Why I Don't Live in a Gated Community
My husband and I chose to live in the city. Now a widow, I'm making my life there.
In the spring of 2021, we found ourselves at a crossroads. The house was becoming too much —especially the stairs, which were beginning to feel like Everest.
Additionally, we were retired, our kids were grown and the pandemic handed us a gift. With people fleeing the city for the suburbs, the housing market tipped in our favor — both as sellers and buyers — because we chose to go the other direction.
Many of our friends were surprised that we settled on a small condo just north of downtown Chicago instead of some gated or senior community in the Sunbelt. I'm sure my decision was a reaction to growing up on a dead-end street in a homogenized subdivision, where the houses all looked like they rolled off an assembly line.
After college, in my 20s, my first newspaper job brought me to Davenport, Iowa — not exactly the "single girl in the city" escapades of my dreams. Then, marriage and family followed in other zip codes always described as "a good place to raise kids."
Many of our friends were surprised that we settled on a small condo just north of downtown Chicago instead of some gated or senior community in the Sunbelt.
So, after more than four decades in the suburbs, we packed up and moved to where we could get Chinese food delivered at 3 A.M.
My husband and I were like tourists, marveling at all our neighborhood had to offer. Just a short stroll from our front door was a real movie theater showing foreign films rather than the mall multiplex with superheroes on three screens. We could buy freshly-baked croissants, empanadas, sushi and matzo ball soup — all on the same block.
For one year, we gorged on live theater, free concerts by a world-class symphony and strolling the path along Lake Michigan. Do you want a cafe with a menu devoted to marshmallows? We've got that. How about a store where you can de-stress by cuddling bunnies or a school for pole-dancing? We've got that, too.
An Ominous Turn
But then this new chapter took an ominous turn. We were stepping out of an Uber for a Sunday matinee when my husband said suddenly, "My legs aren't working." Our friends each took an arm and dragged him to our mezzanine seats. Afterwards, they went to dinner, and we went to the ER.
His colon cancer was back with a vengeance; four months later he was gone. This was not part of the plan.
I knew not to make any major decisions while I was in this early fog of widowhood.
Once again, people started asking me about relocating. Don't I want a fresh start? To get out of the place where he had endured so much pain? I could barely muster the energy to get out of bed, how could I possibly manage a move? Besides, I knew not to make any major decisions while I was in this early fog of widowhood.
But it isn't surprising that people push moving because so many of us are uprooting themselves. Baby boomers now make up 39% of all home buyers — the most of any generation — according to a study released earlier this year by the National Association of Realtors (NAR). This is an increase of 10% over 2022.
"Coming out of the pandemic, people have reconsidered how they want to live," said Jessica Lautz, the NAR's deputy chief economist. "They are living healthier and longer. They want convenience, entertainment and walkability. They are buying condos in the city or inner suburbs — not retirement communities. That's a change dynamic."
Additionally, older adults have the upper hand in the buying market, Lautz explained. "They have the housing equity to afford all the amenities and find their ideal neighborhood, unlike younger generations."
Expanding My Orbit
Boomers have flipped the script at every stage of life — from women entering the work force in record numbers to getting married later — so it's not surprising that we are revising this next chapter, too.
While "best places" lists typically tout retirement meccas such as Florida, Arizona and Texas, I needed something more than sunshine and low taxes. Now that the two most fulfilling phases of my life — my career and my marriage — were over, I needed to find ways to expand my orbit, not shrink it.
As boomers wrestle with this decision, it really comes down to one question: How do you want to spend your remaining days? For some, it might be on the golf course or the bridge table. For me, it was culture, food, friends and the arts.
All the activities of this vibrant neighborhood make it easier to build a new life on top of my old one.
So, I've stayed. An art fair here, a yoga class there. Lincoln Park Zoo and the nearby Conservatory warmed me during those dark days of winter, when I feared sliding into the abyss. Sometimes, I met former colleagues at the Michelin-starred restaurant, just 267 steps away. (I know because I counted them).
To be sure, it's not all roses. Wailing ambulances and honking horns provide a constant soundtrack to urban living and I routinely get hit up for spare change. Shoplifting is so rampant that at my local Walgreens even laundry detergent is kept under lock and key. Rising crime is a concern, of course, as it is in all big cities.
Still, that doesn't stop some well-meaning relatives from worrying that I walk over shell casings to go shopping. What they don't know: All the activities of this vibrant neighborhood make it easier to build a new life on top of my old one. I am alone but rarely lonely.
Steve Leder, in his excellent book "More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us," shares a story about Yitzhak Perlman, who was about to begin a concerto at Carnegie Hall when one of his strings snapped. The violinist changed the fingerings and played without missing a beat. Perlman later told the audience: "It is my job to make music with what remains."
It doesn't take much — even stumbling across my husband's handwriting in the checkbook — to lob a grenade to my heart. And I am certainly not suggesting that a few farmers markets and street performers will tame this beast called grief. I'm just trying to make a little music.