Top row, left to right: Tina and Sebastian Villaveces at LMNOP Bakery in Katonah, Bonnie Gleicher, Sibil Sebastian Patri, Alia Ornstein, David and Taleen Mena at LMNOP Bakery in Katonah. Bottom row, left t0 right: Mona Lipson at Design Solutions in Pound Ridge, Greg Herrera, Lauren Baptiste, Jason Kadlec, Joe Kaiser.

In March 2020, Tina and Sebastian Villaveces hunkered down in their Brooklyn apartment, working remotely, caring for their infant son, and taking pandemic precautions: minimal human contact, masking in public, quarantining groceries.  After four months of lockdown in tight quarters, they bought a house in Pound Ridge.

“I always thought of myself as an urban person,” says Sebastian, an attorney who grew up in Bogotá and has lived in New York, Paris and Chicago.  “This was my first suburban, semi-rural living.”

They’re not alone. In recent years, an influx of city dwellers have abandoned urban life and embraced suburbia, fueled by the pandemic and the rise of remote and hybrid work. These transplants have traded apartments for houses, subways for cars and concrete jungles for actual trees. In Northern Westchester, cosmopolitan expatriates are pleasantly surprised by small town pleasures, even as they adjust to challenges that come with the territory.

The pandemic accelerated a demographic shift, according to Betsy Ronel, a real estate broker at Coldwell Banker.  Since 2020, Ronel has seen a “huge exodus” from Northern Westchester to North Carolina and Florida, plus migration to Arizona and Colorado. In a frothing housing market, many local retirees and older couples with grown kids cashed out, selling their homes to younger families – mostly from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Lower Westchester and Long Island – suddenly eager for more indoor and outdoor space, lower taxes and a slower pace of life.

Embracing the ‘burbs

Like many locals, the new arrivals include creatives, entrepreneurs and socially conscious citizens.

“Every person I meet here blows my mind,” says Tina Villaveces, who founded Yellow Studio in Cross River, an art gallery, co-working space and creative community for women. “No one here is lazy. Everyone is doing something cool.”

Take Bonnie Gleicher, a theater composer who moved to Katonah from Manhattan with her husband and dog, Gerbert. An Armonk native, Gleicher finds the serenity conducive to creativity. Following her Off-Broadway musical about a puppet with autism, Gleicher is now composing “Gavroche,” a “Les Miserables” reboot told from the perspective of the titular street urchins.

In North Salem, Jason Kadlec draws inspiration from his new community: people working in theater, film and the visual arts. Kadlec, a real estate agent, is writing “Teddy’s Friends,” an animated series that promotes emotional intelligence and social justice for elementary school boys, partly inspired by his childhood struggles as “a gay guy in the Midwest” and his self-empowerment as an adult.

“I want to give kids a taste of freedom on the other side of fear, rejection, anger,”  explains Kadlec, who moved from Manhattan to Westchester in 2018 with his husband, who grew up in Katonah. “There’s power and magic on the other side.”

The great outdoors

Like Gleicher and Kadlec, many newcomers gush about Northern Westchester’s proximity to nature and city access—the best of both worlds.

Joe Kaiser, an opera singer, relocated to Katonah after decades in Chicago, and he says he loves the serenity.

“From my house I can see two other houses,” says Kaiser, a Montreal native who grew up in Scarsdale. “But I have to use a telescope to see them.”

Tranquility also suits David and Taleen Mena, who relocated from Los Angeles to South Salem with a pandemic pit stop in her native home of Colorado.

“The ratio of trees to people is about 1,000 to one,” jokes David, an entrepreneur born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Sleepy Hollow. “That’s a good ratio.”

“I think it’s the right place for an individual or family who want quiet and to be away from the chaos, but still in a place where everything is accessible,” adds Taleen, an HR consultant. “I joke that we’re country adjacent.”

Ian Roberts, who left Brooklyn for Pound Ridge, cherishes the local biodiversity. In his new backyard, he’s spotted foxes, bobcats, possums, turtles, herons, hawks, turkeys, otters…and a bear.

Greg Herrera, a university administrator, and his wife, Anna, a schoolteacher, came to Katonah from Harlem with their daughters in the fall of 2020 after summer stints renting in the Catskills.

“It was a pure pandemic panic move,” Herrera says. “New York City apartments weren’t meant to do everything: live, work and go to school.”

Herrera now loves hiking at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, skiing at Thunder Ridge and hearing live music at Caramoor—plus the proximity to Manhattan.

“We love how convenient it is to go to the city,” he says. “We go back to our old stomping grounds – concerts, Broadway shows – probably more now than when we lived in the city.”

Be my friend?

The major challenge for new arrivals? Finding their people.

Some newbies have made friends through kids’ play dates, birthday parties and youth sports. Others have joined adult tennis, softball and volleyball leagues.  Many follow local listservs and social media groups. Still, to city transplants, small towns can feel insular and impenetrable, especially during a pandemic.

“When I first moved here, I wrote a little ditty: ‘Does Anybody Wanna Be My Friend?’” says Gleicher. “I’ve made a couple of friends [since], but it’s not as easy here as in the city.”

Kadlec felt welcomed by his neighbors, yet notes an unspoken tension in the area between long-time residents and newcomers.  “You’re coming onto someone else’s turf,” he says. “There’s an element of ‘who are you and why are you here?’”

Ronel, the real estate broker, adds that longtime residents have complained about increased traffic, speedy drivers, leaf blower bans, and even the color run–phenomena, which they ascribe to newcomers.

“Change is hard,” she says.

Yearning for a “taste” of home

City expatriates’ other common complaint  is local restaurants’ lack of dietary options and ethnic diversity.

Kaiser, an investor in the Chicago restaurants Oriole and Kumiko, yearns for more global cuisines, especially Japanese, Indian and Vietnamese.

Manhattan transplant Lauren Baptiste, founder of Acheloa Wellness where she’s a “burnout coach for corporate women,” appreciates her outdoorsy lifestyle in Pound Ridge, but pines for healthier menus.

“I am vegetarian, and I find that it’s not impossible, but it’s not easy here,” she says. “I would love to see greater diversity in food, including different dietary preferences.”

Don’t forget vegans, adds Sibil Sebastian Patri, a corporate strategist who moved to Waccabuc from Edgemont – and previously from Manhattan.

“Having vegan options on menus doesn’t just help vegans,” she explains. “Not everyone wants to eat meat or dairy all the time.”   

Herrera wishes restaurants kept later hours. “It’s hard to put your kids to bed at 9:00 and then [go out for dinner when] every place is closed at 9:30.”

Transforming our communities

For city transplants, the culinary landscape mirrors the lack of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, despite the preponderance of Black Lives Matter and We Believe signs.

“People are open minded and welcoming,” notes Herrera, the son of Colombian immigrants. “But there isn’t a lot of cultural diversity.”

Patri agrees. “It’s very homogeneous here,” she says.  Her parents hail from Kerala, India, and her Indian husband grew up in Hong Kong.

To promote diversity, equity and inclusion, Patri joined the DEI group at Increase Miller Elementary School, which recently made bulletin boards celebrating Diwali, Native American heritage and Filipino heritage; she’s also a member of Katonah-Lewisboro School District’s Equity and Racial Justice Committee. Beyond lived experiences, Patri brings a professional track record on her firm’s DEI committee, advocating for women and minorities.

She’s not alone. Andromeda Turre, a musician who moved to Mt. Kisco and then Katonah from Manhattan, chairs Bedford’s diversity committee and runs Growing Up Jazz, a series of music and diversity workshops for all ages. And, Katonah residents Andy Yu and Evan Goldberg have held various community events to promote ethnic diversity and inclusion since they moved from Manhattan during the pandemic.

To be sure, the lack of cultural diversity isn’t monolithic. The Villaveces family are raising two bilingual children, and they were thrilled to meet other local native Spanish speakers.

Similarly, Alia Ornstein — who relocated from Greenpoint to Pound Ridge with her husband, Ian Roberts, and their children — appreciates the relative diversity of the Bedford Central School District. Nevertheless, she would welcome more economic diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I’d like to see commerce at different price points,” says Ornstein. “Where business districts exist, I would like for them to not cater only to upper income individuals. I think that’s a missed opportunity. I would love to see more mixed income housing in this area.”

Ornstein believes that Northern Westchester should court more apartment buildings and multifamily houses, like her childhood home in New Britain, CT, which she describes as “a small city composed mostly of blue collar, BIPOC and immigrant folks,” like her mother from Poland.

She called the new affordable housing in Goldens Bridge, Lewisboro Commons, “a good starting point,” but not enough to meet the potential demand.   

While Ornstein’s desire to urbanize the suburbs may seem like the inverse of her job as Chief Operating Officer of Brooklyn Grange, which builds urban rooftop farms and green spaces, she sees an opportunity “to give all of this green and this richness and resiliency to a larger swath of people.”

All in all, while many transplants are still adjusting to their new communities, they’re optimistic about the future. They hope to infuse the area with their global perspective while appreciating the virtues of the community that attracted them here in the first place.

And for any city dweller with mixed feelings about rocking the suburbs, Mona Lipson offers an encouraging example.  Lipson –a digital marketer who also runs the Guatemala Healing Hands Foundation and Miss Mona Makes Ice Cream, migrated to Pound Ridge in August 2022 after living in the city since birth.

“If I could leave Brooklyn after 40 years,” she says. “Anyone can do it.”

This article was published in the January/February 2023 print edition of Katonah Connect.

Keith Meatto
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Keith Meatto is a writer whose reporting, essays, reviews and fiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Forward, Guernica and many other newspapers, magazines and journals. He teaches academic writing at NYU and creative writing at the two prisons in Bedford Hills. As an editor, he helps private clients elevate and deepen their storytelling. “All my work is about connecting with people intellectually and emotionally via language and stories,” says Keith, who moved with his family to Katonah from Brooklyn in 2020.