Although my immediate family is long gone now, I’ve come to appreciate my hometown of Rochester, NY so much more in recent years. It’s a small, western New York city, but it has a thriving arts community, wonderful museums, excellent restaurants and of course, what’s not to like about a location on a Great Lake? Ontario, in case you wondered.
As I looked around on my recent trip, I imagined what it would be like to live there. Real estate prices are exceptionally low and the overall cost of living is far lower than where I have lived for most of the past 30+ years. There’s no question that we could upgrade our “things” by living in a place like this. After all, in our city a shi*ty little tract house goes for a million bucks. Which we Californians bemoan every time we see a new headline about the real estate market. Because we all think paying so much for so little is ridiculous.
At least those of us who have lived in other states think that. If you’ve always lived in northern California, well, not so much. Because the exorbitant cost of living is something I and other Californians have learned to deal with as the price we pay for the pleasures of living here. I call it the Paradise Tax. It doesn’t make the latest news about our city’s housing costs any more palatable. We get so little for our money and that’s something M. and I are always aware of as we travel to other, more reasonably priced cities.
Couldn’t help but try it on for size
Still, what would it have been like to have remained in Rochester? For one, we’d have a veritable mansion, no, make that a PALACE, for the cost of our updated tract house. A house we couldn’t afford to buy at today’s prices, by the way. But mansions aren’t that important to us. Not as important as everything else that goes with living in the San Francisco Bay area.
I don’t think Rochester could have held me for long. And it’s not that I was raised with any great aspirations or that as a kid I longed for a bigger world. It’s just that once I saw that bigger world, I wanted it.
I wanted to live in a place where just about anything goes. Where an exciting and vibrant business community, in my case, high-tech — which gives us a pretty near full-employment-economy — would allow myriad career opportunities. And did. Where I could wake up almost every single morning to sunshine, moderate temperatures and mountains. Where I had quick access to a world class city, San Francisco, and to the Pacific coast.
I wanted it. But what I didn’t see was how different my chosen life made my worldview from those outside California.
Not everyone gets the view Californians have about our property costs. I considered comments made about my Facebook posts about San Jose having the highest median home price in the nation. I took for granted that the subtext to that news was implicit. We don’t take pride in it. It’s not “aren’t we lucky shi*ts” but “holy shi**, we’re trapped in our homes–we can’t buy bigger without spending even more money and if we sold what we have we could only downsize and this is getting more ridiculous than ever.”
This is just the fact of life northern Californians live with. Ask any of us.
In fact, most of the retirement savings my California friends have is the equity in their homes, especially those who bought 15 or more years ago at far lower prices than we’ve seen since, prices we thought were exorbitant then. If we’d only known!
Retirement, northern California-style
Back in my home town, the big thing used to be having a job at Kodak with great benefits and a pension. But today, pensions are rare. They’ve been virtually non-existent in the Silicon Valley high tech industry since well before I arrived in 1984. Very, VERY few northern Californians have a “pension” if they aren’t government workers, peace officers or retired educators. Even traditional, old corporations have replaced pension plans with 401Ks based on employee contributions.
As a result, many Californians are counting on the equity in their homes to help fund retirement. Retirement some place else. That’s not so expensive. And even so, they are reluctant to leave because like me, they love the Bay area. If you don’t live here, you can’t imagine the machinations northern Californians go through in an attempt stay here after retirement. You’d think they were crazy.
But back to those house prices.
As my husband pointed out, when people buy a house in Rochester, its primary value is as shelter and maybe a family homestead. When people buy a house in California it’s to live in California–the value of the house is where it’s located, not the shelter it provides. He thinks that’s the critical difference. “It’s not a shi **y little tract house, it’s a shi **y little tract house in California, which is what gives it the value,” he points out. “Would anyone pay a million bucks to buy that tract house in Rochester? No.”
He has a point and the point is that living in my state is vastly different from living in any other in the Union. I hadn’t realized how hard it is for those who don’t live here to relate to. We think different, as the Apple ad said. Apple is located about 10 miles from us. That ad reflected the northern California ethos. But I hadn’t thought through just how different we think.
How we approach the world
But worldview is not only impacted by geography. It has a lot to do with life experience. The other day someone mentioned my blog post about the bracelet I made out of my first engagement ring and wondered “who has a spare diamond laying around?” Most of the women I know are divorced and judging by the responses to that blog post–one of my most popular–there are a lot of women in that situation. Many of them have their original engagement rings hidden away. They’re loathe to get rid of the ring but hate to leave it in a drawer.
“But I didn’t have an engagement ring,” she said to me. And that’s the point of view she comes from. Obviously, she wasn’t the audience for this particular essay.
Worldviews. I’ve begun to think that the differences between people may come down to a difference in worldview. It’s not that one’s better than another, either. Just different. I spent time with cousins who have traveled the world, served as senior execs in big corporations, with creative and talented friends and many of them are open and interesting and broadminded. And yet, on this trip I clearly saw how differently we approach the world.
As I looked around my hometown and loved it, I also felt lucky to have landed in northern California. There’s nothing in my second-generation American upbringing –with Sicilian immigrant grandparents– that said I’d be attracted to a place that had such an open society. A place where, for the most part, people are accepted for who they are, millionaire and pauper alike. A place where judgment feels, well, out of place.
That wasn’t true where I grew up. In my culture judgment was the air we breathed growing up. And at one time, the “elite” ran the show in our city and Rochester was written about as Snobtown, USA. We weren’t part of the elite. Not by a long shot. But judgment was pervasive.
Yet, the very first time I visited the open culture of the Bay area I felt the click of a fit. Instantly.
Neither of my siblings were drawn to leave. None of the cousins in my generation stayed gone. Just me. And so it should come as no surprise that my point of view would be so different from those who lived in my hometown most of their lives.
There really is a point and this is it:
My nephews live in Buffalo and took me around their city, the second biggest in New York state. I was impressed with the economic development and the transformation of a Rust Belt city that had lost most of its heavy industry into today’s new and vibrant Buffalo. Where there is a neat arts community. Great restaurants. Universities. Culture.
I loved it. They love it.
And yet, my wish for them is to land in a place where the worldview is even broader. Where they can feel free to be who they are, no matter what that is: lawyer, academic, straight, gay, rich or not-so-rich. An exciting place in which the air is electric with opportunity and possibility. I can’t explain how it’s different here. It just is.
“My fantasy,” said my husband, “is to have C teaching law at Stanford, J practicing law in San Francisco and M living at Santana Row just a few miles from us.”
Living in a place where I could develop an expansive worldview, a world of no limits and few boundaries, has added texture and excitement to my life and made me joyful and optimistic about my life.
I wish the same for all young people coming up and especially for my nephews.