I recently moved to the Upper East Side from Hell's Kitchen, so this marks the last of my Hell's Bitchen columns for BrickUnderground. Here are a few things I've learned during the 18 months I lived in my HK walkup:
1. A building--or even an apartment--can either be nurturing or abusive.
At the risk of sounding new age-y, sometimes it is the energy of a place, but more times than not it is the people who reside in a building, that give it a personality. A doorman or landlord, or in my case, the super, become like family--oftentimes, unwanted family. (There is a reason I left home really young; I do not want to have any connection to those I live near.)
In my Hell's Kitchen tenement, it was mostly the super who set the tone for my building for me. I often felt like I was living in the updated and far more bizarre version of the old sitcom One Day at A Time. He made the building far less safe than it could have been, by constantly propping open the doors with rocks and letting anyone into the building without requiring them to buzz me and announce who they are, took stuff delivered to me that was left outside my door (link to soda stealing entry) and would be drunk and glassy-eyed nightly.
During the few weeks I lived in the building after my super died, I would lie awake in the early morning hours thinking I heard his voice on the street below my window screaming in Spanish at passersby as he was wont to do while alive. I’d tense up every time I walked downstairs approaching the front door, wondering if it would be propped open by a rock, only to realize he was gone.
To a lesser degree one also enters into a relationship with their neighbors. I understand why co-op boards run applicants through such a rigorous screening process, because once you move into a place, even though an apartment door or two separate you from other inhabitants, in essence you are living with strangers who can irritate the shit out of you. As a renter, you cannot vote anyone in your building off the island.
2. Some compromises just aren't worth it
Another thing that I learned while renting in Hell's Kitchen is how the absence of a crucial element of your space can become the bane of your existence.
While one may think they can live without a bathroom window, it may very well end up being the thing that ruins every.single.day. As you are stuck in there with a fogged up mirror on a humid summer day, your hair frizzing by the minute, you will be cursing your decision. Similarly, if an air conditioner doesn’t fit into your bedroom window, you will not be able to endure a summer without cursing every single day the temps rise above 80 degrees.
3. What's inside is more important than what's outside
It is easy to rationalize moving into an apartment to be in a neighborhood you love, thinking, “How much time will I really spend indoors anyway? I will just go there to shower, eat and sleep and spend my days busy exploring my great neighborhood.”
I have learned this is simply not true.
You will spend far more time than you ever think you will in your actual apartment.
This is NYC: there will be hurricanes, blackouts, transportation strikes, sick days and tons of other occurrences that may leave you rather immobile. Do not pick an apartment that you can barely tolerate.
Chances are it will not grow on you and even those quirks you find charming in the beginning will begin to grate on your nerves as time wears on. (Somewhat analagously, a friend confessed that when he met his wife, her foreign accent turned him on, but as over time, it became the thing that irritated and repulsed him the most.)
You think a building’s sloping stairwells are charming until you have trudged up them for the twentieth time and then you will end up waiting to hack them with a sledgehammer.
4. The apartment chooses you
One might think that these lessons would be valuable in allowing one to choose more wisely in the future, but unfortunately that is the conundrum about NYC real estate. You just can never win, wise or not. Because if you have a limited budget (and to some extent even if you don't) in NYC, usually an apartment chooses you, not the other way around.
A while back, I had the good fortune of being able to interview the late NY Daily News reporter Jason Sheftell about his own apartment and something he said resonated with me: “You don’t pick a rent-stabilized apartment, it picks you.”
Particularly in certain months like summer, the more constraints--such as size, location and budget--you put upon your search, the less likely you are to be able to choose between apartments. If you are lucky enough to find one that fits your criteria, chances are someone else has already put in an application on it. So it is more about being in the right place at the right time and allowing the Apartment Gods to thrust forth "The One".
In the case of every apartment I’ve ever had--and this is reinforced after my Hell’s Kitchen experience--for better for worse the apartment picked me. For example when I told everyone I wanted a 2BR in Hell's Kitchen for under $2K everyone balked, but I finally found it, or rather it found me. It was the only unit on the market for more than a few weeks because of its weird layout. It was listed as a two-bedroom but would not really work for roommates because the "bedrooms" lacked windows. Because of this, the landlord was willing to negotiate on price and allow me to modify the structure of the unit.
Likewise my current Upper East Side mansion in the sky--rent stabilized this time--chose me. It's not like I had more than one affordable doorman, elevator, laundry, luxury unit to choose from in that price range.
So while the lessons I learned are very good in theory, in execution they may be hard to make use of; but if you allow the Universe to bring your housing to you, oh the stories you will have to tell.
Kelly Kreth has chronicled her misadventures in a Hell's Kitchen tenement-style walk-up in this bi-weekly BrickUnderground column, Hell’s Bitchen.
Also by Kelly Kreth: