Here’s what I thought big-city life would be like when I was growing up in rural Missouri and dreaming about moving to the version of NYC I saw on Felicity and Friends:
- I’d live in a loft-style apartment that used to be a warehouse or something.
- There’d be a coffee shop on the ground floor, and everyone there would know my name.
- I’d be able to walk, ride my bike, or take public transportation everywhere.
- I’d have an interesting job (probably something to do with writing), and after work I’d go rehearse with a theater or a musical group.
Here’s what my life is like now:
- I live in a loft-style apartment that used to be a furniture store. My walls are exposed brick, with beams and pipes crossing my ceiling.
- There is a coffee shop on the ground floor, and I often know some of the people in it — though these days, I spend more time at the YMCA or the community center.
- I walk, ride my bike, or take public transportation everywhere.
- I have a career I love (that does in fact involve writing), and in the past year I’ve been part of two regional theater productions and joined an 80-member vocal arts ensemble.
As an author, I’m all too aware of the standard plot: Young person leaves town to seek their fortune, then — once they understand who they are and what they have to offer the world — they return home. Because it’s where the heart is, or something.
But the younger version of me hated that story, because she knew that the 2,500-person town in which she lived was not where her heart was meant to be.
Which is why, when I moved back, I chose Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
A two-hour drive away from my hometown.
I’ve never actually lived in NYC, even though the younger me was sure she would. Instead, over a 15-year period that included a stint in grad school (in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, which only made me more convinced that I should leave the Midwest forever) and a semester teaching Shakespeare in Hyderabad (ditto), I tried big-city living in Minneapolis, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Seattle, chasing various internships, jobs, and, in two cases, boyfriends.
Each city challenged me in a different way, and I learned something important about myself everywhere I went. In Minneapolis, I learned how to work a full-time job and manage my finances. In DC, I learned that I didn’t want the type of job that wouldn’t leave me enough time for music and writing. In LA, I learned that my music could only get me so far but my writing could take me places I never knew I could go. In Seattle, I learned how to build a career and a life on my own terms.
But during the five years I lived in Seattle, my rent doubled. At that point I was in my fourth year of writing and editing for the Billfold, a personal finance site where people had honest conversations about money, and I had a very honest conversation with myself about whether I could still afford to live there.
I also had a very honest conversation with myself about whether I was happy in Seattle, or whether I had become tired of moldy apartments and traffic jams and feeling the kind of disconnection that comes with only knowing a handful of people and only seeing them once a month or so because the city was so large that it took half the evening to get where you wanted to go.
Then I asked myself what I wanted my life to look like next year — and in the next 15 years, because the one thing I didn’t want to do was live in four new cities while I figured it out. There was no guarantee that the next place I picked would be my forever home, but I could take some steps to ensure I was moving in the right direction.
Then I called my parents.
And then I moved.
So why Cedar Rapids? Why not Iowa City or Columbia or any of the other not-as-small-as-my-hometown cities that were still within spitting distance of my family?
For starters, my parents no longer lived in my hometown. My dad, a college administrator, was now at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, which is 15 miles outside of Cedar Rapids. I still have family in my hometown, but living in CR (as the locals call it) would give me greater proximity to my parents — something I predicted would benefit us not only right now but also 15 years from now.
Then I did a cost comparison between Cedar Rapids and nearby Iowa City, which would still be fairly close to my parents — plus, like Seattle, it’s a UNESCO City of Literature, and that’s kind of my jam. Cedar Rapids won because its rents were significantly cheaper, and if I want to go to the Iowa City Book Festival or the Mission Creek Festival, it’ll still take me less time to travel between the two cities than it would to get from my old apartment to downtown Seattle.
Not to mention that Cedar Rapids is home to Orchestra Iowa and Revival Theatre Company and Chorale Midwest and all kinds of artistic organizations, and I knew I wanted to be in a city where I could be involved with the arts. In fact, this particular chunk of eastern Iowa is literally called the Creative Corridor due to its rapid commercial, artistic, and entrepreneurial growth; in CR you’ll find major companies like Collins Aerospace and General Mills (on good days, the air smells like Crunch Berries) as well as startup accelerators, environmental nonprofits, and one of the largest farmers markets in the Midwest. The city is rapidly adding apartments and condos and bike paths and coworking spaces and places for young(ish) ambitious professionals to get to know each other — and that is also my jam.
On the subject of apartments: I’m paying $650 a month for a gorgeous studio with a view of the Cedar River and in-unit laundry. I’m the first tenant to occupy this apartment (and the first tenant to use its brand new appliances). Considering that my first Seattle apartment was a converted hotel room with no kitchen and a landlord who advised me to wash my dishes in a bus tub and dump the dishwater into the toilet — WHICH I DID, EVERY DAY — living in this apartment feels like living in another world.
Also, there’s actually a pretty decent bus system. (I know, right? Everyone is surprised.) That, combined with a bike and the occasional Uber, meant I would be able to move back to the Midwest without having to buy a car.
Here’s how much it cost me to move from Seattle to Cedar Rapids. I originally tallied up these numbers for the Billfold, so I’ll go ahead and quote myself:
- $2,084.25 on traveling between Seattle and Cedar Rapids, including the week I spent apartment hunting. This figure includes flights, Smarte Cartes and checked bags, onboard wifi, the Airbnb I used while I looked at apartments, Lyfts and taxis, bike rentals, and food.
- $1,724.84 on furniture, household goods, and wifi setup.
- $1,387.99 on shipping, including the 29 boxes I took to the Sip & Ship, the Lyfts and dollies I used to take the boxes to the Sip & Ship (and the Goodwill), and the white chocolate pumpkin spice cookies I ate while at the Sip & Ship.
- $690 for the apartment application fee and security deposit.
- $42.02 to unfreeze and refreeze my credit.
Total cost: $5,929.10
Because I wanted to make sure I was making the right choice for the right reasons, I spent a week at a Cedar Rapids Airbnb on a “site visit,” during which I rode the bike trails, watched Orchestra Iowa perform Beethoven’s Fifth, spent time with my parents, looked at various apartments, and decided to commit both to the move and to a lease. That trip accounted for $1,487.83 of the $5,929.10 total, but was a necessary component of the process; I wanted to base this decision on reality, not fantasy, which meant I had to get myself into the city and make sure it felt like the right place to go.
I also did the math on whether it would be better to transport my worldly possessions to CR via one of those online moving companies — which is how I got my stuff from Los Angeles to Seattle — or to ship what turned out to be 29 boxes of books, dishes, and various ephemera, including four boxes filled with my childhood diaries. My clothing came on the plane with me, in three suitcases.
I ended up getting $1,325 back from my landlord (last month’s rent and security deposit, minus carpet cleaning) and $450 from selling my Ikea furniture to the next tenant (Ikea does claim its furniture is designed to be reused, though I’ve always found that somewhat debatable), so the move technically only cost me $4,154.10.
One of the more expensive decisions I’ve ever made, all things considered — a lot more expensive than the cost of moving from Los Angeles to Seattle, for example, which involved putting my belongings in a Pods shipping unit and spending 36 hours on Amtrak.
But this move has also been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Despite the fact that I once swore I’d never make it.
A little over a year after the move, my life is better in every appreciable way. I’m living in a beautiful apartment (no mold, no cockroaches, no roommates) with comfortable furniture that isn’t from Ikea and one of those fancy foam mattresses that you order off the internet. I have plants, and a piano that I actually have time to practice. I can meet my mom for lunch or go for bike rides with my dad. The public library and the art museum and the YMCA are all a few blocks away, as is the community center that hosts free movies and concerts while providing space for people to test their business ideas (cupcake shops, handcrafted jewelry) before taking out a full-fledged storefront.
I’m also not worried about money anymore. Part of that comes from having been able to take a well-paying freelance career — by which I mean $67K gross business income, $40K adjusted gross income — from a high-cost-of-living area to a lower-cost-of-living area, but the interesting thing is that my career has continued to grow, even after moving away from the contacts and clients I’d built in Seattle. I used to teach in-person writing classes at Seattle’s Hugo House, for example; now I teach online classes for Hugo House and in-person classes at the Iowa Writers’ House.
Most importantly, I feel what I had hoped I’d feel when I was a teenager dreaming about leaving her tiny hometown and never coming back: part of something larger than myself. I thought I’d get that feeling in a big city, but more often I felt anonymous and small. In Cedar Rapids, I feel like I’m part of a community, and that I can be part of what that community becomes.
I love that I live in one of the most active cities in the country (according to Fitbit) and one of the best midsize cities in which to make a living (according to MoneyGeek). I love the can-do spirit and the political activism and the startups and the monster cookies and the scotcheroos. I love that I live in an area that is so dedicated to innovation and growth, in both industry and the arts, that they named it Iowa’s Creative Corridor.
I especially love, in a way that makes me laugh when I think about it, that I am currently living out my teenage dreams: the industrial-chic apartment, the coffee shops and literary festivals, the rehearsal rooms. I thought I’d have to leave the Midwest to find all that — but I only found my heart’s desire, to borrow from another famous Midwestern story, when I came back to my own backyard.
Well, a two-hour drive away.
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