They Had Reasons for Leaving the City. So Why Are Their Friends Mad?

Written by Desmond

January 7, 2022

Jordan Frey moved to Manhattan from Rochester, N.Y., in July of 2013 for his residency in plastic surgery and a subsequent fellowship. He and his wife, Selenid Gonzalez-Frey, rented a two-bedroom apartment in Murray Hill, delighted to be in a city with so much to offer.

Seven years later, as Dr. Frey neared the end of his training, a decision loomed: Was he going to remain in town and establish a practice, or settle elsewhere? “We really thought we were going to stay,” he said.

But it was complicated. New York City was alluring, but by then the couple had two children, and they couldn’t deny the appeal of raising them in a place where wide-open spaces were just outside the front or back door.

Covid crystallized things. “The activities our kids were doing got closed, and we felt pretty claustrophobic,” said Dr. Frey, 34. “We thought that if we went somewhere else we’d be able to afford not just more room but a much nicer place.”

In July of 2020, the family moved to Buffalo, where Dr. Frey grew up and where Ms. Gonzalez-Frey, 34, is now an assistant professor of education at the State University of New York. Home is a four-bedroom colonial on a one-acre lot.

The Freys were among the more than 837,400 people who submitted change-of-address requests from New York City addresses in 2020, a 36 percent increase over 2019, according to a pandemic migration report from the NYC office of the comptroller, citing United States Postal Service data. The figure was particularly stark in March of 2020, when almost 80,000 move-out forms were filed, a 65 percent spike from the previous March.

Many of those who beat their way to the exits, maybe to weekend or vacation houses to escape Covid — and who took a lot of flak for it — have since returned to the city. They never planned to be gone forever. Can’t quit you, baby, and all that. But some who left during the pandemic have made the move permanent — and they’re dealing with the fallout.

Take the Freys. They’re very happy with the move, but their New York City friends aren’t so happy with them. Covid is a passing thing, they told the couple, but New York is forever. They would regret what they were doing, the doomsayers warned, noting the folly of making a consequential decision based on a temporary situation.

“There was a real sense that they felt betrayed,” said Dr. Frey, who is now on the staff of Erie County Medical Center, and who recently started The Prudent Plastic Surgeon, an investment advice website aimed at his fellow doctors. “We got a lot of, ‘How can you leave? New York is struggling, and you need to be supportive.’ And it was made clear to me that I wasn’t doing that. Our way of handling it was to emphasize to our friends that we loved New York City and that we weren’t abandoning it in a time of need. But we still felt judged.”

Of course, moving is always a big deal, and not just for the people who are boxing up their possessions. The ground also trembles under the feet of the friends who remain behind, and who could be forgiven for feeling that U-Haul is breaking up the old gang.

But when the city that’s being left is New York, the level of attendant annoyance seems especially high; it feels like a personal insult to friends of the soon-to-be ex-resident. Now factor in the pandemic, and distress starts moving into the red zone — indignation.

“The people who moved out of New York during Covid made the decision that the city wasn’t safe enough, wasn’t appealing enough, wasn’t good enough, was too expensive,” said Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “And their friends may see that as an indictment of their own choice, especially if they’re ambivalent about their choice. A defense might be, ‘I’m a loyal person and I’m being loyal to my city, and you all are abandoning it.’”

The abandonment charge was especially painful for Joel Schnell, 72, a lifelong New Yorker — that is, until last year, when he lost his income and also became increasingly concerned about his 97-year-old mother living alone in Florida.

“So: pandemic, no income, my mother … We thought it was time to go to the beach and hide,” said Mr. Schnell, who works in women’s fashion. “The truth is we were scared being in New York.”

The pandemic was raging in November of 2020 — and so, as a matter of fact, were some of Mr. Schnell’s friends — when he and his wife, Lynne White, a former news anchor, sold their co-op on the Lower East Side and lit out for a two-bedroom rental in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.

“Our friends were like, ‘We’re not out from under this, and New Yorkers should stick together. We stuck together through 9/11 and through the financial crisis in 2008, so why are you moving?’” Ms. White said.

One of Mr. Schnell’s pals told him they were making “a harsh mistake” by leaving. “It was almost like a guilt trip, and it did make me feel guilty,” he said.

Adding insult to injury, the elder of his two daughters piled on. “She said, ‘I know you’re doing what you have to do, but I’m disappointed that you’re not here for us,’” Mr. Schnell recalled. Even his dry cleaner gave him grief.

True, some who left might still be in New York if not for the pandemic. Others were already thinking it was time to move on and move away, and Covid was the event that pushed them over the edge. Perhaps they wanted more space. Perhaps they wanted a lower cost of living. Now they were able to work remotely, so why not live somewhere else?

But whatever their reasons for leaving, they left some irate friends.

“Covid was the last straw for some people in my neighborhood,” said Lazarus Jackson, 39, a truck driver who lives in a rental in the Bronx. “They were like, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ and they sold their house and left. I’m not happy with these people at all. It’s breaking a bond. We’ve been friends for 20, 25 years.”

For him, the distress goes beyond the personal. He sees his neighborhood in jeopardy. “I tell my friends, ‘There was a lot that went into you having that house in the first place. It’s been in your family since the ’60s. A lot of sacrifices were made for you to have it. Why sell it?’” he said.

“When people leave the community — this isn’t a gentrified area — it’s not like things get better,” Mr. Jackson continued. “So when my friends say, ‘I just want to get out of the city,’ I just think it’s a pretty short-term way of looking at things.”

Until the pandemic hit, Grace MacDougall had no plans to leave Manhattan, where she and her best friend from high school shared a two-bedroom rental in a walk-up building in Five Points. But once she realized that she liked working remotely, and saw how much she could save on rent, well, cue the moving van.

“But my roommate was so upset. She hated the fact that I left and hated the fact that I left during Covid,” said Ms. MacDougall, 27, the marketing and growth manager for a start-up, who tested positive for the virus during the first week of the pandemic. “She had convinced me to move to New York in the first place. She had shown me the ropes, the ins and outs. She felt that I was breaking up with her, but also that I was breaking up with the greatest city in the world. It put a strain on our relationship.”

The global surge. The coronavirus is spreading faster than ever, but it appears that Omicron is milder than previous variants. Still, the latest surge in cases is causing hospitalizations in the U.S. to rise and lifesaving treatments to be rationed.

Boosters. The C.D.C. endorsed Pfizer boosters for children ages 12 to 17 and said being “up to date” on the vaccine now included a booster. But scientists are raising concerns that “forever boosting” is not a viable long-term strategy.

Testing. A new study suggests that two widely used at-home antigen tests may fail to detect some Omicron cases in the first days of infection. The study comes as a White House official said that the cost of rapid at-home tests would be reimbursed by insurers starting next week.

Mandates Under Review Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments over efforts to overturn two major Biden administration policies intended to raise coronavirus vaccination rates: its vaccine-or-testing mandate aimed at large employers and a vaccination requirement for some health care workers. Here’s a breakdown of the arguments.

Around the world. In China, a city of 13 million is locked down over a handful of cases, leading to questions over how long the country’s zero-Covid strategy can last. In France, President Emmanuel Macron drew criticism for saying the government should make life miserable for the unvaccinated.

Staying safe. Worried about spreading Covid? Keep yourself and others safe by following some basic guidance on when to test and how to use at-home virus tests (if you can find them). Here is what to do if you test positive for the coronavirus.

There is, in all of this, some element of “Love me, love my city.”

“If you identify with where you live, that place becomes personified, “Dr. Saltz said. “New York is the place. People who left seem to reject the very thing their friends love, and the reaction can be, ‘How dare you reject my favorite thing? How dare you turn your back on my identity?’”

“There are so many complicated feelings involved with leaving New York,” said Emily Stockton-Brown, 31, a senior account supervisor for a public-relations firm, who moved to New York in 2015 and lived in a series of studio apartments in Brooklyn before moving to Union Square, where she and her partner, Zach Honig, rented a triplex with another couple. “We didn’t want to be living in studio apartments during Covid, and the place in Union Square was gorgeous.”

But it was a temporary fix. This past May, with permission to work remotely, she and Mr. Honig, who works in financial technology, relocated to Philadelphia to be closer to their families and bought a three-bedroom condo. (They also recently got engaged.) “We would never have been able to purchase such a property in New York,” Ms. Stockton-Brown said.

For a while, she kept the news from her local best friend, who had already been aggravated enough when Ms. Stockton-Brown took a pandemic break from the city to spend some time at a rental cabin in Maine.

“I finally had a glass of wine, got up my gumption and called her,” she said. “We had a little cry together, but then things got a little tense. She felt that, for whatever reason, we were choosing not to be in the center of the universe anymore. She took it very personally and said, ‘Oh, here I am now by myself.’”

That anger can cut both ways.

So, Tyrone Evans Clark’s friends are mad at him for leaving their shared rental in Brooklyn and moving to Los Angeles when the pandemic hit? Well, he’s mad at them for being mad. Sure, he understands that they were a happy tribe of misfits and starving artists (Mr. Clark is an actor), and he was breaking up the clique. But why couldn’t they understand his situation?

“How did they expect me to keep paying the rent when I didn’t have any money?” asked Mr. Clark, 35. “I’m upset that they didn’t get my dilemma.”

Three months after Ms. Stockton-Brown moved to Philadelphia, her censorious friend sheepishly called to say she and her partner had just moved to Portland, Maine. Ms. Stockton-Brown is overjoyed for her.

As for Mr. Schnell, he makes sure to wear a New York Mets or New York Giants T-shirt when he works out in Florida. “We don’t know how yet, but we’re going to move back to the city someday,” he said.

And more than a year on, Dr. Frey thinks his friends’ stance may have softened a bit. “They still think we’re dumb for leaving,” he said. “But I don’t think they’re still mad. We haven’t been back to the city yet, but they want to hang out with us when we do.”

His friends are also welcome to hang out with him upstate, Dr. Frey added, “but they aren’t talking about coming to Buffalo.”

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