10 Best Places To Live 2002
By Marion Asnes, Joan Caplin, Scott Dickensheets, Erica Garcia and Ilana Polyak



What makes a place great to live in? Some people naturally gravitate toward suburban subdivisions with lush lawns, comfortable homes and school districts where everyone's above average. Others crave the stimulation of busy downtown streets and a rich variety of people, ideas and diversions. And whether you prefer a desert vista or a skyscraper view, well, you're right.

Questions of taste were very much on the minds of money's editors when we sat down to select this year's Best Places to Live. With the help of On Board, a New York City firm that collects information on real estate and demographics, we pulled together yards of data on more than 1,200 American cities. But how to weigh it all? Certainly, everyone cares about safe streets, for example, yet that doesn't mean a very low local crime rate will be everyone's top concern. A lifelong Chicagoan may take in stride crime statistics that a suburbanite would regard as too high a price to pay. Likewise, not everyone is going to be moved by the fact that there are twice as many public golf courses in the vicinity of West Bloomfield, Mich. as there are in and around Pittsburgh. (Readers who want to use this and other data to make their own picks of perfect cities, or to see how their hometown rates on a variety of measures, should check out our Best Places to Live Web tool at www.money.com.)

Finally, we concluded that the best way to understand what Americans really care about when deciding where to live was to look at how they've already voted with their feet--and their wallets.

To simplify matters, we started by narrowing our list to the 57 cities with populations above 300,000, the economic and cultural magnets not just for city dwellers but for suburbanites too. We ranked these cities first by their rate of population growth since 1990--a big plus for Las Vegas and bad news for St. Louis. (All our rankings appear in the table on the facing page.) Next, we looked at demand through the prism of the real estate market. We compared the average 2002 home sale in each city to the median income of city residents, creating a "housing-premium ratio" for each city. (You can't simply assume the median wage earner pays the average price for a house, but these scores are a good way to compare expensiveness among cities.) The bigger the gap between home prices and income, the higher a city ranked. That may sound a little perverse--after all, most people would count high rents and fat mortgage payments as pretty clear negatives--but we figure that when people are willing to pay a lot to live in a city, there must be something about it that justifies the sacrifice. Just ask any New Yorker. And as you'll see in a moment, even in the most expensive areas we were able to find neighborhoods that offer good value for the money.

We then combined these scores to create a single money Popularity Ranking. A top Popularity score alone wasn't enough to make our final list of 10 top towns, however. For example, one high scorer, Honolulu, missed the final cut; although real estate prices are high in this beautiful island city, its far-flung location and tourism-based economy limit its appeal as a full-time residence. We also tried to adjust for a couple of the unavoidable biases in our statistical first screen. As the third-largest city in the country, Chicago is naturally going to have a lower population growth rate than, say, Las Vegas, which doubled with the addition of 250,000 new residents. Still, Chicago is one of the handful of midwestern cities that has added residents instead of losing them, and the city's real estate market has long been one of the country's most consistent growers. So the Windy City makes our short list.

Of course, most of those who say they're from Chicago, or Denver, or any other big city actually live outside the city limits in a nearby suburb. So we decided to get really local and identify the neighborhoods and suburbs that make these cities great. money writers and reporters did exactly what you would if you were moving to someplace new. We talked to everyone we could find--city residents, real estate agents, schoolteachers, area businesspeople--about where they live, as well as where they wish they could live. We sought out attractive streetscapes, good schools, community spirit and plentiful recreation. With real estate prices at or near historic highs, we avoided areas that were speculative or too early in their transition from rundown to rehabbed. But we tempered that bias with an eye toward affordability--after so many years of rising home values, many prime family neighborhoods are priced to perfection. We finally selected three top communities--including city neighborhoods as well as suburbs--for each of the cities on our list, or 30 in all. They range from virtual wilderness retreats to well-planned subdivisions to dense urban centers. No one of these picks can suit all tastes, but we're confident that you'll find some place on this list you'd be happy to call home.

The Popularity Contest

To pick America's hottest big cities, we looked at how they fared on two broad measures: the rate of population growth and what we call the "housing premium ratio," or the cost of residential real estate relative to local incomes. Many cities do so well on one measure that they rank near the top despite a low score on the other.


1 LAS VEGAS 513,433 97% 1 $123,120 $43,479 3 30 2 SAN FRANCISCO 784,288 8 34 481,648 56,081 9 2 3 SAN DIEGO 1,241,892 12 22 406,106 51,822 8 3 4 HONOLULU 369,907 -2 45 531,150 58,441 9 1 5 NEW YORK CITY 8,182,276 12 23 341,330 51,722 7 5 6 OAKLAND 403,055 9 33 369,505 53,499 7 4 7 SAN JOSE 912,650 16 18 453,010 74,324 6 6 8 AUSTIN 686,961 38 4 130,580 38,556 3 21 9 DENVER 569,868 22 11 168,150 36,699 5 12 10 COLORADO SPRINGS 374,786 32 7 138,520 38,955 4 18 11 MESA, ARIZ. 415,357 40 2 116,760 44,355 3 37 12 SANTA ANA, CALIF. 345,744 17 17 330,461 70,969 5 10 13 PHOENIX 1,383,716 40 3 103,930 44,662 2 46 14 CHARLOTTE, N.C. 570,852 34 5 141,920 50,794 3 31 15 LONG BEACH, CALIF. 467,862 9 29 282,800 56,566 5 8 16 SEATTLE 563,480 9 31 223,320 46,060 5 9 17 FRESNO 439,932 23 9 156,428 45,378 3 19 18 ANAHEIM, CALIF. 339,197 27 8 222,751 72,468 3 26 19 TUCSON 498,077 19 13 120,240 33,177 4 17 20 PORTLAND, ORE. 524,197 8 36 163,480 35,554 5 11 21 ARLINGTON, VA. 346,584 33 6 98,350 46,137 2 53 22 PHILADELPHIA 1,503,661 -5 48 201,041 36,354 6 7 23 LOS ANGELES 3,721,442 7 38 231,510 55,874 4 13 24 DALLAS 1,223,454 21 12 124,520 45,211 3 33 25 VIRGINIA BEACH 431,361 10 28 184,788 48,767 4 16 26 NASHVILLE 556,340 14 20 131,840 41,224 3 24 27 MIAMI 362,038 1 44 147,180 35,717 4 14 28 JACKSONVILLE 752,981 19 14 95,860 39,908 2 44 29 BOSTON 590,063 3 42 187,180 49,059 4 15 30 FORT WORTH 551,259 23 10 81,456 43,110 2 57 31 HOUSTON 2,002,430 18 15 102,190 44,513 2 47 32 ATLANTA 420,902 8 37 140,070 43,680 3 23 33 SACRAMENTO 412,846 12 24 123,840 45,758 3 36 34 SAN ANTONIO 1,172,172 17 16 78,100 36,411 2 51 35 ALBUQUERQUE 442,350 14 21 116,290 49,169 2 45 36 TAMPA 306,791 9 30 100,030 36,454 3 34 37 COLUMBUS, OHIO 722,321 12 25 101,560 40,254 3 39 38 CHICAGO 2,939,983 6 40 136,440 45,435 3 27 39 OKLAHOMA CITY 516,717 16 19 76,210 38,491 2 56 40 EL PASO 572,226 11 27 78,878 34,663 2 48 41 OMAHA 393,576 6 39 113,040 41,671 3 35 42 TULSA 397,528 9 32 96,900 39,819 2 42 43 INDIANAPOLIS 788,758 8 35 99,470 40,068 2 41 44 WICHITA 349,168 11 26 82,110 38,405 2 52 45 NEW ORLEANS 480,376 -3 47 109,090 33,065 3 22 46 MINNEAPOLIS 383,155 4 41 116,050 45,210 3 38 47 MILWAUKEE 588,034 -6 49 113,270 36,187 3 25 48 CLEVELAND 471,839 -7 50 111,770 37,233 3 28 49 MEMPHIS 647,002 -2 46 94,540 38,040 2 40 50 KANSAS CITY, MO. 442,403 2 43 81,940 39,497 2 55 51 ST. LOUIS 338,819 -15 57 97,840 28,495 3 20 52 CINCINNATI 324,458 -11 54 112,110 37,617 3 29 53 TOLEDO 308,847 -7 52 93,870 38,738 2 43 54 PITTSBURGH 328,200 -11 55 94,260 33,854 3 32 55 WASHINGTON, D.C. 563,172 -7 51 126,139 55,633 2 49 56 DETROIT 932,465 -9 53 78,459 37,543 2 54 57 BALTIMORE 632,827 -14 56 91,630 41,812 2 50

Notes: The Money Popularity Ranking is based on each city's combined relative scores for population growth and the housing premium ratio. Only cities with populations above 300,000 were scored. All data is as of 2002. Ratios are rounded to the nearest whole number. Source: On Board.


Orange County is nothing if not suburban, but don't call it a suburb of Los Angeles. Two of its cities--Anaheim and Santa Ana--are bigger than either Pittsburgh or St. Louis, and both are growing fast enough to rank ahead of L.A. on the money Popularity index. The county's home-grown attractions include good jobs in the biotech firms clustered around Irvine and major performing-arts venues in Santa Ana and Costa Mesa. And how about those Angels? "There's the beautiful climate, the mountains, the water," says third-generation Orange County resident Joan DeLozier, 65. "Every amenity is available to me here." Residents of Mission Viejo enjoy some of the best the county has to offer. Nestled in the foothills of the Saddleback Mountains, the master-planned town has its own huge man-made lake for swimming and fishing. Schools rival those in more expensive Irvine, the county's best.

But not everyone who lives in Southern California wants Orange County's brand of suburbia. Back up north in L.A., the neighborhoods of Silverlake and Echo Park are part of the urban renaissance taking place just outside downtown. Silverlake was a hideaway for Hollywood stars in the 1920s and '30s, until they decamped for ostentatious digs in Beverly Hills. Now it's attracting bourgeois bohemians priced out of the nearby Hollywood Hills and Los Feliz. Sunset, the main shopping strip, is full of street bustle and even--can it be? in L.A.?--pedestrians. Silverlake is known for vibrant murals that adorn everything from coffee houses to clothing shops, a nod to the community's large Latino population. Homes in Silverlake average $350,000 for 1,200 square feet; Echo Park costs less and is a popular alternative for those looking to get in on the Silverlake scene.

And what about the beach? Redondo Beach, just south of L.A., is the quintessential beach town and a more affordable alternative to Santa Monica. The best part of town is South Redondo, where there's a light dusting of sand on most of the streets, and you are as likely to see rollerbladers as cars passing by. --I.P.

BEST PLACES --Mission Viejo --Silverlake and Echo Park --Redondo Beach


Just beyond the man-made peaks of downtown, Seattle becomes a patchwork of villages so distinctive that traveling from one to another can feel like a border crossing. Consider the neighboring communities of Fremont and Ballard, on the north side of town. Fremont is Seattle's acknowledged hip and cool spot, the kind of place where you meet people named Sunshine. "When I saw a day spa, a Thai restaurant and a video store all on the same block, I knew I'd found home," says Sunshine Morrison, 30. Fremont's rich stock of old industrial buildings means apartments and condos predominate; prices run from $175,000 to $300,000. Next door in Ballard, you'll find more houses with verdant backyards. In a city shaped by hills, Ballard lies on a relatively gentle slope that opens it to sun almost all the time, a big advantage in the damp Pacific Northwest. Originally a Scandinavian settlement, Ballard's homes range from fishermen's bungalows to new constructions. Ballard also boasts some of the most active locks in the United States. "Watching the boats is a happening," says nearby resident John Halterman.

Half an hour to the east of the city is the Snoqualmie Valley, nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. The small towns here--Snoqualmie, North Bend, Preston and Fall City--are in a geographic sweet spot, just as close to Seattle as they are to the ski slopes. New-home construction is burgeoning, but the area retains a rural feel. "It's all elk and golf courses," says Mitchell Setlow, who lives in nearby Issaquah and frequently drives out to the valley to relax. "It's what Washington living used to be about."

For those who prefer their commute by ferry--which is not a bad idea, considering Seattle's chronic bumper-to-bumper traffic--the other side of Puget Sound is the ticket. Bainbridge Island is the classic off-the-mainland bedroom community, but heady real estate prices there and in the other close-in waterfront suburbs have more commuters from Seattle taking the 40-minute cruise to Bremerton and the nearby communities of Silverdale and Poulsbo. Until a few years ago, Bremerton, a Navy town, was perhaps better known as a good place for a sailor to get a tattoo than as a place to raise children. But the school system is rapidly improving, and homes--ranging from ranches to view-stealing mansions--average about a third less than similar spreads in Seattle itself. --J.C.

BEST PLACES --Fremont and Ballard --Snoqualmie Valley --Bremerton


Rudyard Kipling once pointed out San Francisco's one drawback: "'Tis hard to leave." That's still true today, even after the Internet bust that hit the Northern California economy so hard. The city's bustling culture, its picturesque, hill-climbing streets and those astonishing vistas of the bay and its bridges tether enough people to San Francisco to keep real estate prices among the highest in the nation. (And only Honolulu has a greater gap between home prices and incomes.) So if you're committed to living in San Francisco, it's important to be flexible. Don't just look for one great neighborhood; look for a great neighborhood with a few cheaper ones next door.

Noe Valley would certainly top many San Franciscans' list of great places to live. Its main drag, 24th Street, has all the bistros, brunch spots and boutiques you could ask for. Anne Flatte, 34, says she spends almost all of her time there--taking yoga classes, enjoying the neighborhood playgrounds with her eight-month-old son or attending a local mom's group. Yet even though Noe Valley looks like a middle-class neighborhood when compared with Russian Hill or Pacific Heights, homes there can sell for close to $1 million. So Flatte has chosen to live in the Mission, just to the east. "Most of my community is in Noe Valley, so we're in a good location," she says. Much of the sprawling Mission still rates as a tough, if lively, part of town, and its home prices rise as you get closer to Noe Valley. Another up-and-coming Noe neighbor is Bernal Heights, an enclave of little bungalows set on winding streets. Home prices average $500,000, a bargain in these parts.

If the San Francisco housing market is finally too trying but you still need city life, head over the Bay Bridge to Oakland, a diverse city of 400,000 where 81 languages are spoken. For outsiders, the name Oakland may conjure up images of urban blight or the superrich splendor atop the Oakland Hills. Yet middle-class pockets such as Montclair and Rockridge have long thrived here. Montclair, in the lower Oakland Hills, is a neighborhood of attractive older homes--it was largely spared in the 1991 wildfire farther uphill--where houses can still be had for under $500,000. Rockridge is a similarly bucolic, tree-shaded area, but pricier because it straddles the border with Berkeley.

Sonoma County offers something different. It's become a haven for refugee San Franciscans looking for a little acreage. Sonoma is less expensive than the rival Napa wine region, with prices averaging $375,000. Despite the stream of newcomers, Sonoma still offers small-town charms. "We've sort of told the newcomers, 'You can't just enjoy this community without giving back,'" explains Bruce Campbell, owner of a gourmet lamb business who has lived in the town of Healdsburg all his life. He's encouraged new residents to support the local Boy's and Girl's Club and contribute to the hospital. --I.P.

BEST PLACES --Noe Valley --Montclair and Rockridge --Sonoma County


Mixed feelings are practically a civic duty if you live in Las Vegas. You curse the 30 million tourists who clog the city each year but enjoy the swank restaurants and luxe shopping malls they keep in business. You crab about the unfettered growth that's bursting the infrastructure--the school district must recruit 1,500 new teachers every year--while admitting that growth has kept the local economy resilient. And as you wilt in the summer heat, you remind yourself how much you hated shoveling snow back where you came from.

For all its peculiarities, what's undeniable is that Las Vegas life offers something a lot of people want. About 10,000 move into Vegas every month, according to state figures. If this influx gives Las Vegas the itchy restlessness of a transient town--it's not unusual for neighborhood faces to change faster than you can memorize them--it has also transformed the onetime desert tourist trap into a genuine big city. On and off the Strip, Vegas has acquired such metropolitan amenities as a thriving locals-oriented nightlife, enviable shopping and even a few museums. And amid the fields of hastily erected stucco boxes, some genuine communities have taken root. Chief among them is Summerlin. Its drawing card is its careful New Urbanist layering of residential, commercial and civic features. The result: a pleasant neighborhood that keeps property values up. Meanwhile, Las Vegans seeking an alternative to such rigidly planned suburbs have sparked a revival of Downtown, rehabbing '60s-era ranch houses in the MacNeil Estates area and '40s bungalows in the John S. Park neighborhood. Just southeast of the valley lies Boulder City, the only township in Nevada to ban gaming. A slow-growth ordinance safeguards its small-town quaintness and props up prices.

Vegas isn't for everyone. Each month, those 10,000 new arrivals pass another 4,000 or so on their way out. But even that residential churn has its positive side. Combined with the vitality and spectacle of the Strip, it imbues the city with a sense of headlong, unceasing change--the feeling that something new can happen here, and probably will--that many find irresistible. As long as they can stand the heat.

BEST PLACES --Summerlin --Downtown --Boulder City


You might think of Phoenix as one vast conglomeration of suburbs, and you'd be right. The city has grown largely by annexing its own suburban sprawl. But that doesn't mean it's monotonous--many Phoenix neighborhoods have real character. You'll find Saguaro cacti in the yards in Ahwatukee (pronounced ah-wah-too-kee), a southern suburb within the Phoenix city limits. Brown landscapes, or xeriscapes--desert plants, gravel and dirt--are especially common in Ahwatukee, where many residents avoid water-guzzling lawns. With booming retail development, schools with favorable student/teacher ratios and relatively affordable housing, Ahwatukee readily attracts families. A typical house runs about $250,000. The nearby South Mountain Park and Preserve offers miles of rugged trails and desert scenery. One mixed blessing: To get around South Mountain, which gives this isolated suburb-in-the-city much of its charm, most drivers have to hit the congested Interstate 10 when headed into town.

In stark contrast to Ahwatukee's desert foliage are the lush green lawns of Arcadia, a neighborhood that sits on the Phoenix and Scottsdale city line. Arcadia is a former orange grove with its own irrigation system, and rows of citrus trees line its blocks of quaint homes built in the 1950s and 1960s on large lots. Because Arcadia is so well regarded for its greenery and high-performance schools, which are in the Scottsdale system, prices are on the high end: Starter houses begin at $300,000. Homeowners tend to do a lot of remodeling, adding diversity to the once similar-looking homes; it's not uncommon to see a country cottage next door to a Spanish hacienda. Residents brag about being close to Scottsdale's high-end shopping, a world-class resort, arts centers and good restaurants, as well as downtown Phoenix.

For real proximity to the heart of Phoenix, head for the Encanto-Palmcroft district, where many houses date to the 1920s. But the convenience costs. Smaller houses and fixer-uppers fetch about $250,000, while statelier homes attract urban professionals who shell out $500,000 and up. The neighborhood abuts 200-acre Encanto Park, another welcome patch of green in this desert town. --E.G.

BEST PLACES --Ahwatukee --Arcadia --Encanto-Palmcroft


Denver was born during the Gold Rush in 1859--flakes of the precious metal were discovered there in 1858--and boomed again during the telecom gold rush of the 1990s. During those years, the city went from sleepy to enormous: Its population has grown by 22% since 1990, and the surrounding suburbs have expanded even more rapidly. Yet when you're in Denver, it's still easy to feel that you're in a small town. It's a casual city, in attitude as well as apparel, with 650 miles of bike paths. Washington Park, a favorite neighborhood for young professionals, is dotted with Victorian homes and Craftsman bungalows, many of which retain their original look. "In some neighborhoods, the bungalows are 'pop-tops,'" says lifelong Denver resident Kevin McCorry, referring to houses whose original roofs have been removed to add a new floor. McCorry just bought a Washington Park home complete with its original tiger oak flooring for $433,000. "Here people want to preserve the architecture," he says. Washington Park is just two miles from Lower Downtown (LoDo), a district that is packed with restaurants, clubs and microbreweries.

Outside city limits, the choicest spots depend on: a) where you work, and b) how much you love skiing. Skiers want to live west of Denver so they don't have to brave city traffic to hit the slopes. That's one reason why consultant Bill Decker chose Lakewood over better-known suburbs like Littleton. The other: Unlike much of the rapidly expanding Denver area, Decker says, older parts of Lakewood have winding streets and mature trees, plus a high water table that's conducive to green vegetation, a major plus in arid Colorado. A three-bedroom home averages about $225,000.

Colorado Springs, a city that itself ranks No. 10 on our popularity table, isn't exactly part of suburban Denver. (It's just over an hour south when Interstate 25 is clear.) But it has largely shared in Denver's telecom- and tech-driven economic fate. Recent layoffs in those sectors have weakened high-end real estate prices; but the city is also home to an Olympic Training Center as well as military and aerospace facilities, and financial services firms have started to move into the rejuvenated downtown. The best neighborhoods tend to be in the north, like Briargate, a large community developed in the '70s. Part of Colorado Springs' prestigious School District 20, Briargate offers houses that range from $165,000 to $400,000. --M.A.

BEST PLACES --Washington Park --Lakewood --Colorado Springs


Austin residents enjoy the best of both worlds: a stylish, exciting urban life without a lot of the hassles big cities are known for. Perhaps that's why it ranked eighth on our Popularity Table. Even the heart of town is laid back. Live music is one of the area's biggest draws, for residents and out-of-towners alike, especially in March when the South by Southwest festival brings thousands to hear cutting-edge music and see new films. Close to downtown, bordering the University of Texas campus, is historic Hyde Park, packed with colorfully painted Victorians; it's one of those rare urban neighborhoods where parents are happy with public schools. As a result, Hyde Park has enjoyed an influx of young families who like to walk instead of drive, whether to the local park or the gelato parlor. Hyde Park's popularity has pushed home prices up to $300,000 or more. Farther south across the Colorado River, called Town Lake in these parts (dammed sections of the river get their own "lake" designation), lies another hot historic area, Travis Heights. Area landmarks include Zilker Park and Barton Springs, the local swimming hole, where a summer dip is an almost obligatory rite of Austin citizenship.

Ten minutes west of Austin on the south bank of the Colorado River is West Lake Hills, an affluent community with a rural feel and spectacular views, courtesy of the rolling Texas hill country, which offers a landscape quite distinct from the city plains. "I bought a view--with a house attached," says Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, 64, a retired professor whose home overlooks Lake Austin (the Colorado River again). Here you'll find narrow, quiet streets and spacious homes. Residents--with and without children--are proud of the Eanes school district, which was named "exemplary" by the Texas Education Agency.

For a more reasonably priced suburb, head about 15 miles north of Austin to Round Rock, which boasts large contemporary houses that run in the low $200,000s. Many of the town's newer developments include community tennis courts, swimming pools and clubhouses. The local public schools are known for their rigorous standards. And if you are lucky enough to work for one of Round Rock's major employers, such as Dell Computer, you would have a 10-minute commute. --E.G.

BEST PLACES --Hyde Park and Travis Heights --West Lake Hills --Round Rock


You've got to choose a side in Chicago. And we have: the South Side. Many--including, well, every Chicagoan north of the Loop--will regard this as bizarre. After all, the North Side is home to some of the city's most prosperous and popular neighborhoods, such as Lincoln Park, Old Town and Lakeview. Those are great places to live, but there are precious few housing bargains left within parking distance of Wrigley Field. That's why even some once diehard North Siders have lately been moving south.

To be sure, much of the South Side still justifies its reputation as a hard-knock part of town, but a number of neighborhoods have been transformed almost beyond recognition. Printer's Row, just on the other side of the Loop, has seen one of its landmark buildings turned into a $230-a-night hotel, and is dotted with pricey restaurants. In the surrounding South Loop--where in 1991 the producers of the film Backdraft could safely set fire to a whole building--old factories have been rehabbed into lofts or razed to make room for town houses. Homes here range from $200,000 to above $400,000 but are often fitted out with modern appliances and garages or off-the-street parking, which would cost a fortune up in Lincoln Park. Even stolid, blue-collar Bridgeport--home to five Chicago mayors--is abuzz with new construction, attracting price-sensitive newcomers. And Hyde Park, with its lakefront views and the gothic University of Chicago campus, has long been a South Side standout. One-bedroom condos in this eclectic, interracial enclave sell for $160,000, and $600,000 buys a large townhouse.

Just over Chicago's western border--and still on the El line--is Oak Park. In the 1970s it was one of the few Chicago burbs to embrace integration, stemming white flight by insuring fearful homeowners against falling property values. Resident Christine Vernon, 55, recalls how the area "was lily-white when I was growing up. Today it's an international community." Houses range from $250,000 bungalows to million-dollar Queen Annes and a handful of Frank Lloyd Wright classics. Naperville, 45 minutes farther west, boasts a high school that topped rivals in 64 countries in the International Mathematics and Science Test. Jeff and Tamara Burke, both teachers in the system, bought their two-bedroom townhouse for $150,000 direct from the seller last year. "We used to come out here after dances in high school," says Tamara, 25. "I don't think it's changed much." --J.C.

BEST PLACES --South Side --Oak Park --Naperville


In September, the Charlotte Observer announced that it would run same-sex union announcements in addition to traditional marriage notices. One month later, the Rev. Billy Graham came to town and broke ground for his new headquarters. Welcome to the New South, where the traditional and the progressive live side by side, mostly peacefully.

Perhaps no place reflects this better than the North Davidson arts district--or NoDa. Two miles north of downtown, the onetime cotton mill community was, until the mid-'80s, as derelict as its abandoned factories. Then the artists came in, attracted by the funky buildings and low rents. "I moved here three years ago," says Linda Vista, an artist who's spent most of her life out West, "because a painter friend told me it was a fabulous place for the arts. I felt at home right away." Today the landmark-designated mills are being converted into business and residential spaces, while new townhouses are filling up as fast as they are built. Off the main street are early-1900s mill houses-- one-story wooden bungalows with surprisingly large yards where workers and their cows used to live. They start under $100,000 for fixer-uppers and average $150,000. NoDa is also the place for night life, hosting some of the city's best restaurants. It's packed with enough arts outposts to warrant a bimonthly, after-dark "gallery crawl" and enough of a family orientation to merit a brand-new Montessori school.

If NoDa housed the mill workers, Dilworth, to the south, is where the mill owners lived. Originally a streetcar suburb, now part of the city proper, it is a stunning historic neighborhood with broad boulevards lined with million-dollar mansions and smaller bungalows that can be had for $250,00 to $400,000.

North of Charlotte, along man-made Lake Norman (a popular spot for water sports), lies Davidson. Known as the home of prestigious Davidson College, the town has a whiff of old New England about it. The best values, though, are the new homes: They may not mirror what is most charming about Davidson, but some sell for as little as $225,000. Or cross the town line into the slightly more rural Cornelius for homes that cost a bit less. Even if residents can see their neighbors from the kitchen window, both towns still feel a touch more country than suburban. --J.C.

BEST PLACES --NoDa --Dilworth --Davidson


Let's be frank: It's been a difficult couple of years for New York, and not only because of Sept. 11. The downturn on Wall Street, the near extinction of Silicon Alley and a sharp media recession have forced some the city's best-paid professionals back into the job market. Yet like the Bay Area, New York still attracts, and holds on to, legions of dreamers and strivers who just can't imagine living anywhere else.

Real estate values and rents in Manhattan remain skyscraper-high, and that has helped make the borough of Brooklyn more popular than it's been since the Dodgers left town. Five years ago, a four-story townhouse in the "brownstone belt" of historic neighborhoods closest to Manhattan--including Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill--could be had for less than $750,000. These days, they are well above $1 million in the best locations. (That's more affordable than it looks because brownstones can include one or two rental units that can each fetch from $1,300 to $2,000 a month.) Fort Greene, one of the later brownstone neighborhoods to feel the real estate boom, is a favorite destination for young black professionals and arts mavens drawn by its proximity to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with its Next Wave festival and art-house cinema. Across the borough, the influx of well-heeled newcomers has spurred the arrival of the sort of chic boutiques, galleries and restaurants (particularly along Smith Street near Cobble Hill) that used to be found only in Manhattan--but plenty of bargains are still to be had at Brooklyn's countless Saturday stoop sales.

A 30-minute train ride from midtown Manhattan, Maplewood, N.J. is a favorite compromise for city people who also want good public schools and their own yards. The town has a palpable sense of community (there are close to 30 block associations in Maplewood and neighboring South Orange), and residents prize its diversity. "We're not a cookie-cutter suburb in terms of outlook, interests or people," says Barbara Heisler Williams, 43, a resident for 13 years.

Pleasantville, N.Y., another railroad suburb, in Westchester County north of the city, is a thriving, walkabout village cherished for its front-porch colonials--which start at around $550,000--and local attractions such as the Jacob Burns Film Center and the lush Rockefeller State Park Preserve. --E.G.

BEST PLACES --Brooklyn --Maplewood, N.J. --Pleasantville