The breaking point for Cris and Noelle Otepka came with the second pregnancy.
Their two-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., was already too cramped with 1-year-old Isabella running around. Plus at $2,600 a month, it was too expensive.
The young 30-somethings faced the same conundrum their friends from Boston to Seattle confronted when they realized you can't have both your Great American City life and raise children in it. At least not very easily.
Not if you want quality schools, some green space and the ability to hoist your stroller onto a city bus without bringing down the wrath of other riders. Definitely not if you want to own your home.
So the Otepkas packed up and moved, first to a Virginia suburb, which wasn't that much cheaper. And then to Omaha, which was.
Cris, a linguist who has worked for certain organizations I'm not permitted to name, found a contract job at Offutt. Noelle, an accountant, stays home with Isabella, 3˝, and Francis or “Frankie,” 1˝.
The couple say they agree with a recent national ranking that put Omaha at the top of a list of cities that are — surprise — family-friendly.
The list was compiled by California-based online real estate company Movoto. Movoto churns out Top 10 cities lists so frequently and, according to one news report, with such dubious criteria, that it's been criticized for shallow science meant to drive online traffic and create buzz.
But when I saw it, I felt some vindication for what we hear all the time, especially from ex-pats like Cris who move back.
They do so proudly or kind of apologetically — in the self-deprecating, inferiority-complex-ridden way that native Omahans typically explain their return: for family. Either the family that still lives here. Or the new family they began somewhere else. Or, as in the Otepkas' case, both.
Cris grew up in Dundee and graduated from Creighton Prep. Noelle is from Chicago.
When they realized the life they wanted was not feasible in Washington, they looked around.
Where could a linguist land a job that paid enough, in a place where he and his wife could afford a house with a yard, where they could still get their urban fix?
The place was Omaha, which came with the added benefit of Grandma and Grandpa.
The young family moved into a 2,100-square-foot, frame-stucco house on Happy Hollow Boulevard in May 2011. And Frankie was born that July.
The Otepkas took some heat from their D.C. friends who can't keep Omaha and Oklahoma straight. They got a lot of love from everyone back home, including other ex-pats who have migrated back.
Two of my brothers and a sister have also moved back to Omaha from Chicago, the Bay Area and Portland, Ore., because this city is cheaper, easier and not a total trade-down from where they had left.
The Movoto survey defined family-friendly according to how the nation's 50 most populous cities stacked up on these measures: cost of living, public schools ranking, park space, homeownership, crimes per capita, unemployment and commute time.
Omaha clinched it, beating out other finishers: Oklahoma City, El Paso, Virginia Beach, Albuquerque, Kansas City, Colorado Springs, Austin, Raleigh and San Antonio.
As for Movoto's other recent rankings, Omaha wasn't even on the radar. We're not Nerdiest (Atlanta. Atlanta?!), Most Exciting (Oakland, Calif.) or Redneck (Atlanta again).
We're not Where Fashion Goes to Die (Wichita), though in fairness to Wichita, Movoto isn't watching me grocery-shop. I could win Omaha that award singleandedly.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Depending on the source, Omaha has some of the best public high schools (Newsweek and Washington Post) and — lest the term “family friendly” run young hipsters out of town — it has one of the best emerging music scenes (MTV). Kiplinger beat Movoto by a year in declaring Omaha, in 2012, the top city for raising children.
Omaha isn't so family-friendly for everyone. In 2005, Omaha had one of the nation's largest wealth gaps between whites and blacks and one of the poorest populations of black children. Those measures have improved slightly but not enough.
And Nebraska remains one of the top states in its high proportion of mothers working outside the home. One reading of that measure is that incomes here are still so flat that it takes two for a household to make ends meet.
Cris and Noelle loved Washington.
It's where Cris landed right out of St. Louis University, working for former Sens. Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson until he got foreign langage training and got jobs he can't much talk about that involved travel to Afghanistan.
It's where he lived for 11 years. It's where he was treated for a rare form of lymphoma, a shocking diagnosis when he was in his 20s. It's where he and Noelle, his college sweetheart, launched their married life. They loved the trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood, with its Ethiopian restaurants. They loved the noise, the tableau of people, the gravitas of living in the nation's capital, the amazing public transportation.
When Isabella came, they thought they could make it work but fretted about schools. Day care was exorbitant and preschool, at $21,000 a year, was out of the question. When Noelle was expecting Frankie, they moved to a bigger, slightly cheaper apartment in Virginia.
Then when the job opened at Offutt Air Force Base a few months later, they jumped at the chance to come to Omaha.
It's not a perfect city. As a non-native, Noelle says it can be hard to break into well-established circles. She didn't love the city's sprawl; her first impression was strip malls. And, well, Chicago is her first home.
But in their two years here, Omaha has lived up to its family-friendly billing. There's plenty to do. There's good eats. There are the built-in baby sitters, Grandma and Grandpa.
And, for two busy little children, there is something Omaha has in spades: space.
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