Over the past 10 months, The Berkshires has shifted from a weekend cultural hub to a full-time abode for many urbanites; pinned as the ultimate socially-distanced haven amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
New York City’s West Village, SoHo, Upper East Side and Brooklyn Heights quickly became ghost towns, losing up to 40 percent of residents between March and May, according to a report by The New York Times. The Berkshire Eagle recently spoke with four New Yorkers who shared their experiences riding out a once-in-a-century pandemic hunkered down in The Berkshires.
Mike Rooney left the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his wife and newborn in March. They now reside at her mother’s house in Lenox, where they both work remotely for tech companies.
Kristen Johanson, a Williams College alum and a Greenwich Village local, has been based in her Williamstown weekend home since March, along with her partner. They are both recently retired.
Keith and Jodi Graber left the Upper East Side at the end of May for their weekend home in Pittsfield. Keith continues to work remotely for his manufacturing company based in the Empire State Building, while Jodi works as a holistic health coach.
(Some answers have been lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: Prior to the pandemic, what was your connection to The Berkshires? What drew you here?
Jodi Graber: Well, we've had the house [in Pittsfield] for about 14 years, or so. I was an intern at Jacob's Pillow in 1989 and I just fell in love with The Berkshires. I had the opportunity to spend a summer here, and that was at the start of my career, which was at the time in performing arts administration. I just absolutely loved every aspect of The Berkshires, the scenery, the people, the calm. I was back a couple of times over the years when I was working with dance companies, but I hadn't been back in a long time. Then, Keith and I got married and we were looking for a getaway. We came up here and it just renewed my senses — coming back for those long holiday weekends. I'm a sucker for fall foliage, it just does something to my heart. We were talking about moving to a bigger apartment in the city, and I had this grand idea that we get something in The Berkshires and stay in the small New York City apartment.
Mike Rooney: Right now, we’re living with my wife's mom, who lives in Lenox and was born and raised in Pittsfield. So, we would always visit when we were living in the city. We would come up here for a long weekend, we did Thanksgiving here every year, we actually got married up in The Berkshires. So we've always enjoyed the area and have always spent a lot of time here and have family history in the area.
Kristen Johanson: I went to [Williams College] and have had a weekend house here since 2004. So we’ve spent long weekends and vacations here. But for 16 years, my partner Tom and I were both planning to retire. Which, you know, always takes a little longer than you think. We both worked in the city. But since we've been coming here for so long, we’ve developed a social life. We know a lot of people and we feel like we're involved in the community. So, we’re not total strangers.
Q: New York City became the COVID-19 epicenter from March to May. Tell me about the transition leading up to your decision to leave the city. What were the adjustments you had to make?
Mike Rooney: My wife and I both work in tech and have had an apartment on the Upper East Side. We've been up there for probably five years, or so. In March, when everything was getting chaotic in the city, we thought, "Oh, we'll go to The Berkshires." We have a 16-month-old daughter, so having a little bit more space is key. But we had just gotten her into a daycare in the city and she'd been there for about a month when all this stuff happened, so we had to take her out of daycare. But then there was nothing available in The Berkshires, so we were working while watching her during the day, and juggling that was a big transition, particularly as she started to get a little bit older and a little more active. Before you could just plop her in her playpen and get some work done. Now she's moving around a lot. So early on we were like, "OK, we need to get out."
Jodi Graber: I worked from home all the time in our apartment. But I also went to networking events and things. And then as far as socially, I come from a dance background, so we were always going to dance performances, Broadway shows, things like that. The culture of the city is something that is very important to me. The transition in the spring was odd because I was already used to being in the apartment by myself during the day. But then all of a sudden, there was chaos in the apartment. On one hand, it's a small New York City apartment, so I have my little workstation. But finding places for us both, you know, finding a comfortable place for Keith to work was kind of hard. And then what if we were both on Zoom? Or, you know, both on conference calls? We just had to talk a little quieter.
Kristen Johanson: In the spring, when the city was kind of ground zero for COVID-19, we came up here for a long weekend, and then we never left. Our company started out saying half of the people will come to the office and the other half will work remotely for two weeks and then you'll switch. And that was March 1. But by March 10, that plan went out the window and everything changed. They threw everybody out of the office and gave people whatever kind of computer equipment they needed to be able to work remotely. At its peak, 175,000 people around the world were working remotely at the same time. Which is a pretty cool statistic. So we worked remotely from here. Like, why stay at ground zero you know? If you've got an alternative that you love? In Greenwich Village people are extraordinarily careful, but there's just more density, so a grocery store is always going to be crowded no matter how you attack it. The crowd is hard. If I go to my apartment building, I have to get into an elevator. And who's been in this elevator? You know, you overthink it and get super cautious and go through gallons of hand sanitizer — not that we don't go through gallons here — but we go through twice as much in New York.
Q: What led you to stay full-time? What were some things you didn’t expect? What worked better? What didn’t work as well?
Mike Rooney: We already started to think about moving pre-pandemic. We still love the city, but what drew us to Lenox is that we felt like it would be safe. We probably thought we were going to be in Lenox for six weeks, or so. But as we stayed up here, we got more settled and things subsided with COVID-19. We didn't feel comfortable putting our daughter back into daycare. So we found a babysitter in the area, a recent college grad, who helped out here and there during the day. And also my sister and her husband from Mexico City ended up moving here, as well. The locals here are all very considerate and thoughtful when it comes to wearing masks and following protocols. We felt like we would be safe here and we wanted to be in a place where we felt comfortable. We didn't want to find a place to rent ourselves in a neighborhood where we didn't know anybody. Being near family and friends was a big priority for us, and I think our reservations at first were more about leaving the apartment in the city. We wanted to be in our own place, we wanted to sleep in our own bed. So having that sense of home both in terms of the literal house where we would be, but also in the community that we were part of, those were huge factors for us in deciding to stay up here. And we're lucky that both of the companies we work for are really understanding and accommodating when it comes to remote work.
Jodi Graber: I don't think there was a decision to be based here. I think we thought, "Well, we might as well go up and we'll have more space." And I think it was like, "Oh, we'll come up for a week or two." And then, once we were here, we realized, oh, we can really both be at a table working? I can actually go to a different room and close the door on a call? It just got comfortable. We said, "Well, now we should really just stay up here."
Keith Graber: And, you know, New York became the epicenter of the virus. And we had the governor [Cuomo] up here saying stay away. So, we did.
Q: In what ways have you gotten involved in The Berkshires?
Kristen Johanson: I’m on the board of the [Williamstown] Theatre Festival, so we normally are here all summer, seeing everything and not missing a performance. The festival was our main thing. But since we're part-time people, we support The Berkshires by eating at restaurants, trying to be charitable, going to The Clark and Mass MoCA, and everything. Now, I think we're going to find some ways to roll up our sleeves and get more involved.
Mike Rooney: My mother-in-law is particularly attuned to knowing how much places like Tanglewood matter for the local economy. She finds that it's good to have people here, particularly young people, who are getting to see and experience and learn to love The Berkshires. We've been fortunate to meet a few other young couples from New York who also have children. We get takeout from restaurants and shop locally. I think that overall, my mother-in-law sees it as a positive. The people who are visiting are still respectful and doing what they can to fit into the community, not trying to overtake it or anything like that.
Q: How has living in The Berkshires changed your perspective on your life in the city? On your career? Your routine?
Mike Rooney: I think that a lot of adjusting as a full-time working parent is realizing that boundaries and space are really important and trying to create those for yourself. When you are around the same people all day, every day, you need to be able to find ways to carve out space for yourself, whether it’s getting work done or decompressing. But, at the same time, I think it's helped me appreciate how nice it is to have immediate family nearby. To have this stretch where we've been able to see our parents and siblings so consistently has been really great. I think we've gotten a lot closer since all this started with having this time to really live together. I think also feeling part of the community is something nice as well. New York is just so big with so many people. In your neighborhood you've got your local spots, but here we feel like we’re a part of the community.
Q: What are your plans moving forward? Could you see yourself living in The Berkshires permanently?
Keith Graber: I think our life will go back to normal. I think we'll go to the city, eventually. And we'll come up here a little more often and probably have the ability to work from home a little bit more going forward. We're going to fully reopen the office at some point and have the complete crew back — there’s very little doubt about that.
Jodi Graber: I think on the one hand, I just want the world to go back to normal, which I'm sure everybody is feeling. I want to see those bright lights on Broadway, I want to go to The City Center, The Joyce Theater, the museums, so there's that. But at the same time, I think there will be an adjustment of like, "Oh, I don't have this space anymore." I mean, even for me, who is used to working at home, I just have so much more space here, which affords me clutter and piles of paper that I have to go through at the end of the day. I'll miss it. There's just this peacefulness and calm that, as much as I love the hustle and bustle of New York, is just nice.
Mike Rooney: Right now, we plan to head back to New York probably [in 2021]. Both of our companies have told us, you know, don't expect to be back in the office until May or June at the earliest. So, we plan on staying here through the winter. At this point, the reason we plan to head back to the city is primarily for work purposes. But as our companies roll out the options for full-time remote work, would we consider living here full time? We're taking it week by week. There's still so much uncertainty here and while our plan is to go back, we're not ruling out staying here long term.