A Bostonian Abroad in the Suburbs

I never considered leaving Boston. Ever. Then the pandemic hit.

Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

During the first weekend of March, I was pretty busy. On Saturday alone, I took the Red Line into Davis Square to meet friends at the vaunted Tu y Yo, where we ate the best carnitas any of us have ever had. Afterward, we saw a buddy’s band play in front of a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at Lucky’s. When the show was over and we’d had our fill of vodka sodas, I stepped into an Uber and was home in bed in the heart of Eastie within a mere 10 minutes. That evening, like so many that had come before it, summed up what I loved about Boston—a city I claimed as my own when I moved here five years ago. It was part metropolis and part small town, a place with a variety of distinctive neighborhoods, each with its own culture and feel, not to mention one of the few great cities where you don’t need to own a car. As I lay in bed that night after getting home, exuberant and exhausted with my ears still ringing, it seemed like life would go on like this forever.

Then came the coronavirus, and those chaotic early days when cases shot up and the city shut down. Suddenly, the triple-decker unit my wife, Laura, and I shared felt infinitely smaller. We didn’t own a car to haul home quarantine-size loads of groceries, and had no desire to continue washing our clothes at cramped public laundromats in a neighborhood quickly overrun with the virus. Meanwhile, everything romantic about city life had evaporated: Our neighborhood bars had all closed, streets were hauntingly empty, our friends were cloistered indoors, and the MBTA was, potentially, a COVID-soaked no-go zone. By the time we were ultimately offered a chance to flee our tiny apartment and live with family in central Massachusetts, it was hardly a decision at all. Boston as we’d always known it was essentially gone, and by the time the pandemic really got rolling, so were we.

We moved in with my wife’s empty-nester parents in Shrewsbury, where I now have an entire room for an office, access to a sedan, a lawn, fresh air, and enough space to avoid coming anywhere within breathing distance of a stranger’s respiratory droplets. We adapted surprisingly well to suburban living. Laura started knitting. We took Sunday drives to the ocean. For the first time in my life, I played golf.

By May, as our landlord prodded us to renew our lease, which was due to end in July, we found ourselves taking long walks along a lake near our new suburban digs, the big questions we’d been avoiding suddenly spilling out of our mouths. We could pack it in and head home at any time, but why would we? A vaccine wasn’t coming any time soon, the virus was still tearing through our neighborhood, and the T hadn’t exactly become safe to ride all of a sudden. How much of Boston, we wondered, had to come back before we did? Under clear blue skies, and with maybe 100 yards between us and the nearest fellow day-trippers, the choice was clear: We either had to commit to another year with a Boston address or not. I was the first to say it out loud: Maybe we shouldn’t.

We weren’t the only ones suddenly and urgently considering skipping town for good. Parents, no longer able to take their kids to parks, were all at once far less enchanted with their South End brownstones. Professionals, donning button-down shirts and boxers for work, found they could set up a home office just about anywhere. And friends of ours, who fell in love with the North End and paid way more than they’d ever imagined just to be there, had packed up and moved to the Cape. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve called in the last three or four weeks who’ve said, ‘I wasn’t gonna move to the suburbs until years from now, but guess what? I can’t live like this anymore,’” says Mary Gillach, a Chestnut Hill Realtor. “People are taking this more seriously in terms of where they live than I thought they would.”

Just a few short weeks into the pandemic, signs of the city’s waning allure were already apparent among the Hub’s twentysomething set. Renters flooded social media and listing sites with posts about filling vacancies. The apartment-search company RentHop saw its biggest spike in subletters and lease-breakers in its website’s history, jumping to nearly one in every three listings. Marie Byrnes, a 23-year-old pre-K teacher and renter, says that both of her roommates, and just about everyone she knows, has moved away. “If all of my friends are leaving and my job isn’t guaranteed next year, what is there to stay here for? I’d have a better quality of life and pay less in rent if I left,” she says, adding that she’d planned to stay in the city but now, barring a miracle, “I’m pretty fully committed to leaving.”

It was stunning to see so much agitation among young renters in a place that had recently been one of the hottest destinations, not to mention real estate markets, in the world. Thanks to a surging tech industry and the value of all the brainpower at our universities, Boston rocketed from the doldrums of the early ’80s into certifiable boomtown territory. At the start of this year, cranes were looming over the skyline, scrambling to build bigger, faster, and taller to find space for everyone who wanted to cram themselves in here. Condo complexes were bursting out of the concrete at frightening speed—offering, above all, the chance to be close to the action. If this mini apocalypse we’re living through slams the brakes on all of that, what happens to the boom? What happens to Boston?

Boston is home to the smartest minds in the world, so it’s astonishing how little we actually know about what the next few years will hold for our city. I spent weeks picking the brains of people known for bold and empirically derived takes about the future of Boston’s economy, and have been struck by the unprecedented levels of uncertainty. Even Barry Bluestone, Northeastern University’s ordinarily never-lost-for-words professor emeritus of political economy, sighed when he told me, “I’m often willing to project or forecast, but on this one, so much is up in the air that I have not been able to figure out which direction this will all go….We have, right now, more variables than equations.”

Much of what becomes of Boston depends on how long this situation endures, something no one can know for sure. A city can only sustain so much economic damage before the outlook gets pretty grim. Before long, the ripple effects of dramatic behavior changes will be felt by everyone, from the middle managers who used to clock in around Post Office Square to the bartenders and karaoke emcees who poured their drinks and helped them blow off steam at the end of a long day. A year of partial shutdown is one thing. But no one knows when a critical mass of us will feel comfortable being close to strangers again, in a city ecosystem fundamentally based on closeness.

The best scientists in the world are working on a vaccine that could rescue us from this awkward, socially distanced purgatory—but what if it takes another full year? Or two? Or three? “If COVID lasts for many years, or if COVID is followed by another pandemic, then all bets are off,” says Ed Glaeser, an urban economist at Harvard. “If proximity is a permanent danger, we have to we rethink our model of urban life. The longer this continues, the more that cities are at permanent risk.”

Still, investors seem unworried about what will happen here long term—at least for now. Real estate prices are holding steady as demand for homes both inside and outside Boston remains strong. Enthusiasm for the giant tower projects that form the backbone of the building boom isn’t retreating, either. “We are still seeing construction occur in a major way,” Boston Planning & Development Agency director Brian Golden tells me. Not a single project before the pandemic has been scrapped, he says, and developers are “banging on the door” to build more. As I write this, the ink is even drying on a deal for a likely multibillion-dollar development on 25 acres in Widett Circle, one of the biggest projects within city limits in more than a generation.

Rents aren’t plummeting either—a sign, at least in the short term, that landlords and tenants alike aren’t so on edge about the future that it’s moved the needle much. We may have the city’s longstanding housing crisis to blame for that. For everyone who leaves, there’s a seemingly endless number of others dying to move in, and nowhere to fit them all. Other cities have seen rents crater in light of the crisis—in San Francisco, one of a handful of places on the planet more expensive than here, they were down 9 percent by June—but Boston may be immune, a place where housing is in such short supply that rents don’t budge even amid the plague. (See update below).

At the same time, if the pandemic ultimately does cause our lava-hot real estate market to cool off somewhat, plenty of people would still certainly benefit. Many of those who had long been priced out of the city could finally move in and families displaced by gentrification could reclaim housing that got way too expensive, way too fast. Boston’s growing horde of grad students looking for places to live have been gobbling up many of the city’s cheaper units that once went to working families, but without in-person classes bringing them here, that wouldn’t be an issue. If the market for high-end condos declined due to a lack of investor confidence, and there was a shift toward developing affordable and workforce housing, that could be seen as a long-term plus, not a minus. One of the beneficiaries in a cooled-down rental market, frankly, might be me: If I could finally afford an apartment with extravagances such as an in-unit washing machine and a deck, I’d rent it in a heartbeat.

All of which is to say that by the time summer arrived, it became simply impossible for my wife and me to weigh the million or more potential scenarios for our city and make an informed guess about what was about to happen—certainly not enough to bet a year’s worth of rent on it. In the absence of hard data or reliable predictions, we would be forced to take a leap of faith along with all the other twenty- and thirtysomethings in the same predicament. Scarier still was the thought that so much of Boston’s future will depend on what people like us decide to do.

Leaning against the railing on the back deck of my college buddy’s new house this summer, I have to say, life outside the city looked pretty sweet. For the price of an entry-level condo in Boston, he and his wife had just scored three bedrooms, a kitchen with a white-marble island, and a serviceable home office overlooking a sleepy side street in a suburban corner of Worcester, by the Auburn line. He now spends his weekends staining wooden handrails, weighing the apparent legion of options for seeding a lawn, and thinking about how to hang a tire swing from the tree in his giant backyard. Sure, out here in suburbia there was nothing of interest in walking distance, but he said it didn’t bother him: There was enough within a few miles’ drive to keep him entertained for years. Maybe it wouldn’t bother me, either, I found myself thinking.

After that visit, my wife and I decided to make a list of everything we really wanted out of our next living situation. Jotting thoughts down on paper, we agreed, has a way of putting things in perspective. Here’s what I wrote: I want to decide at the last minute to get my favorite lobster roll in Massachusetts, at Island Creek Oyster Bar, arrive there seamlessly on the T, and eat it at the bar. I want to get a little drunk at Charlie’s, then hear loud music on a sweaty dance floor at the Sinclair. I want to shoot the shit with my coworkers, at their desks. And I’d like to eat a Fenway Frank, in Fenway Park. Laura wants to go back to doing what she does—planning events and teaching cooking classes—and return to the familiar rhythm of our social lives without anxiously keeping our distance. We don’t want any of this to happen in a way that puts anyone in unnecessary danger. We want to live and thrive in a city that is living and thriving. But none of that is happening the way we remember it, and it’s not coming back anytime soon. The list just made us sad.

The next day, I looked on Zillow and saw plenty of charming starter homes for sale in my buddy’s newly claimed neck of the woods. Interest rates are low, minimum down payments minuscule. After six months or so forgoing rent, we could have one of our own, and never worry about crowded subway trains again. The possibility of homeownership, not even on my radar four months ago, was starting to feel not only financially prudent but inevitable. And tantalizingly, terrifyingly close.

We needed a gut check, so we opted to spend a weekend in our old place for the first time since the world came to a screeching halt, just to see how it felt. We borrowed the family car and headed into town. We lounged on the North End waterfront with friends from a safe distance, slugging spiked seltzers in the grass and watching boats float lazily in the harbor. It was no substitute for IPAs at the Trillium beer garden, but was okay nonetheless. A swarm of little dogs, unbothered by viruses, bounded onto our socially distanced blankets. A giggly couple visibly and enthusiastically on good drugs were loudly doing yoga. Nearby, restaurants were opening makeshift patios on Hanover Street, adding even more charming European flair to the neighborhood in spite of everything. Boston was crouched in a defensive position, but there was more life and vitality per square foot than we could ever hope to find in the suburbs, and the ease of moving through a city on foot put the suburban driveway-to-parking-spot continuum to shame. The salty breeze undulating on the Harborwalk was fresh and cool. We slipped off our masks to breathe it in.

Bostonians may have been keeping their distance from one another, but during the pandemic I saw some of the most moving examples—both big and small—of people finding ways to come together. Days after our visit to the city, tens of thousands of people peacefully marched together during anti-racism protests, wearing masks and taking reasonable precautions to stay safe while agitating for a new future. It was not lost on me that the Black Lives Matter movement’s nationwide showings of people power were overwhelmingly set in cities, and I regretted that I wasn’t there to experience its potency day to day.

Meanwhile, neighborhood leaders had set up vast mutual aid networks to help people with the direst needs, while others rallied to try to rescue iconic Boston institutions struggling in the wake of the pandemic. Hundreds of fans gave $200,000 in micro-investments in a valiant and ongoing bid to save the beloved Allston music venue Great Scott from shuttering, handing over slices of their savings to a grungy dive because they refused to let it go down without a fight. Bostonians were clearly not giving up on Boston. So why should we?

My wife and I decided we were done waiting for calamity to pass, sick of sitting on the sidelines as the city we love clawed its way back from oblivion. We called our landlord. We signed a new lease.

No one knows what Boston will be like in a year’s time, but now I know definitively that my wife and I will be here, voting with our feet and, in some small way, shaping what the city will become when new and better boom days arrive.

Update: By August, after publication of this story, rents did in fact finally come down, marking a shift in negotiating power in favor of renters not seen in many years. Meanwhile, the Greater Boston real estate market reflected the new realities of the crisis as as well, with home prices climbing to new heights, condo prices moving in the opposite direction, and fewer residences overall being listed for sale.