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They’ve found their way home

Census shows many suburbs north of Boston growing as newcomers move in

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / November 29, 2009

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It was here, where the brick buildings clutter the cobblestones and the sea pulses endlessly on the horizon, that she found balance.

Thirty-three-year-old psychotherapist Seana Zelazo-Carmean looked other places - like Martha’s Vineyard - but it was Newburyport, ultimately, that tugged at her.

It was the youthful atmosphere, the progressive mindset, the healing nature of the rhythmic ocean, just the exquisite beauty of the seashore itself. The familial comfort, too: Whenever she looks out to the roiling sea, she feels connected to her mother, whose ashes were mingled with the waves just off the coast when she died in 1996.

“I feel like I’m home for the first time in my life,’’ said Zelazo-Carmean, an energetic redhead who relocated to Newburyport’s sliver of Plum Island in mid-September. “I definitely never felt that way before.’’

Whatever their reasons, more people are finding a home in the suburbs north of Boston: Populations are swelling in many of the region’s cities and towns, with newcomers bulging their borders.

Some of the biggest increases are in smaller hamlets; Georgetown, Groveland, Middleton, North Reading, and Winthrop, for instance, experienced growth spurts ranging from 16 to 25 percent between 2000 and 2008, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

Other areas, from Andover to Billerica to Salisbury to Tyngsborough, grew by 7 percent or more. This comes as other regions see relatively no growth at all, or drains to their populations. For example, mini-exoduses occurred in pockets across the state between 2000 and 2008: Pittsfield saw a 6.86 percent decrease, while Barnstable’s population fell by 3.42 percent and Brookline’s by 3.87 percent. Decreases of 3 percent or less also occurred in Fall River, Lynn, Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Malden, Melrose, Newton, Northampton, Somerville, Springfield, Watertown, and Woburn, according to Census data.

So why are they coming here?

Lots of reasons, depending on who you ask: good schools, demographics, a small-town feel within grasp of the city, a quest for community.

Also, the downturn of the housing market has made some areas more affordable.

In some cases, though, it’s just a feeling, like a puzzle piece locking into place.

“We came across this and it was like ‘OK, home sweet home,’ ’’ said Tracey DeLucia, a public school teacher and mother of two young children who moved from Arlington to Winchester in June. (Her new hometown has grown by a modest 1.35 percent). “It’s just so quaint.’’

Yet diversified. “It’s not a very cookie-cutter community,’’ noted fellow resident Mary Ellen Rourke-Falvey, co-president of the Winchester Neighbors Club, a social group. “We have condos, larger houses, smaller houses, older homes. It gives the town a lot of character.’’

As with DeLucia, there was also a sort of mental click when she first visited. “You definitely get a feeling as soon as you come to town,’’ she said.

For others, it’s also what’s outside town limits that affected the decision. For example: the nearby Hub. As Cindy Schuler put it, you can experience Boston without being enmeshed in the high-priced, hurly-burly city lifestyle, and there’s no worrying about the city’s “mixed bag’’ of schools. “I love that it’s only 15 minutes on the train to North Station,’’ she said.

But at the same time, “We wanted to have a house and a yard,’’ noted the mother of two, who relocated to Winchester from Brookline in late June after an exhaustive search of roughly 150 houses in a half-dozen communities. “It’s nice to have things like a garage, a driveway, and parking, which you don’t always get in the city.’’

Another perk: the abundance of fellow young families in town to socialize and bond with.

Her one gripe? The lack of restaurants in Winchester. “There’s really nowhere you can go and just get a burger,’’ she said. “That’s something everybody would like to see.’’

Cue the old welcome wagon to offer up some alternative suggestions.

Oh, wait - there’s no such thing anymore.

Even as towns experience record growth, they don’t seem to offer much of a greeting beyond a preliminary tax bill. A poll of several communities - including Andover, Gloucester, Georgetown, Groveland, Marblehead, Newburyport, and Salem - found that there were no formal efforts in place to acclimate new residents, beyond occasional townwide bulletins and information gleaned from municipal websites.

The same goes for many chambers of commerce, including Greater Newburyport, Marblehead, North Shore, and Merrimack Valley. Some will send newcomers packets when asked, but most simply direct people to their websites.

Just call it a tradeoff for 21st-century technology.

“So much is on the Web,’’ said Andover’s town manager, Reginald Stapczynski. “Much more information than was ever in those little [welcome] bags.’’

Even so, touches of nostalgia remain.

For example, new arrivals to Winchester might be surprised to find a canvas tote sitting on their doorstep one day, courtesy of the town’s chamber. Emblazoned with the Winchester town logo, it’s stuffed with business, restaurant, and shopping listings, as well as coupons, magnets, coffee cups, pencils, and a town “A to Z’’ guide.

Still, even though such traditional welcomes have become antiquated, newcomers aren’t always left compass-less in a forest of new faces. A handful of area communities have established social clubs to encourage mingling and bonding between the transplants and the deep-rooted.

Locally, there’s the Newcomers and Neighbors Club of Reading; the Winchester Neighbors Club, 15 years established and with more than 200 member families; the Newcomers and Natives of Marblehead/Swampscott, nearly 20 years old and with 150 member families; and the Newcomers Club of the Andovers, in existence for more than 50 years, with more than 150 member families.

Charging annual membership fees, such groups urge camaraderie between neighbors by hosting a panoply of different events, including children’s play dates, dinners, “house hops,’’ cocktail parties, shopping and game nights, book clubs, ladies and men’s nights out, wine and beer tastings, and cycling, walking, beading, and gourmet cooking gatherings. Many also have a philanthropic element.

“It just helps people get acclimated to the new community,’’ said Debbie Privert, co-president of the Andovers club, whose sister cities saw modest growth over the past eight years (Andover’s population increased by 6.95 percent; North Andover’s by 1.18 percent). “It helps them start building the bonds and friendships that make a house feel more like a home.’’

Or a new land feel more like native soil, as was the case for Annika Bornström, who immigrated to Marblehead from the Swedish coast in December.

Work brought her family 3,700 miles from their home in Norrkoping, Sweden; her husband took a job with the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. Marblehead was their choice after looking into a dozen or so towns north and west of Boston.

In the end, the coast made them feel closer to home.

“It reminds me a bit of Sweden,’’ said Bornström, also noting the well-maintained streets, houses, and gardens, and “very nice’’ people. “It’s beautiful.’’

Still, she, her husband, and her two daughters came in completely fresh, with no relatives or friends nearby. So joining Newcomers and Natives - and the Boston-based Swedish women’s group SWEA - was crucial to getting oriented and, ultimately, comfortable in a foreign land.

“It was harder to get into the community for us,’’ Bornström said. But “it’s getting easier and easier.’’

Things weren’t so difficult for Zelazo-Carmean. Since moving to Newburyport, she’s plugged into a network of female entrepreneurs, and described abundant “feminine energy’’ in the city. “People are very open and very receptive,’’ said the Montreal native, who relocated from Belchertown, a mid-sized burg on the cusp of Western Massachusetts. “It’s a warm place to come.’’

And ultimately, that’s what drew her here: It seemed the perfect backdrop for the kind of work she wants to do in the world. “I thought of this area as really conducive to healing, and where people are seeking to live a life of balance,’’ said the young psychotherapist.

But the sea also allured her, so much, in fact, that she hasn’t done much exploring beyond the ivory-sanded shore.

“There’s so much I haven’t been able to do yet,’’ she said. “But I’m sure I’ll get there.’’