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.

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.