Leaving Philadelphia

We don’t like suburbs. We’ve figured out that much about ourselves.

But both the city and the country have attributes we celebrate.

Some things we like about the city:

Some things we like about the country:

I tend to more cherish the city values over the country values, and Lisa the opposite.

It’s possible that our ideal city doesn’t exist. Lisa has joked that she wants to live in a farmhouse across the street from a bustling downtown. Which means our ideal city might be Philadelphia from 1802 (albeit with modern conveniences):

map of Philadelphia from the 1802 showing a small, dense downtown which ends abruptly and gives way to farmland on all sides

What strikes me most about this old map is how the dense little city abruptly ends, giving way to immediate farmland on all non-aquatic sides.

That is, there are no suburbs.

Why don’t we have any more cities like that?

Two big reasons that I can think of:

(A third reason, pointed out by a wonderful West Philly friend, is America’s intentionally racist housing & investment policies throughout most of the 20th century. That’s probably the biggest reason for the particularly suburban nature of America.)

 Population Growth

When that map was created, Philadelphia had just over 41,000 people. And there were still fewer than one billion humans in existence on the whole of Earth.

Now, Philadelphia has 1.5 million people—36 times as many as 200 years ago. And Earth’s staggering human population will soon rush past the 8 billion mark.

 Transportation Infrastructure

It turns out lots of people want to live in the farmhouse on the edge of the dense little city. And as soon as it became convenient to do so, people rushed to it. The suburbs were born. And now we might never get away from the sprawl.

 But we’re gonna try

We know a place without nearly the sprawling mass of Philadelphia. A place where the city ends quickly and gives way to agriculture. Where you can ride bikes out of the city limits and stand in a farm field. And a true, classical farm too, not an urban farm. We love & will miss our local urban farm (I’ll especially miss feeding our compost to their chickens!), but there’s a special place in our hearts for amber waves of grain beneath a sprawling sky.

Yet, though this city is small, there’s still the vibrant exchange of ideas that we value in cities. Diverse perspectives, a robust art scene, delicious restaurants, bustling coffeeshops & coworking spaces.

It’s a place with a good mix of both our country and city values.

Plus, it’s a city with convenient train access to Philadelphia and New York.

And affordable housing.

So…

We’re buying a house. We close on 31 March.

 Our new home will be…

Drumroll, please:

Map of Lancaster, PA

The oldest inland city in the United States: Lancaster, Pennsylvania!

We’re moving to Lancaster.

It’s not as exciting as I want it to be. I want Cape Town, or Oslo, or Buenos Aires. “And,” actually. Cape Town and Oslo and Buenos Aires and a thousand other new cities and perspectives. And a thousand other not-cities, too—countrysides & mountain tops & forests & shorelines. I want to live out a whole vibrant life in every exciting and every boring place on this gorgeous planet. And heck, every other planet, too. I want to never move, because cultural diversity grows from people staying still for generations. And I want to participate in every culture to its fullest. I want every experience.

Clearly, I can’t get what I want.

Digital Nomadism might be the closest that I could hope to get to my impossible dream—though it would render me only an observer of, and not a full participant in, all the various cultures.

But for a variety of reasons, digital nomadism is not for us right now.

For a variety of reasons, we desire some roots.

 Philly roots

But what about all of the roots we’ve stretched through this tough Philadelphia soil?

It’s true. We’ll be pulling many of them up and starting again in a new place.

But though Philly has been good to us, we don’t feel that we’ve managed to sink our roots particularly deep in the last six years of living within the Philly sprawl. In fact, we already pulled up our deepest Philly-area roots. We pulled them when we moved into the city proper. We left behind dear friends in the suburbs, and the distance has done what distance always does to dear friendships.

We do have tremendous & abundant loose ties in Philly. Living in the city has given us numerous opportunities, events, meetups, and networks. We’ve met wonderful people, and are grateful to call many of them friends.

But even so, none of these friendships have blossomed, for the two of us together, in the way our most-missed prior friendships did.

It’s probably mostly our fault. “You get out what you put in” & all that.

Well, we hope to put more into Lancaster.

Part of the reason, I believe, that we failed to root properly in Philly, is that we moved to Philly from the nearby suburb of West Chester. And since we were so close, we tried to keep investing in that community. Which makes sense—being only an hour away, it didn’t make sense to just snub our West Chester friends. But I believe it spread us thin, attempting to have both. We ended up not being intentional, for the first year of living in Philly, about building a strong local community.

So, though Lancaster is close enough to Philly for us to be tempted to visit often, I don’t think it would be wise to visit “often.” I don’t know how to define often. Maybe we’ll be back once a month or so, for tech meetups, concerts, gatherings of friends, or other events. But we want to build a community in Lancaster, and we’ve learned a lesson about setting limits.

 A Hundred Years Later

Maybe a hundred years from now, with the inexorable growth of human population, the Lancaster metro area will match Philly’s current 6 million people. It already has 60,000 in the city proper, 50% more than old-timey Philadelphia. Maybe the fertile soil that supports the grand expanse of Lancaster farms will instead grow suburbs, concrete, and business parks. It’s happened before.

Part of me—the same part that feels a twinge of guilt for gentrifying South West Philly; the same part of me that feels guilty every time I’m one person in a 3000lb car clogging the jammed highway—part of me feels a twinge of guilt about moving to Lancaster. Like, by moving there, we play a small part in what could be a trend in population dispersal. Perhaps we are the vanguard of Pathogen Humanity, finding fresh soil & filling it with pavement. We could constrain ourselves to already-mechanized urban areas, but no. We must occupy currently-open space. We must dim other night skies with ever-brighter city lights. We must make new patches of Earth bow to human reworking.

I intend all of this to sound extreme. Lisa thinks I’m ridiculous for feeling guilt about this sort of thing, and maybe she’s right.

But I do think it’s true that the same impulse that destroyed our “ideal city” of Philadelphia-in-1802 is an impulse that drives us to Lancaster. The impulse to keep the city both near and far at the same time; the desire for rich culture & diversity, but open space too.

I say we don’t like the suburbs, but that sounds an awful lot like a suburban aspiration.

So I guess I called myself on my own inconsistencies. Oh well. We’re moving to Lancaster anyway.

We have other reasons, too. Lancaster is fun & cute. It’s closer to family, and we don’t have much time left with them. We can afford it, and it seems like it could make a good home base for future digital-nomad-style exploration (we’d want a place & community to come home to). It’s closer to much-loved friends in Harrisburg. We’ve never felt that Philadelphia would be our forever home, and have been wondering what’s next for more than a year. We’ve at least wanted to try something new.

This is what’s next, we’ve decided. We’re trying Lancaster.

And if, in a couple years, we decide we want to go all-in on city or country, we can do that. We can sell the house, and move back to Philly. Or back to Belleville. Or somewhere else entirely.

But for now, we’re excited to try this.

 
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