Why New Yorkers Are Moving to Philly and What It Means for Our City

After 9/11, scores of tired, disenchanted and financially strapped New Yorkers began moving into Philadelphia to begin new lives. Here, one Big Apple transplant explains what the influx has wrought.

Since 9/11, New Yorkers have been moving into Philadelphia.

“8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize New York City A Horrible Place To Live,” ran the headline. A photo showed seething traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, gridlocked with moving vans and U-Hauls, with the explanatory text: “Citizens in each of the five boroughs packed up their belongings and told reporters they would rather blow their brains out with a shotgun than spend another waking moment in this festering cesspool of filth and scum and sadness.”

The headline was fake, and the newspaper was the Onion. But on September 2, 2010, as I sat in my crappy 1,100-square-foot hovel in Brooklyn—where neighborhood gangs regularly tagged my fence and chucked 40s into my yard—I laughed until I peed. And then I lay down on the floor and cried.

I’d lived in New York for nearly a quarter of a century. Things were possible then. You could be a clothes designer and open your own boutique in the East Village. Your band could start up a bar in Williamsburg. You could get your friends to swing a hammer and build a theater company in a work-live loft in Tribeca. After graduating from Columbia in the early 1990s, I worked like a nut at a journalism career, wrote two books published by fancy ho­uses, was on TV a bunch. Later, I had my three young children in Brooklyn, and a crew of mom friends whose children and mine would romp in our living-cum-dining rooms. My life and New York City were a double helix of fabulous.

Then, in late 2007, the recession and my divorce converged. I was 39 and financially responsible for my children. I moved from progressive (read: expensive) Park Slope to edgy (read: less expensive) Red Hook. I lived in fear of foreclosure every month. The lights were shut off on more than one occasion. I qualified for food stamps. I grew vegetables in my anemic yard—not because I was some urban beekeeping eco-vore, but because I couldn’t afford to buy decent produce. By 2010, the only homeowners I knew who weren’t selling for liquid capital were high-financiers or trustafarians. And rents were untenable.

“This place sucks. … It just fucking sucks” was the sham Woody Allen Onion quote. It hit me: I can’t live in New York. Then I was struck by the meta grand piano from a three-story building: What about … Philly?

Honestly, the thought stank. I grew up on the Main Line and was snobbed out by the generations-deep blue-blood apparatus, so when I came of age in the late ’80s, I moved to Center City and attended Temple. Back then, Philly loomed like a menacing, crack-glutted acropolis, and I felt lucky I wasn’t raped or killed wandering around alone, as I often did. When I transferred to Columbia in 1989, I knew for sure: I was never, ever coming back.

But 20-odd years later, it was incontrovertible: Those of us with young families, in the so-called creative class—entrepreneurs, writers, editors, techies, graphics designers, teachers, small-firm ad execs and marketers, architects, anyone in the arts—were now high-status, poorly paid culture workers who could no longer afford to live in New York, especially with children. Things no longer seemed possible because they weren’t.

I could sell my house in a sketchy neighborhood for $860,000, buy a four-bedroom in Chestnut Hill for $340,000, and even after paying off my massive mortgage and Denali of debt still have a six-month nest egg that would enable me to contribute to private school. (I’d exchanged child support for tuition.) So what if Philly was slow, bankrupt and provincial? Just deal with it, I told myself.

I was wrong. Thankfully, very wrong.

It’s not news that New Yorkers have been infiltrating Philly for more than a decade. There was an understandable migratory spike after 9/11, and then, about six years ago, a flurry of articles about how New Yorkers in their 20s were descending on neighborhoods like Fishtown and Northern Liberties in the insultingly termed “Sixth Borough.” While the scope of the New York influx may have been unduly glamorized, the numbers aren’t laughable.

Since 2006, the official number of New Yorkers moving here per year—gleaned from tax returns, the IRS being the only source for such stats—has been in the 3,000s; in 2010, the official migration number was 3,095. But because the IRS misses swaths of people due to perennial filing boondoggles, Larry Eichel, project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts, estimates that a more realistic annual number is somewhere in the 4,000s.

So consider this: Even if the numbers plateau, in five years, potentially 20,000 more New Yorkers will be calling Philly home, in addition to the nearly 25,000 who already have in the past six. The city is growing, even though droves of Philadelphians are still moving out of the city every year (around 50,000 per year since 2006, according to Eichel’s research). While transplants move here from all over, it’s worth noting that on some scale, New Yorkers are becoming the new Philadelphians. And even if a sizeable handful are commuting to Manhattan for work, NYC transplants are still shopping here, buying homes here, paying taxes here, sending their kids to school here—and changing the economic and cultural landscape of the city.

Meet your new neighbors: the NY-Delphians.

On a rainy Tuesday, I am hanging out with a group of New York City expat parents. (O­liver Peoples eyeglasses, check; hair by SoHo’s Devachan, check; fierce Rick Owens booties, check; rat-a-tat-tat verbal volley, check.) We’ve gathered at a child-sized table at Chestnut Hill’s Waldorf-inspired indoor playspace in the Little Treehouse—a magnet for New York families (wooden play structures! African-themed artwork!)—to talk about why we all left.

Leitmotifs emerge. “We had a one-bedroom apartment, and our son lived in the dining room.” “Our window looked out onto a concrete courtyard of trash cans and roaches, and a rat came out of our toilet.” “We could only afford to live in Queens—why the hell would we move to Queens? For Indian food?” “Who cares about the Met, off-Broadway and the new ‘It’ restaurant if you can’t afford it, especially with young kids?”

Now, the responses to moving to Philadelphia: “We got a five-bedroom house with a yard and a pool for less than our cruddy apartment!” “Brooklyn says it’s diverse, but neighborhood by neighborhood, it’s not. In our neighborhood in Mount Airy, there are black kids, white kids, mixed kids, lesbian couples, mixed couples—it’s nirvana!” “We can do our work anywhere, so long as we’re within spitting distance of New York and D.C.—why the hell didn’t we come here earlier?”

It’s a haunting question. I, for one, felt that New York had become the protagonist in my life, entering as Holly Golightly-meets-Horatio Alger and, by the third act, morphing into Richard III. My kingdom, horse—all sacked by the Big Apple. This might explain why so many of us have the dazed look of returning veterans, though our battle was of the bourg-y socioeconomic variety. We lost it in New York, but we see hope in Philly.

You’ve seen us on playgrounds in Chestnut Hill and West Mount Airy, all in black, clutching espressos, waxing ecstatically about how “cheap!” and “pretty!” everything is here, while our Ramones-clad little ones run around giddily. We may look and sound insufferable, but the truth is, we’re stunned. Everything is so much nicer—the houses, the people, the landscape—that it can take months for post-
traumatic effects to wane. To wit, on the first night in my new house, I stayed up all night unpacking kitchen boxes. At around 4 a.m., I heard a rattling sound. Oh, God, I thought. Rats. It was the automatic ice-cube-maker. I burst into tears.

You’ve seen us thumbing approvingly through racks of clothing on 3rd Street in Old City, the local version of 9th Street and Avenue A, or North 6th Street in Williamsburg. We’re openmouthed at the killer artisanal jewelry of designers like J. Rudy Lewis and Bario-Neal—and even more agog that they’re not at Barneys and scandalously out of our price range.

“I love all the New Yorkers moving here—they really get it,” Heather Stauffer, who owns the Chestnut Hill boutique Roots (could be on Smith Street in BoCoCa!), says to me one day as I greedily snatch up a pair of Helmut Lang-ish shorts. Stauffer laughs. She hasn’t been able to get any native Philadelphian to try them on. “I mean,” she says, “you never have to explain to a New Yorker why a linen sundress by an indie designer costs $300.”

Since I’m one of battalions of New York women who, in their 20s, lived on yogurt to buy the baguette bag that cost more than a month’s rent, she didn’t have to explain it to me. But like anyone long pummeled by the cost of living in New York, I hadn’t indulged in a Carrie Bradshaw daydream in years. To many of us, it’s been a revelation that we can splurge on a little fashiony treat every now and then.

Or a big treat, like private school. “I think that’s part of the value equation,” one NY-Delphian mother says. “You can afford to buy a house and send your kids to private school.” We’ve quickly ascertained that in Philadelphia, the public-school record is, well, not great (she says kindly). But with what we’re saving elsewhere, many NY-Delphians pay up. You can’t miss us in admissions offices, jockeying for spots. True story: An admissions director at a wonderful school to which my children applied (think Dalton, with a Quaker vibe) told me she always reassures panicked New Yorkers that they don’t have to claim that “this is their absolute first choice”—with so many first-rate schools here, there is no bad decision. Later, a turbo-charged Manhattan expat mom told me about another wonderful school (think Saint Ann’s, with a Quaker vibe) where “all the New York parents send their kids.” Just make sure, she advised, to say that it was my “absolute first choice.”

I’ll tell you something else: You’ve definitely seen us if you’re a real estate broker. And though you may be sick of us squeezing another property viewing into a 29-listing day, you also kind of love us. “New Yorkers are a lot of realtors’ favorite clients, because they’re so grateful!” says Kathie Fox, the Prudential Fox & Roach agent who sold me my house—and to whom I apologized profusely for working her to the bone. But there were so many gorgeous, affordable places, and I wanted to see them all. It’s a common reaction, she says: “Honestly, New Yorkers go out of their minds when they see what their money can buy here.”

But I’ve discovered that it’s not just the bourgeois accoutrements that draw us. Rather, it’s Philly’s energy. Things seem possible here.

New Yorkers love possible, and one dubious hallmark of that optimism is gentrification. Creative-class New Yorkers are infamous for occupying struggling neighborhoods in the outer boroughs and outlying areas like Jersey City. They’re doing it in Philly, too. New Yorkers, realtors told me, are renovating houses in areas of Germantown, East Passyunk, Point Breeze, and sundry zip codes that few thought could be revived by any economic engine. And truthfully, they still might not.

“Neighborhoods change a lot more slowly in Philadelphia than they do in New York,” Christopher Plant, a realtor at Elfant Wissahickon, tells me. “But once New Yorkers hit Philadelphia, they tend to have this renewed optimism. And besides, they’re networkers, and they’re used to working really hard. A lot of them are pulling it off.”

It turns out that a lot of those who are pulling it off—in real estate and beyond—are originally from here. Indeed, the trend has accrued such critical mass that at least in the Department of Commerce’s Office of Business Attraction and Retention, some officials have cooled their long-held efforts to stymie Philly’s braindrain. “Let them go and do time in New York or Los Angeles, let them gain business and life experience,” director Karen Randal explains. “When they’re ready, they come back and realize what a great city Philadelphia is, and they bring their expertise, business and enthusiasm back here and help pump in new life.”

Christopher Plant is himself an NY-Delphian. After attending Temple in the late 1980s, he moved to New York and, as a partner in the successful art and performance space Galapagos, helped revive Williamsburg, then a dangerous mix of addicts and Hasidic families. Upon moving back to Philly in 2002, Plant recast himself as a civic booster, launching guerrilla campaigns to lure Brooklynites here and becoming an active board member of local non-profits, including the Franklin’s Paine Skatepark, which breaks ground this month near the Art Museum and will purportedly be the largest in the country.

Amanda Steinberg is another. The 34-year-old founder and CEO of DailyWorth.com—an online women’s financial advice site with 350,000 subscribers—is a Center City native who, like me, went to Baldwin in Bryn Mawr before graduating from Columbia in the ’90s. We didn’t know each other then, but our stories are almost identical: We wanted a less costly, more humane pace of life for our families, but we needed to be close to New York for work.

“I’m living out the existential mogul fantasy,” she confides over scones at Cake, a Chestnut Hill bakery that we both peg as being “like Baked in Red Hook, if it were in Park Slope.” Steinberg confesses relief at “not having to walk out of the house every morning with a perfect blow-out and keratin treatment” but still being able to head a high-powered operation: “I get to run a New York-based business, but live and do most of my work in this beautiful, affordable, family-friendly neighborhood with excellent schools, and spend time with my kids.”

Same thing for Anne Rivers, whose toddler daughter will attend my three-year-old son’s daycare, Summit Children’s Program in West Mount Airy, this fall. (A side note: When I mentioned I was writing this st­ory, a dozen NY-Delphian parents e-mailed me their cell phone numbers, all with New York area codes. Look, you can’t expect us to go completely cold-turkey.) With longtime Pennsylvania roots, Rivers heads up brand strategy consulting at the New York-based firm BAV Consulting. Her story mirrors Steinberg’s, mine and scads of others: moved for quality of life after living in New York for more than a decade. “I end up doing a lot of networking on the train from Philadelphia to New York with people in a similar work-life situation,” she says, chuckling. Rivers is open to scouting possibilities for a Philadelphia office for her division.

If things haven’t been possible for small businesses and creative-class entrepreneurs in New York for years, they frankly haven’t been possible in Philly either until recently. But with new tax laws (including attractive tax credits for job creation, as well as a two-year exemption from city privilege taxes for businesses that create a certain number of new jobs), Philadelphia promises by 2014 to be downright friendly to those employing 20 people or fewer, in hopes that those that succeed will stay. (Premise: Amazon and Microsoft were once small, too.) This is what prospective New York transplants, many of whom run small creative-class operations, want to hear.

There might be good reasons to set up shop here besides taxes. In the many conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs and city officials, I’ve found an emerging business culture that seems to operate on the Malcolm Gladwellian principle of “co­nnectors”—people who network to help each other succeed—that stands in stark contrast to the New York style of stockpiling and safeguarding such connections.

That’s the credo of Philadelphia’s most famous co-working space, Independents Hall in Old City. An amorphous slipstream of independents of various stripes pays monthly or daily fees for desk space and wi-fi connections, but mostly for the everyday kismet of work connections: finding work and help from officemates. Many are NY-Delphians. And in the experience of 29-year-old founder Alex Hillman, this “connector” principle isn’t native to Philadelphia: It was imported, then incubated and hatched here.

Hillman says he was recently on a group panel before a packed crowd, discussing how to set up successful co-working spaces in Philadelphia. “Someone in the audience raised his hand and asked us if we’d always lived in Philadelphia,” Hillman says. “None of us had. And it turned out that almost no one in the room had, either.”

“It reminds me of all the World War II vets who came back to Philadelphia and decided to change it—the police corruption, the crime, schools,” muses Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz. “People told them, ‘It’s impossible.’ And these guys said, ‘We’ve just had bullets flying at us—we can handle Philly.’”

That seems like a pretty tall order. For one thing, transplants obviously have some work to do in the city’s public-school sy­stem. New Yorkers have a history of turning failing schools around, but such PTAs are typically led by rich moms, or at least those who haven’t had to work outside the home, and Philadelphia’s schools need a lot of work—more than many dual-income couples can put in. Still, maybe after we NY-Delphians pick ourselves up financially, we’ll have the wherewithal to roll up our sleeves.

As for me, I can finally pay my mortgage and utility bills. Within weeks of moving here, I was offered an armful of teaching gigs, at colleges and literary centers. Someone I recently met threw my family a party to introduce us to all the NY-Delphians she knew in Chestnut Hill; more than 10 families welcomed us. Everyone I’ve met has helped me find work. I’m beginning to think I can make it, which is more than I’ve been able to say in five years.

On the day we moved in, our neighbors brought us homemade bread and tarts. My girls and I stared. Finally, my older daughter spoke up. “Our neighbors used to spray-paint our house,” she said. “Now, our neighbors want us here.” And then we all cried.

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