Moving In-or Moving On?

Teny Gross has never felt better about his work with urban youth. As executive director of the two-year-old Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, Gross is building on a decade of outreach work on the streets of Boston, where he was one of the unsung heroes of the city’s successful campaign to quell juvenile crime in the late 1990s. But now he’s plying his urban peacekeeping trade 50 miles away, across the Rhode Island border.

Twice driven out of apartments because the property had been sold and feeling cramped in the one-bedroom unit he was renting for $1,200 a month, the 37-year-old native of Israel packed up and left with his wife and their newborn son two years ago. Landing in a neighborhood of modest homes on the south side of Providence, he was able to buy a simple but attractive three-bedroom Victorian single-family for $105,000, about one-third the price of similar homes in his old Boston neighborhood.

Providence Mayor David Cicilline is glad to have had the ex-Bostonian set up shop in his on-the-rise but still-troubled city. “He has had an incredibly powerful and important impact on the city,” says Cicilline.

But Providence’s gain is Boston’s loss, and Gross admits to being a reluctant Rhode Islander. “I really loved Boston in a very deep way,” he says. “I knew all the neighborhoods. I knew it like the back of my hand.” But his wife, Julia Clinker, 35, a documentary photographer, was the voice of realism, he says, as they looked ahead, dreaming of a home they could own and raise a growing family in. “She said, ‘Teny, it won’t happen here,'” recalls Gross.

The monthly mortgage payment on their new home in Providence is $400 less than they were paying in rent for their small apartment in Dorchester. They are 10 minutes from Clinker’s father, a minister in neighboring Cranston, and still only two hours from her mother, who lives in western Massachusetts. With a backyard vegetable garden that yielded a bounty of fresh produce last summer and the 435-acre Roger Williams Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, just two blocks away, “I totally feel like a Rockefeller,” Gross has to admit.

Julia Clinker and Teny Gross, with son
John, found a better deal in Providence.

Gross and Clinker aren’t the only Massachusetts residents to find the grass greener on the other side of the state line. Over the past five years, the Bay State has suffered a net loss of more than 5,000 residents to the Ocean State. It’s part of a migration pattern that has sent thousands of residents over Massachusetts’s borders into Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine over the past dozen years. Many of these Massachusetts expatriates are young people, in their 20s and 30s, college educated, their ties to Greater Boston unraveled by the high cost of living here. Among those getting swept away are teachers, social workers, and employees of nonprofit agencies, the kind of people who do not command high-flying salaries but play vital roles in civic life.

That fact, while troubling, doesn’t in and of itself make Massachusetts a loser. There are other contests underway. With an economy increasingly driven by growth and innovation in knowledge-based sectors such as information technology and biomedical research, the Bay State is also waging a high-stakes battle with a handful of states like California, Colorado, North Carolina, and New York for the high-priced talent needed to fuel the technology-focused industries they have all pegged their futures on.

The state’s challenge in attracting and retaining educated young workers has drawn attention recently from business and civic leaders. In October, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and The Boston Foundation released a report sounding the alarm over the loss of graduates from area colleges, half of whom said they were leaving the territory after receiving their degrees. “If the trend continues, it will have serious implications for Greater Boston’s knowledge-based economy,” warned the Chamber report. That same week, however, the Boston Redevelopment Authority released a report that drew precisely the opposite conclusion. The BRA study, titled Boston’s Dynamic Workforce, pointed out that Boston is teeming with young people, second only to Austin, Texas, in the concentration of young adults as a percentage of its population–a finding that would come as no surprise to anyone who rides the MBTA’s Green Line at rush hour.

The loss of residents has accelerated in the past five year.

The disposition of the region’s twenty- and thirtysomethings is unquestionably important to the state’s future. With the fourth lowest rate of labor-force growth of any state during the 1990s, Massachusetts needs to hold on to as many young workers as it can, particularly those with higher skills. But the dueling reports, which seemed to disagree on whether the news on that front was grim or rosy, may have done more to cloud than to clarify the issue.

The mixed messages even came in for a bit of ridicule in the pages of theBoston Herald. Columnist Tom Keane mocked the Chamber’s warning of “a new crisis in Boston,” pointing out that losing half of the region’s college graduates doesn’t seem so bad if one considers that roughly 80 percent of Greater Boston college students come here from other areas. A Herald editorial piled on two days later, charging the Chamber and the Boston Foundation with joining forces to “mutually hyperventilate” over a problem that doesn’t exist.

In fact, Keane may have sneered his way to the real challenge facing Massachusetts. Dismissing both studies for a “demographically-driven, MTV-ish feel,” Keane concluded by setting his demographic sights a bit higher, or at least older: “Young adults eventually grow into older adults. Knowing that the city will care as much about them when they’re over 35 might be the best reason for those who are under 35 to stick around.” As attractive and fun-filled as the Boston area may be for the footloose crowd fresh out of college, it is becoming an increasingly difficult place for those in their 20s to envision a future as they reach 30 and beyond.

Hot pursuit

From beaches to mountains, high-quality public education to rich cultural offerings, lilac blossoms to autumn leaves, Massachusetts offers a lifestyle that many residents seem to cherish. That was the finding of The Pursuit of Happiness, a report issued last May by MassINC, based on an in-depth survey of 1,000 Bay State residents. But the largely positive picture was disturbed by some dissonance. Most noteworthy was the finding that one-quarter of all state residents would leave the state if they had the opportunity, a figure that rose to fully one-third among those who had moved to Massachusetts within the past 10 years, including the state’s younger, non-native college graduates. The state’s high cost of living, led by stratospheric housing prices, was a major factor cited by the would-be movers for their restlessness.

Another MassINC study, released in December, documented the movement underway. Looking exclusively at domestic migration patterns (i.e., not counting foreign immigrants), Mass.Migration reveals that Massachusetts has lost a substantial number of residents to other New England states–a net loss of 79,031 residents over the past 12 years. Those leaving for neighboring states tend to be young, Massachusetts-born, well educated, and married with children. New Hampshire has been, by far, the most popular destination, with a net gain of 78,201 former Massachusetts residents during the period 1990 to 2002. The loss of residents to nearby states has accelerated over the past five years; particularly striking is a recently developing exodus to Rhode Island, from which Massachusetts had been gaining residents in the early ’90s.

The MassINC report also tracked movement between Massachusetts and seven direct competitors in the hunt for knowledge-economy talent. Here, the Bay State fared better. Massachusetts actually experienced a net gain of 14,428 residents from seven economic-competitor states over the period, but with substantial regional variation. The more distant competitors–California, Colorado, Minnesota, and North Carolina–gained more residents than they gave up to Massachusetts, but the Bay State’s loss was offset by larger gains from nearby competitors Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.

These bragging rights, while significant, were not sufficient to drown out the overall finding: In every year over the 12-year period–which included the economic boom of the 1990s–Massachusetts lost more residents than it gained, with a net loss of 213,191 domestic residents.

“Even during the most robust period of economic growth the state has experienced in recent memory, we were still unable to retain more people than we lost,” says Michael Goodman, director of economic and public policy research at the University of Massachusetts’s Donahue Institute and a co-author of the MassINC report. “If these flows varied with the business cycle, we might be able to say, ‘Hey, when growth returns, so will these people.’ That’s not really what the data suggest.”

Brain gains

If high-skilled knowledge-economy workers are the quarry in the labor-force hunt, David Schultz qualifies as a prize catch. The 27-year-old Long Island native came to Boston eight years ago to attend Boston University, from which he received a degree in biomedical engineering. With the region booming in businesses that make use of his specialty in bioinformatics–the use of technology and computers to analyze genomic data–it was an easy call for Schultz to stick around and begin his career here. After spending three years as a programmer for Astra Pharmaceuticals in Waltham, he’s now working in the Cambridge office of IDBS, a United Kingdom-based company that develops data management software for biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

David Schultz: no “sticker shock”
for a migrant from New York.

Schultz fits the bill of the highly paid knowledge worker that has made Boston–like Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, and Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina–a leader in attracting highly educated, younger college graduates–that is, a “brain gain” center, in the parlance of a Washington Post article describing US cities that seem to be riding the crest of the New Economy wave.

During his first year out of college, Schultz shared an apartment with a friend in Norwood, about 15 miles south of Boston. That was “miserable,” he says. “I had never been to the Massachusetts suburbs, and I got my first taste of them and I wasn’t thrilled.” Preferring the culture and pace of city life, Schultz spent more than a year looking for a place to settle. Last August he found a two-bedroom condominium in Cambridge. Purchase price: $360,000.

“People who aren’t from around here get sticker shock when they see how much it costs to live here, but they generally aren’t coming from a major city,” says Schultz. “I don’t think someone coming from New York or San Francisco would be that shocked to see what it costs.”

Although he voices some reservations about Boston–Schultz says he would jump at the right opportunity to return to New York–he could very well end up here for the long haul, he says. Contemplating a return to school for an MBA, with an eye toward an eventual entrepreneurial turn, Schultz says Boston is unquestionably one of the places to be. Pointing to the pharmaceutical giant Novartis locating its worldwide research headquarters in Cambridge and new Merck research labs going up in Boston, Schultz says, “That’s very encouraging for people in the biotech industry in Massachusetts. That’s a reason to stay.”

Medical practice

Whether Ruchi Gupta and Tarun Jain will find reason enough to stay remains to be seen. The young physicians met while completing residencies at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. They came to Boston in the summer of 2001 in order to pursue specialty fellowships at Harvard-affiliated hospitals: Gupta, 31, in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital, and Jain, 33, in reproductive endocrinology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Gupta, who grew up in Louisville, Ky., spent several months in Boston on a research internship after college, “and fell in love with the city,” she says. “I felt it was the greatest place on earth,” she adds, citing everything from the museum and theater life to the rich mix of people she met here.

Ruchi Gupta says Boston is great,
but Cincinnati is more sensible.

As to Boston’s allure for someone going into medicine, it is almost without parallel. “It’s a great place to train,” says Gupta. “It’s Harvard, and people want to be here.”

But staying here is another matter, she says. “Once you’re done training, the competition is incredible, and the pay is not all that great compared to other places,” says Gupta. “I’m not so smitten with it anymore. I still enjoy it, but I don’t know if it’s the right place to stay and live.” Now figuring in their calculations is a son, Rohan, who will turn 2 in April. And that means planning for the future. “You’re starting to have kids, and having to pay the prices here and having to find jobs here,” says Gupta, her voice trailing off.

The young physicians considered buying a place, but decided to pass when the 900-square-foot condos they were looking at in Brookline within quick reach of their hospital posts, where they work 60- to 70-hour weeks, were going for $500,000. They pay nearly $2,500 a month in rent for a roomy two-bedroom apartment in a modern building on Beacon Street in Brookline, and say they wouldn’t trade the location. But with each of them earning a typical fellowship salary of between $40,000 and $50,000, and paying for rent and child care, they’re not putting much money away.

Both want to pursue careers that combine academic research with clinical practice when their fellowships end in June, and where better to do so than Boston, a place that’s often touted as the medical research capital of the world? Gupta and Jain are certainly looking at opportunities here, but the stresses and costs of life in Massachusetts have them exploring other options as well. “We’re looking at Cincinnati,” says Gupta, and not just because it would be close to her family in Louisville. “You can get around, there’s not all that traffic, and you wonder if it’s not better at this point in your life,” she says. “Here we’ve worked so hard to get to where we are, and we still can’t afford a house in Boston.”

Gupta’s is a story that’s all too familiar to Ellen Zane, the longtime network president of Partners HealthCare System, who was named recently as the new chief executive of Tufts-New England Medical Center. “We’re really seeing this slow drip, drip of talent either not wanting to come here or to remain here,” says Zane. “It’s very clearly cost of living in general, cost of housing, specifically,” as well as malpractice insurance rates, she adds.

On one level, training here only to take that talent elsewhere is the natural order of things. After all, we can no more expect every graduate churned out of a Boston-area college or university to remain in this area than Michiganders should expect to see every car coming off a Detroit assembly line motoring around their state. Higher education is an export industry in Massachusetts, pulling in dollars as students from around the country and, increasingly, from around the world come here for college and advanced study. The brainpower honed here is a national, if not international, resource. That we get as much the pick of the litter as we do is a stroke of luck, as much as it is an intrinsic advantage. As more regions come to see their future tied to promoting knowledge-based industries, Massachusetts and other states that came early to the technology ball will have good reason to worry about that dance floor getting more crowded. And good reason to take one wistful comment from Ruchi Gupta seriously.

“We made so many friends when we came here, and so many of them have left,” says Gupta. “It’s just a place where people come and go.”

Go north, young family

While we fret about whether high-tech engineers opt for Austin over Boston, or whether medical superstars who train here will ultimately settle here, another story is playing out that involves lots of people who don’t carry the credentials that have business and civic leaders panting. They are teachers, middle-level managers, and sales representatives, and they’re finding that the soil on which many of them grew up has become an increasingly difficult place to put down roots as adults and raise a family.

“We’re definitely city-type people,” says Lisa Atkins, 31, a graphic designer who, after getting married, settled in a Belmont apartment with her husband, DJ, in 1997. But when they decided in 1999 that they wanted a house, not a condo, they gave up their Belmont apartment for a small three-bedroom home in Wakefield, which they paid $229,000 for. Two years ago, with one child and another on the way, they decided they needed more room.

DJ grew up in Chelmsford, and they went house hunting in communities near his hometown–Westford and Tyngsborough were on their radar–but found themselves priced out of what they wanted. They landed just over the line in Pelham, NH, in a 2,600-square-foot, four-bedroom colonial for which they paid $370,000. “We had no intentions of moving to New Hampshire,” says Lisa Atkins. “But we wanted a big house, we wanted a lot of land, and that pushed us up to Pelham.” DJ’s commute to his job in Andover with a company that installs commercial security systems is exactly the same as it was when they lived in Wakefield, 20 minutes. And Lisa has launched her own graphic design business, working three days a week out of the home office she’s set up in their fourth bedroom.

If the Atkins family find themselves in New Hampshire by surprise, Paul Granada has been moving north all his life. Born in South Boston, he and his family fled the turmoil of school busing in the 1970s for Medford, where they lived in a public housing development. He attended the University of Massachusetts­Lowell, where he got a degree in industrial management. He’s been an account manager with Electronic Data Systems, with an office in Waltham, for six years. Granada and his wife, Nancy, both 36, spent two years looking for a house to buy, but to no avail. “We tried desperately to find a home in Massachusetts,” says Grenada. “We just couldn’t do it.”

Two and a half years ago, they bought a three-bedroom raised ranch in Merrimack, NH, a town of 25,000 just north of Nashua. The Grenadas paid $225,000–$100,000 less, Paul Grenada figures, than they would have paid for a comparable home in the Massachusetts towns where they began their house hunt. Though Paul is still employed in Massachusetts, he has set up a home office to save him the long commute whenever he can. And his frequent trips to see client companies, which are scattered along the eastern seaboard, are a breeze thanks to nearby Manchester Airport.

If Paul still has one foot in the Massachusetts economy, Nancy Grenada has cut her ties to the Bay State completely. Laid off from a Cambridge dot-com firm in 2001, she now works as a marketing manager at Daniel Webster College in Nashua. There may be a steady flow of commuters streaming over the border each morning from New Hampshire, but Nancy Grenada’s shift to a job in the Granite State is more representative of those who have migrated from Massachusetts since 1990, three-quarters of whom not only live, but also work, in New Hampshire.

Two families that recently bought houses on their street both came from Massachusetts, but Paul Grenada knows he’s hardly a pioneer. “I’m not trying to blaze a path to New Hampshire,” he says. “It’s been well blazed before.”

Digging in, bailing out?

The road to New Hampshire or Rhode Island, or out of the region altogether, is one that more and more well-educated young people, and especially young families, in Greater Boston may be forced onto. Curtis Ogden came to Boston in 1998 from Ithaca, NY, and dove into the life of the city. He worked for a local nonprofit agency, Teen Empowerment, as a coordinator of youth activities at English High School, in Jamaica Plain. The 34-year-old Michigan native met his wife, Emily Howard, 31, in Boston, and both of them recently completed master’s degree programs at Harvard, Ogden in theological studies from the Divinity School, and Howard from the Graduate School of Education.

Ogden now works for Building Excellent Schools, a 10-year-old Boston nonprofit that promotes the development of charter schools, while Emily, shifting career gears, is working at a local produce and farm store, with thoughts of possibly opening a similar business of her own. But as they contemplate the future from the Newton apartment they now rent, with an eye toward starting a family and buying their first home, the couple are having a hard time seeing how that might happen anywhere near where they are now.

“We want a place to call our own, and to really dig into a community,” says Ogden. But the only way that seems feasible, he says, is to head toward the hinterlands, perhaps to some place like Milford, a fast-growing town in the southeast corner of Worcester County, where friends of theirs recently bought a house. Leaving the state altogether, says Ogden, could end up being more attractive than being forced to settle so far from the city that drew them here to begin with.

“It’s certainly not what I bargained for,” says Ogden. “There’s a lot to be said [for] the Boston area, but more and more people I talk to in their later 20s and early 30s who want to pursue teaching or work in nonprofit organizations feel they’ve become second-class citizens. For 10-plus years I’ve been hearing about the disappearing middle class, and now I feel like I’m living it.”

What are the implications of Ogden’s story, or that of Lisa and DJ Atkins in Pelham, NH, or Teny Gross and Julia Clinker, once vital threads of the region’s social fabric who now count themselves as Rhode Islanders? “It could be some evidence of the hollowing out of the economic ladder in Massachusetts,” says Ralph Whitehead, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts­Amherst. The Massachusetts migrants to neighboring states, he says, are “the kind of households that made up the middle of the income distribution in the age when the income distribution was a bell-shaped curve.”

Though fully immersed in their new life in Providence, Teny Gross and Julia Clinker still have ties in Boston and enjoy their proximity to the city they called home for 11 years. For Lisa and DJ Atkins, small-town life just across the Massachusetts border seems to offer the best of both worlds. If she can avoid rush-hour traffic, Lisa says, it’s an easy 45-minute drive into downtown Boston, where she recently took her daughters for a day at the New England Aquarium.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

It’s possible that these population shifts just represent another cycle in a population churn that has remade the face of Greater Boston countless times over the years, a chapter worth chronicling, perhaps, but not a sky-is-falling trend to be fought. Indeed, some portion of the demographic flow of young people into and out of the state, and especially Greater Boston, is attributable to the 20-year boom Massachusetts has been in, periodic dips in the business cycle notwithstanding. Still, the rising tide created by the hyper-competitive, knowledge-based economy of today, rather than lifting all boats, seems instead to be reconfiguring the fleet, making way for sleek sloops by forcing many sturdy, reliable vessels into dry dock.

For now, perhaps, Massachusetts can content itself with being one of the winners in the cutting-edge economy of the 21st century. Whether it can stay in the winner’s circle, however, may depend on finding a way to preserve–or create anew–a way for people who were born to, or who chose, the Bay State to keep it as their home. Otherwise, more and more of those who start out trying to make a life here may come to view the region the way summertime tourists do: a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t be able to live here.