By Tom Robotham
Thirty years ago this month, I moved from New York City to Norfolk. When I told my friends and co-workers of my plans, they thought I was nuts. One senior executive at Hearst Magazines, where I was working at the time, went so far as to call me a “coward” for giving up on “the greatest city in the world.” My best friend’s father, meanwhile, told me I’d hate Norfolk.
“It’s nothing but drunken sailors and prostitutes,” he said, drawing on his memories of being stationed here briefly during World War II.
Nevertheless, it seemed like the right decision.
Don’t get me wrong—I still loved New York. But several life changes had altered my relationship with it. The first big change came in 1986 when I married a woman I’d met a year earlier. On our first date, I’d asked her where she was from.
“Tidewater, Virginia,” she said.
I told her I had no idea where that was.
“Norfolk,” she said in an effort to clarify—but the truth is, while I’d heard of it, I knew absolutely nothing about it.
That changed fairly quickly after we began taking trips here to visit her family. Still, at the time it never occurred to me that I might end up living here. Indeed, when I moved in with her a few months after we met, I was living my dream in a sweet apartment in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, just six blocks from my office.
When we learned, in 1989, that we were going to have our first child, we knew we needed to start looking for a bigger place. We considered all of our options, from larger apartments in the city to houses in Westchester or New Jersey. Finally, we settled on a brand-new apartment complex in Jersey, steps from the Hudson River, with a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline. But we knew that was temporary. There was virtually nothing around the complex, and although Manhattan was just a short train ride away, the development had little sense of community.
We continued our house-hunting trips throughout the greater metropolitan area, but nothing seemed quite right. Then, toward the end of 1990, an opportunity presented itself: My wife was offered a job with the Virginia Opera, and she asked me how I felt about the idea of moving here.
The prospect appealed to me for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I was growing tired of living in a steel-and-concrete environment. I’d grown up on Staten Island, and while it is one of the city’s five boroughs my neighborhood had been heavily wooded when I was a child. To put it plainly, I missed living among trees. I also liked the idea of a more laidback lifestyle, where simply getting around on a day-to-day basis isn’t a hassle of traffic jams and crowded subway cars. Moreover, the dramatically lower cost of living was a big draw. Finally, after many discussions, we decided to go for it. I had no job lined up but figured I could freelance while looking for one.
IN THOSE EARLY YEARS, it seemed to have been a wise choice. For one thing, we were able to buy a lovely house in Larchmont. A comparable neighborhood in the New York metro area would have been far out of our financial reach. For another thing, I didn’t have to give up New York entirely. My boss at Hearst had asked me after I resigned to stay on under part-time contract, and for six years I boarded a US Air flight every Tuesday morning and flew back here on Thursday evenings. After a while, though, that got old—especially after our son was born in 1993. I was growing tired of the commute, and my wife was growing even more tired of being a working single mother three days out of every week. Fortunately, in 1997 I landed a major freelance job that allowed me to work almost entirely from home, with only occasional trips to New York and Los Angeles.
In a way, though, I didn’t feel fully grounded in Norfolk until the following year when I landed the job of editor-in-chief of Port Folio Weekly. As I began to make more connections, I finally started feeling that I truly belonged here.
The surprisingly rich arts community was especially appealing to me. Moreover, downtown Norfolk was on the threshold of revival, as more restaurants began to appear and Harbor Park opened. As a lifelong Mets fan, I was grateful to be able to follow their minor league team in a beautiful stadium where tickets cost a fraction of what they did a Shea. And of course I grew fond of Ghent, with its charming old movie theater and variety of shops, bars and cafés.
It was a nice life, and I was especially grateful to live in a neighborhood where my kids enjoyed the freedom of roaming with friends, without adult supervision, much as I had in Staten Island in the early ‘60s. I also liked that they were growing up as part of a big extended family, revolving around their maternal grandparents.
In the autumn of 2007, however, I faced another major life change—divorce. A number of friends asked me if I planned to move back to New York—and after my kids went off to college, I seriously considered it. But two things held me back.
First, I knew that was easier said than done. During my tenure at Port Folio I’d felt that I’d found my true calling. Even if I could have found work in New York that paid enough to live comfortably—no easy task in itself—I didn’t want to settle for a job. I wanted to continue work that was deeply meaningful to me. Had the publisher of The New Yorker called and asked me to take the helm, I’m sure I would have gone in a heartbeat; but the phone never rang—nor did NYU call and ask me to head up their American Studies program, with a six-figure salary and a subsidized brownstone on Washington Square Park thrown in as added incentive.
OK, I REALIZE that sounds a little ridiculous, but by that point it would have taken an offer nearly that attractive to lure me back. After my 10-year stint at Port Folio came to a sad but inevitable end (I’d been at odds with the management, nearly from day one) I started teaching and quickly grew fond of ODU, where I was given the opportunity to create new courses.
Over the years I’d also made a lot of great friends—something that’s a lot easier to do in Norfolk than it is in New York. The notion that New Yorkers are rude is way overblown by outsiders, but I think it’s true that people there tend to have their guard up more than they do here.
On top of all this, New York had changed—and not for the better. The West Village—always my favorite neighborhood—was still lovely (and remains so) but skyrocketing rents were increasingly driving my favorite bars, clubs and stores out of business.
In spite of all this, though, I still wonder: What would my life be like if we’d stayed in New York—or if I’d moved back there 10 or 12 years ago. Reflecting on this, I can’t help thinking of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” The poem is widely misinterpreted as a celebration of rugged individualism by a speaker who dared to take the road “less traveled.” Frost says outright in the second stanza that the two roads were worn “really about the same.”
So what is it about?
To my mind, it’s about the human tendency to wonder, “what if?” In the last stanza, he realizes that years from now he will be telling “with a sigh” the story of the day he made his choice. But therein lies Frost’s trickery. A sigh, after all, could be an expression of relief, regret or resignation—or all of the above. Then, in the final line, more trickery: his choice made “all the difference.”
Obviously our choices make a difference—but from what, we’ll never know.
With all of this in mind, as I sit here in my spacious and sunlit apartment—the rent for which is a fraction of what it would be in Manhattan—I’m feeling good about the decision we made three decades ago. There’s a lot about New York that I still miss. But when it comes to the things that truly matter—great friends, meaningful work, affordable housing and a sense of community—Norfolk has blessed me in abundance. For that I’m truly thankful.