Pictured at right and top left is the “30s and 40s AF” MeetUp group started by Jenéa Wessman. Pictured at bottom left is the long-running “Newcomers and Neighbors” group.
Pictured at right and top left is the “30s and 40s AF” MeetUp group started by Jenéa Wessman. Pictured at bottom left is the long-running “Newcomers and Neighbors” group.

I grew up in the often unforgiving culture of 1980s Brooklyn, but I ended up in Reno because it seemed to be all the things that New York City was not. Kids invited my son to play with them at the playground, and adults held doors for each other. That sense of community, plus the gorgeous landscape, were just two of the reasons our young family moved here after two years in the Bay Area.

But once we got here, the Biggest Little City wasn’t as welcoming as I had thought. I quickly learned to omit where I’d just moved from. (I received actual sneers at the mention of “California.”) Of the first few acquaintances we’d made, the fact that we were not churchgoers—or supported leftist ideals like a single-payer health care system—were friendship dealbreakers for them. (When I recounted this to a fellow transplant, he said, “I know that feeling all too well.”)

Within a month I’d been told by more than one local, “We don’t trust outsiders, but once you’re in good with us, you’re in.” Later, a born-and-raised Reno resident declared at a public event, “We’re Nevadans. We like to be left alone and keep to ourselves!”

Working remotely and devoid of co-workers, I tried harder. I joined a hiking club I found online, but it lacked a consistent crowd and was mostly made up of seniors. (I’m 38.) I tried to break into the arts community, but had trouble finding where to fit in. (I wasn’t part of the Burning Man elite, I wasn’t an art student, and I was told that new artists are often seen as competition for the few grants available.) I started volunteering with hospice, but the staff was rarely all together. My husband volunteered to coach a local youth soccer team, and while the parents were friendly, most were ready to pack up and take on the next to-do item. Sometimes I’d hit it off with another mom at a birthday party, but efforts to meet up were always hampered by overly packed schedules, especially in homes with more than one child. When it came time to enroll our son in school, I stared blankly at the forms: Please list two local emergency contacts besides yourself. We didn’t have any.

I thought maybe the advent of the school year would connect us with other parents, but drop-off and pick-up happened at lightning speed. I realized that local families our age already had established social circles and busy lives, and no room for anyone new. Months into our move, we still felt like guests in our own home, and I wanted to know: were we the only ones experiencing this?

In short, no. But depending on the age group, the barrier to entry will look different. College graduates find themselves at a loss in the absence of a centralized campus culture; people in their 30s and 40s are over-scheduled between working and raising a family (and a need to budget for babysitters); and older folks found themselves a bit rusty at friend-seeking.

For the ages

A sea of Reddit posts by 20-something transplants to Reno shows their frustration in finding community here.

“Friends seem hard to come by,” wrote one 20-year-old poster.

“[I] moved here last year and it’s been hard meeting people/making friends,” wrote another.

“I moved up here last year and I only know a couple of people,” a 27-year-old male lamented on the forum. “I’m not really sure how to meet people. … My work schedule is crazy.”

“Moved here a few months ago, and I’ve been slowly but surely meeting people my age,” a 22-year-old male posted under the handle MeDuzZ. “I’m the youngest one at work by far—8 years younger than the next youngest—so I haven’t been going out with them much … met a few girls on Tinder as well but you know how Tinder goes.”

For the Gen-Xers, age gaps and packed schedules posed the biggest problems.

Mona (last name withheld by request), a solo, work-for-herself professional, moved here from the Bay Area—and before that, North Carolina—more than a year ago without knowing anyone. She chose Reno because of the job opportunities, the low property tax and the absence of state income tax.

“At first I was just really happy to be here,” she said. “I didn’t feel isolated because I was busy trying to start my business, and I was traveling a lot, and that was keeping me occupied.”

But once things settled down, she started looking. She joined a singles’ group, but it didn’t feel like a long-term avenue for meeting people.

“People are genuinely friendly here, but I think it’s challenging because … I’m meeting a lot of people who are married or retired and much older, and they are in a different life stage,” she said.

She decided to start a social group for Gen-Xers—and is working on starting a group for Millennials. “I’m going to try and make it work,” Mona said. “I really went out on a limb starting this group.”

The fear of having no one show up has deterred others like her from initiating social groups, she said, and that despite all the events Reno hosts every day, “People in my age range just tend to be really busy. A lot of people are working full-time and parenting kids.”

Older residents have their own social challenges, as well, but have a good resource in the Newcomers & Neighbors Club, a group born of the 1970s Welcome Wagon commission. For seniors, the reasons for seeking community are symptomatic of their age—they’ve lost a life partner, or have lost many members of their long-held social circles. But even for seniors who relocate, the initial attempt can be rocky.

Paula Grunthaner, the organization’s President, came to Reno from Southern California with her husband, and it took them a year-and a half to discover Newcomers. Prior to that, they spent their days sitting in front of the fire and reading books.

Today, the club offers around 60 recurring events, with something happening each day, from hiking to knitting to theater and dining clubs. The only rule? No politics and no religion, a policy Paula said has kept members happy.

The group has remained steady at around 1,550 members, with some notable growth in the last three years, and they are “seeing a number of younger folks coming in now … and the demographics shifting,” Grunthaner said. “It’s not attractive for someone younger to come in and see only retired folks. They want to go out on Saturday with people close to their age.” The group now schedules about 30 percent of their events in the evening to accommodate the schedules of younger newcomers.

“The challenges I’ve heard [from younger people] are that they are busy,” she said. Additional commitments like second jobs and raising kids leaves little free time for community-building.

Shortly before I left the Newcomers morning coffee meeting, an older woman approached me to say that joining the club was “the best thing she ever did” after coming to Reno, adding, “My husband used to just sit in front of the TV all day, and I dragged him to these events, and now he has a life!”

Group think

Which led me to ask another question about being new to Reno: was the experience of finding community any different for women than men? Between me and my husband, I was the social pioneer when we lived somewhere new; he’s a homebody who’s content with a few far-flung friends. And of the friends I’ve made so far, all are working mothers who extended an invitation while their husbands went along with whatever social gatherings were planned.

Brandon Anderson, an unmarried 30-year-old ex-military member who has lived all over the U.S. and engaged with several MeetUp groups, said he thinks finding community is easier for men than women. (Anderson started Get Up Get Out Experience Reno seven years ago, and like the Newcomers Club, attributes part of its success to an absence of political discussions.)

“A lot of the guys I know are in the [MeetUp] group specifically to meet women outside of dating apps,” he said, adding that there have been times when he’s had to ban men from the group for harassing female members. “We usually get four or five women for every 10 males. To go out by themselves, in general, it’s probably a little more difficult as a woman than as a man.”

Anderson says about 95 percent of those who attend his group’s events are new to Reno, and range in age from 21 to 85. His group has overcome any age gap awkwardness, though the majority of members do not have children.

“Parent-wise, I’d say maybe 25 percent have kids,” he said. “They show up to events sometimes, but sometimes they can’t because of the kids.”

Jenéa Wessman, a 37-year-old working mother, created the “30s and 40s AF” group on MeetUp, after she felt she had aged out of the 20s and 30s group. Born and raised in Reno, she created the group after returning from a one-year stint in Texas.

“After I had my son, I didn’t really have any friends left because none of them had kids, and they kind of disappeared,” she said. “Everyone’s busy. We have jobs. We have kids. We have lives. But some of us want to expand our own circle, and meet new people.” She said that her group has seen a growing presence from international newcomers.

Even with the desire to build a community, showing up—and showing up consistently—is a challenge for working parents.

“I Googled MeetUps, and it took me a few months to get out there and go to one,” she said. “With parents, there’s a social anxiety factor to it. They feel like they won’t meet people they can relate to. I find that the parents that attend do stick around—we see them a lot less often than the others—but when they have the free time, and it lines up with their schedule, they show up.”

Another factor is that working parents are often so busy, they don’t think to look for community-building outlets via a simple Google search.

“If I went off our last meetup alone, we had 20 people show up, and three of them had kids, including myself,” Wessman said. “I think it’s just not as known among people who have kids. … I just think they aren’t really out there looking to meet people. They may want to, but don’t know how.”

She confirmed Anderson’s sentiments about women’s vs. men’s experiences in finding community, saying that, “The men who come to MeetUps are single. And as far as couples [who attend], it’s usually a woman-driven thing.”

Newcomers’ Paula Grunthaner said that for senior couples, “It’s usually the women dragging the men,” though the organization has several regularly scheduled, men-only events, like golfing and bowling.

I’m happy to report that almost two years into our move, I’ve made a couple of good friends and admit that perhaps my timeline was too ambitious. But as I watch Reno grow—and see the widening divide between those who welcome change and those who don’t—I hope to see more people think like Wessman.

“Our [group’s] dynamic is different,” she said. “We are opening and welcoming, and we look for that new, confused face to walk through the door—so we can wave them down and have them join us.”

Grunthaner also offered some sage advice for the newcomer, straight from Aristotle’s teachings: “There are three types of friends. The first are friends of utility, with whom a relationship is mutually beneficial—like co-workers. Then there are friends of pleasure—people with whom you share mutual interests. Then there are the rare friends—the friends of goodness, which come out of a mutual respect. The benefit of these clubs is to throw as many of the first two at you as you can handle. But it’s up to you to figure out who makes it to the third.”

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