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So Hanna and I are back in Boston after a whirlwind week of California (Hanna) and Pawtucket (me, then both of us). The cats are contemplating forgiving us for our absence and the weather is gorgeous — sun, warm-but-not-too, breezy, with low-humidity — so in many ways it’s good to be home to our urban apartment life.

home sweet home

Though I’ll admit it was also hard to leave smaller-city life, and a week spent in a early-twentieth-century neighborhood of small apartment buildings and single-family homes, mature trees, walkable boulevards, and blessed quiet. It was really wonderful to have a table to eat meals at, a kitchen where two people could actually work comfortably, a washer and dryer you  didn’t have to feed quarters into (or stand in line to use), a porch with a swing … the sort of things that feel like “grown up” life to two people in their thirties who grew up in single-family homes (even if Hanna’s didn’t have a washer and dryer, and mine didn’t have a porch swing!).

Not that we need, necessarily, a single-family home or a very large space. After five-to-seven years in this tiny little one-bedroom we’re starting to get restless for a less student-apartment feeling place. Which for us translates into maybe a two-bedroom space (one for office/guest use) with a decent-sized kitchen, a porch, maybe space for a pot garden or ground-garden. A space that has direct access to the outdoors rather than the negotiation of apartment halls.

A space that gives us a little more privacy-negotiation room when we need it. A way to use spaces to move through different daily-life activities: cooking and eating, reading, sleeping and waking, scholarship.

we don’t need a literal white picket fence

Of course, the conundrum in this region of the country is affordability vs. walkability. Right now, we pay to live within walking distance from work and other amenities, and in a robust (though it could be better!) public transit zone. We can live without  a car, and even increasingly without monthly public transit fees (thanks Hubway!). What we pay in rent — $1295 per month — we save in transportation costs.

Work is in the urban center; affordable homes are on the urban periphery. I’m not even really talking suburbs or exburbs … the neighborhood we were house-sitting in was maybe “suburban” when it was built in the 1910s but is now very much an established part of Pawtucket (bordering on Providence). There were shops and cafes walking-distance away, and grocery stores within biking distance; a crosstown bus stop at the end of the block. You would need a bike, perhaps a car for some things, but you aren’t looking at a gated-community / food desert situation.

The “urban periphery” of Boston includes cities in New Hampshire and Rhode Island and Western Massachusetts where people commute daily into Boston (or closer to Boston) and then home again. These places are towns, even cities, in their own right — but their residents have often been pushed out of Boston because although our jobs are here we can’t afford, long term, to live here. And I’m not talking about
“can’t afford” in the “I want a sprawling estate in the hinterlands” sense. I’m talking “can’t afford” as in “current market prices for one-bedroom apartments in our neighborhood are pricing us out” despite the fact we’re living in what is one of the more affordable inner-Boston neighborhoods and we’re making what pass for firmly middle-class wages these days, for a family of two.

We’re hardly the only people our age who are feeling financial pressure to leave urban centers — yet still need to work at our jobs in the city. Not everyone works in a high-tech-enabled, work-from-home, work-from-anywhere position.

I had a lot of time to think about this core-to-periphery migration during the past week while sitting in traffic, or on the commuter rail, en route to Boston from Pawtucket and back again.

In Allston, our alarm goes off at 6:30, we leave the apartment shortly after 7:00, and have Hanna at work about quarter of eight. We travel by foot. As I’ve written elsewhere, I can get from apartment to work and back again in twenty minutes by bike; about forty-five minutes by T. This means that our evenings generally begin about 5:30-6:00pm, when we get in from work and an after-work errand or two.

Walking is free; our public transit options cost us an average of $30/each per month.

In Pawtucket, driving in by car I got up at 5:30 and left the house at 6:00. I got to work at 7:45-8:15 in the morning, after a drive that at-speed would have taken fifty-odd minutes but in rush hour took 1.5-2.5 hours. By train the time is more commensurate — leaving the house at seven put me on the 7:22 train to Boston and I was at work by 8:30. But this, like the drive, lost me exercise (walking or biking) at both ends of the day and added time in the evening commute (I wasn’t back in Pawtucket until 7:00pm).

Then there’s the car, insurance, gas; and/or rail passes, plus parking — which can be hundreds of dollars per month.

Equally unaffordable, in many ways.

Hanna and I are a year or two out from looking for our next Boston metro area home — and probably five-to-ten years out from a major relocation. But it was useful to have this hands-on experience at the commuting life. I’m absolutely sure I don’t want it.

The sad thing will be if we end up looking elsewhere not because we actively want to live elsewhere (which may be the case — we talk about Vermont and we talk about Oregon) but because we can no longer afford to live the life we want to here.