Coming To Lakewood

About two years ago, my husband asked the pivotal question over dinner in our Bronx, New York apartment: “What do you think about Cleveland?”

He didn’t need to explain any further. In our marital shorthand, I understood the question and all that it implied. For years we’d been thinking about finding a new place to put down roots. It had become a hobby of sorts: every city where his employer has a branch office had been subject to our speculation. We’d even come up with a new word—“fake-ality”—to describe our possible future lives in these places. Fake-ality scenarios were theoretically possible, highly unlikely, and lots of fun to think about. 

Boston? Awesome, but too expensive. 

Houston? Awesome, but too hot.

Miami? Good God, no.

But now that we had a child, fake-ality had evolved into something less theoretical and more urgent. New York was a wonderful place. But for many reasons personal and practical, we were ready for something different. It was time to consider our options, both plausible and absurd. It was time to keep our eyes open to opportunities, even those in disguise. Especially those in disguise.

On that day, purely by coincidence, my husband had overheard a conversation at his office. It was a conversation that implied—vaguely and with many jumps in logic, but implied nonetheless—a possible opportunity in the company’s Cleveland area branch.

Cleveland? Well, it was a few hours’ drive further than I’d wanted to be from family. But other than that? 

Well, what did we think about Cleveland?

Before I became a stay-at-home mom, I’d worked in comic book publishing, and we had a short but impressive list of creative people in that field who hailed from the Cleveland region. That left me with a good impression. Liz Lemon from 30 Rock considered Cleveland a wonderful dreamland, in a way that was not entirely ironic. And, as a tongue-in-cheek YouTube video informed me, in Cleveland you could “buy a house for the price of a VCR.”

In New York, you can barely buy a VCR for the price of a VCR. Cleveland was looking good.

Eventually we decided to plan a visit to the area, just to see how we liked it. But where to begin? For commuting reasons, the west side seemed like a practical place to start. Other than that, we didn’t know our Tremonts from our Shaker Heightses, and the internet could only tell us so much. So we turned to people we knew who were familiar with the area. Here is what one friend told us:

"[T]he suburbs are really diverse, as far as what they offer. Many can be as overly chain-restauranted as suburbs anywhere, but there are some (like Lakewood on the West Side, or Cleveland Heights or Coventry on the East Side) that have really great culture, too."

I zeroed in on the word Lakewood. The name itself seemed agreeable enough; it didn’t have that suspiciously manufactured sound that some suburb names have, like “Quaintsville” or “Affluent Corners.” According to our friend it had great culture, and the location was convenient. I knew exactly three things about Lakewood so far, and all of them were good.

Lakewood went onto the list of places to explore. And as soon as we arrived in downtown Cleveland, our positive impressions of the region began to accumulate. People walked around comfortably at night. The parking garage was improbably clean. A stranger asked me if I was a model. (No, wait, I’m thinking of 30 Rock again.)

When we headed west into Lakewood, we continued to like what we saw. In fact if you’d asked me to describe my personal idea of the perfect place to live, this pretty much would have been it. We saw beautiful houses that were spacious but not excessive; far enough apart to give everyone their own space but close enough together to invite a sense of community. We saw people of different ages and colors and personal styles together in groups of friends and families, not just a few times but as the norm. We saw independent businesses selling things we would want to buy. We saw a restaurant specializing in grilled cheese. It was very, very hard not to get overexcited.

On the way home we decided that yes, we thought very highly of Cleveland indeed.

The pull that we felt specifically toward Lakewood was almost instinctive, like the classic advice that when something is right, you’ll just know. But for such a big decision, we were hesitant to go on instinct alone. So we sought opinions about Lakewood and learned what we could about every possible downside. As it turns out, finding information about Lakewood is not difficult, and finding locals to share valuable, nuanced advice is even easier. Ultimately we decided that those downsides we heard about—mainly with the economy and the school system—were, at worst, things we could live with; at best, potential assets in disguise. And the availability of information, coupled with people’s willingness to share their thoughts, only reinforced our positive impressions.

It took more than a year of groundwork-laying and false starts. We got the blessings of family members, who were willing to see our daughter a little less in exchange for knowing what she stood to gain. Time passed, efforts were made, and eventually our plan became a reality. Finally, at the end of 2010, we made it official and moved into our new house in Lakewood.

So here we are a few months later. We’ve embraced Lakewood life almost aggressively, like we’re making up for lost time. I start conversations with strangers. I restrain myself from signing up our preschooler in every available activity. I make private observations that probably amuse nobody but my own self: The squirrels here are such daredevils! The parking spots so wide and plentiful! People get home from work so blessedly early! There’s a yoga studio on every corner! 

It’s not just that there’s so much to do and see and learn within Lakewood; as New Yorkers we’re accustomed to that. But the difference here is that it’s so accessible. Not only do these shops and recreational activities exist, but most of them are affordable, well-publicized, and located someplace we can get to within a few minutes. 

Of course, I know that Lakewood has its flaws like any other place. There are political disagreements, economic concerns, and plenty of other things I haven’t learned about yet. But at the risk of sounding annoyingly optimistic, the fact that I know about these flaws in the first place is another testament to Lakewood’s strength: our population seems remarkably engaged in dialogue. Whether it’s in the pages of the Observer or a couple of neighbors chatting at a local business, everywhere I go, I see signs of people being interested and actively involved in how the community is doing and what we can do to make it better. Then, remarkably, people actually seem to do it.

I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I keep waiting to hear Empire State of Mind or some other New York pride song blasting from someone’s car stereo and making me feel a wave of homesickness.  But to my surprise, it hasn’t happened. One, because nobody seems to blast car stereos here, and two, because, well, I’m actually not experiencing any of the doubts that I thought I would. I was expecting a learning curve. I braced myself for some culture shock as we adjusted to this new place, where backyards are a given rather than an extravagant luxury; where the brazen squirrels tempt fate and often win. As it turns out, the biggest shock of all is not how out of place we feel, but how we are so completely, unmistakably at home.

Nicole Boose

Nicole is a stay-at-home mom and freelance editor. She and her family relocated to Lakewood at the end of 2010 from the Bronx, New York City.

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Volume 7, Issue 10, Posted 10:37 PM, 05.17.2011