a distant memory. “All that grime and crime. Listening to your neighbors having sex in the apartment next door. And where are you supposed to park your car, anyway? We sure don’t miss that.”
Jennifer Moses and Stuart Green are long-time collaborators in the areas of child-rearing, dog walking, and mollifying in-laws. While not busy with such activities, Stuart is a law professor at Rutgers University and author of numerous works on legal theory, including Thirteen Ways to Steal a Bicycle: Theft Law in the Information Age (Harvard U. Press). Jennifer is the author of four books -- two fiction and two non-fiction. Her short work has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Southern Review, New Letters, Pushcart Prizes, Best New Stories from the South, Glimmer Train, Commentary, and numerous other publications.