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Pauline Gaines Headshot

My Post-Divorce Downward Mobility Has an Upside

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When we first moved into our neighborhood, I took my daughter Franny on a walk. It was a gloomy December afternoon. We passed the Latino market, graffiti-streaked walls on a decrepit '70s apartment building, a front yard littered with boxes, Ikea cast-offs, a rusted car collapsed on the grass.

Franny squeezed my hand and grimaced.

"We don't live in a very good neighborhood, do we?"

Not so long ago, we lived in an impeccable Colonial with a terraced backyard and
blue-tiled pool -- the scene of martini parties for 200. My former neighborhood was a tiny oasis in the city, populated by young, beautiful people who never seemed to work -- their days filled with yoga classes, dog walks, and strolls to the gourmet market for $5 smoothies.

Then came the divorce. And a downsize -- with my two kids -- to a bungalow half the size of my old house. While our new neighborhood wasn't elegant, it was hip. Anything we needed was in walking distance: the Pilates place, the artisanal gelato place, the $75 t-shirt place, the attachment-parenting pediatrician.

The house had a wraparound porch that I turned into an outdoor living room with recycled fiber rugs, old arm chairs, a wooden picnic table and chairs. On summer nights, votives and floating candles transformed the porch into the perfect cocktail party locale. Guests ate puff pastries filled with melted gruyere and caramelized onions, tossed back mojitos, their laughter wafting into the twilight.

I had traded my pocket of elegance for urban hip and found that it suited my newly divorced self better. I was as happy as a stressed-out single mom could be.

Then I met my husband Atticus, and we decided to get married. I had purchased the bungalow post-divorce with my ex's monetary help (bad, very bad idea), and had dimwittedly agreed to dissolve our real estate partnership if I remarried.

I didn't want to leave the house and the trendy neighborhood I had grown to love. But Atticus and I couldn't afford to buy my ex out, and 1700 square feet wasn't big enough for our blended family anyway.

So we found an affordable neighborhood 20 minutes away, a once-grand, then-scary, now-slooooowly-headed-towards-gentrifictation cluster of historic homes -- magnificent jewels smack dab in the urban chaos of pupuserias, stucco apartment buildings and sober living facilities.

We bought a large, hundred-year old Craftsman that suited my aesthetics and our pocketbook. The day we moved in was the first time I saw the house without furniture. Was this why I hadn't noticed how warped the hardwood floors were? Why hadn't I seen the cracked tile in the bathroom shower? I muttered each time I had to struggle to yank open a crooked drawer. Most of the windows were painted shut and refused to budge.

As Atticus and I lay in bed that first night, kept awake by the thwap-thwap-thwap of police helicopters ferreting out felons, we clasped hands in a what-have-we-done death grip. What if this isn't the bottom of the market? I asked myself. What if prices keep falling?

And fall they did. It was not the bottom of the market. It was halfway to the bottom. It was before two houses across the street went into foreclosure. It was before interest rates dropped even lower and we tried to refinance, only to be declined and told how monstrously underwater we were.

Now I, the Queen of Starting Over, the Mother of Reinvention, the Inveterate House Snob, was stuck. Stuck in a neighborhood that began to represent the gradual erosion of my station in life.

One reversal of fortune led to another. Atticus's business got hammered by the Great Recession. We spent an obscene amount of money on a custody battle I couldn't afford to finish. My ex found a legal way not to pay child support.

The house that had once been a deal now was an albatross we couldn't unload. We considered renting it and moving to something smaller. "You hate the neighborhood anyway," Atticus said.

As we debated the pros and cons of another change, a funny thing happened. I felt pangs of nostalgia for the house and the neighborhood I might have to leave. Without my realizing, I had grown attached to the Faulknerian ambience in which we resided.

My neighborhood has a community spirit I have never experienced elsewhere. In the fancy part of town where I lived ten years ago, people mainly kept to themselves, up at the top of their winding driveways. In my funky, hip 'hood, dwellers were attached more to the scene than to each other.

Here, however, is a different story. Our community is filled with civic-minded people who share our values -- artists, progressive thinkers, teachers, social workers. In a city that is primarily about money and status, we stumbled into the one place where people care more about who you are than what you have.

Over the summer, I attended a neighbor's 40th birthday party. The house is being gradually remodeled but appears almost uninhabitable -- until you get to the backyard, magical with drought-tolerant plants and maple trees bedecked with lanterns and lit globes, water features and clusters of artfully mismatched chairs around tiled tables.

Sipping Merlot, I marveled at the true richness of my neighbors. The research psychiatrist who treats the homeless. The mom spearheading a charter school. The neighborhood association head who, together with his wife, has rescued at least half a dozen crumbling homes and painstakingly turned them into museum pieces he rents to university students.

The friends we've made are people we could call at 2 a.m. if there were an emergency. These are the people who appeared on our doorstep with apple pies, fresh-baked bread, and rolls of toilet paper when we moved in. When my son Luca was wreaking havoc on the street, one neighbor offered to turn her garage into a room where he could scream his anger out.

If we moved, we would lose all that -- as well as the rambling house that I have grown to love, warped floors and all.

When Luca visited from boarding school a few weeks ago, he and Franny sat on our porch swing eating soft serves from the rickety ice cream truck that drives up and down our street on summer afternoons.

"I like this neighborhood better than our old one," Luca said.

"You do?" I was stunned. Luca likes to regale people with stories of the stuff he does with his dad: rides on private jets, boxed seats to sporting events, ski trips. He is, God love him, a snob. A little like me, before I lost everything to be snobby about.

"Yeah," he said. "I mean, it's sketchy, but it's kind of cool."

I asked Franny what she thought of the neighborhood now.

"It's sketchy," she agreed. "Except for some of the houses, like ours. But I get to have a friend here. I'm happy anywhere I get to have a friend."

She was referring to her pal who lives on the next block, the girl whose parents have the great backyard.

"Don't you hang out with kids in your dad's neighborhood?"

Her dad lives in the richest part of the city. Lots of BMWs, absolutely no pupuserias.

"No!" she said, emphatically.

"There aren't any kids?"

"There are kids. I just don't like any of them. All they do is talk about the stuff they have and where they go to school. They're boring."

As I listened to Franny continue about how she would never, ever want to hang out with those "snooty" kids, I smiled.

My post-divorce downward mobility had an upside.