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Julie Klam, longtime NYC renter and self-deprecating author of Please Excuse My Daughter: A Memoir and the New York Times bestseller YOU HAD ME AT WOOF: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness, lives with her husband, daughter and Boston Terriers in Washington Heights. Today on BrickUnderground, she discusses her journey from the Upper West Side to the 160s, her slight case of condo obsession, and the best thing about Fresh Direct besides delivery.
I know you grew up in Bedford, New York and went to college in Manhattan at NYU. How hard was it to navigate your apartment searches once in Manhattan?
I grew up in a rural area but always dreamed of living in Manhattan. When I got accepted to NYU I also found out I was waitlisted for housing. I figured I’d commute but after doing so for the first month of school, the commute was making me feel as if I’d have a breakdown. Luckily my mother’s friend owned a bunch of apartments and there was one in Chelsea she knew she’d need back but felt comfortable renting to me and a friend for the first few years of school. My roommate—a Parson’s attendee—moved into the $420 a month one bedroom with me and we lived there for two years. This was in ’85 before Chelsea was the great neighborhood it is now. There was a man who peed on our front doorstep every day.
It seems every interview I’ve done for this site involves pee!
Well, that’s New York City for you! Thankfully my father then bought a studio apartment on the Upper West Side on 80th between Amsterdam and Columbus as an investment and said I could live there until I graduated if I paid the small $300 maintenance. I got a series of part-time retail jobs but when I graduated I had no intention of leaving. I stayed 13 years. I was much harder to evict than my father every thought I’d be. I lived there alone most of the time but once moved in my boyfriend—an ex-con gangster—in.
Well nothing says New York like living in a studio with an ex-con gangster. How hard core of you!
I actually wrote about him in my first book. It was short-lived because he had kids and when his ex-girlfriend, a crackhead, returned to the city with them, he took custody and needed a bigger place. So he moved out of my studio and in with another girlfriend who had a two bedroom.
How’d you meet him anyway?
He was working on a renovation at the Hayden Planetarium, so essentially he was a construction worker that whistled at me who I took home out of boredom.
So what made you move after 13 years?
I met my husband. He had been living on 5th Street and Avenue A for 15 years paying an absurd $400. I was still paying around $300. We decided to move in together and found a place on 100th St. and Riverside. At $2,300 it was a huge leap. We unrealistically thought we could get a great one bedroom for $1000. Then we began looking and upped our budget to $1,500, then $1,800 and put the finally cap on $2,000. We had been living in such a bubble. Finally we saw the place on West 100th and it was just so perfect we agreed to the $2,300 price. It was in a grand pre-war building with stained glass in the lobby. The women who had been living in the apartment for the last 50 years were Italian holocaust survivors. They still had no refrigerator in 2000—just an icebox!
Wow! A place time forgot!
Yes! That’s what we loved. Even though it was to be gutted—and we wanted that—we enjoyed seeing the original history before the management did so. We got married after about two years and stayed there another three after that. Our daughter, Violet, was born and we knew the place was way too small for the three of us and two dogs. Even so we didn’t move until our daughter was over a year old.
We decided to rent another bigger apartment. I met a friend in a mommy-baby group and she lived in this great building on 106th two puppies which we kept. So it was me, my husband, Violet, two dogs and two puppies… and Broadway. We called the management company and looked at two-bedroom units. Nothing struck our fancy but then an amazing one opened up. The views were incredible and it was only $2,900. While I was pregnant we had gotten another dog to foster and we thought was basically just going to live with us a short time until it died, but it actually gave birth to two puppies which we kept. So it was me, my husband, Violet, two dogs and two puppies…
And a partridge in a pear tree? That apartment is beginning to seem like a clown car…
We lived there for five years and unfortunately we never trained the puppies properly so the space turned into a huge litter box. People tend to outgrow spaces in Manhattan and it seemed all of our friends’ rents were going down but ours kept rising and rising. When it reached $3,500 we knew we needed to go. We would have liked to have bought but we couldn’t make that leap. Our goal was to find a better apartment for less. I spent a summer looking at places with Violet, essentially taking her to real estate camp.
We found that in our own neighborhood we couldn’t do better so I began to look in the 180s in Washington Heights and although a few hundred dollars cheaper, it wasn’t worth it to move. So I went to the 160s and found there was much more space and huge cost savings. It is a complete anomaly to me that people seem to have a mental block about living above 96th Street. They think anything above is like the Bronx. I find our area great; it’s a bubble that resists gentrification for some reason. You can find these amazing apartments in pre-war buildings where spaces were built to be real homes, not boxes in a high rise. There are hallways and alcoves; things that make an apartment a home. They have amazing bones, beautiful moldings and surprises like areas for gas lamps.
How did you find your current place on West 160th?
I looked on Craigslist. A few years prior I looked at a space up there but on the day I visited there was a huge crime scene where someone had just been murdered and I was turned off. But this time I had way more invested in trying it out.
My husband was going to see a no-fee apartment up there listed on Craigslist but the broker never showed. So he walked to an agency he saw on 159th St. and told the woman what we were looking for and our budget. She showed him an apartment—he called me to come see it too—but both of us had a bad feeling about it. It was huge and nice, but there was just something… All I could think about was that I couldn’t have my own washer and dryer and would have to schlep to the basement. We saw an ad for another apartment in that building and it mentioned it had a part-time doorman. Immediately that made me like the place more.
We returned to the broker who told us there was a similar unit up higher on the 9th floor with amazing views and that would be completely gutted. This time it was not rainy like the first time and the super took us up. We fell in love with him and with it. I was shaking when I saw the apartment. The Super even agreed to build custom closets for us. We all tried to get the management to agree to let us bring our washing machine, but no dice.
Would you like to own someday?
We have now saved money and are out of debt. We could buy but are wary of going back where every month is a stretch. It’s so great to only write a check for $2,200 month. Still, my husband and I look at open houses and love the areas by Audubon Terrace and by Morris Jumel Mansion---the oldest house in New York that George Washington used as his headquarters. Also the street, Sylvan Terrace, is amazing--cobblestone with gingerbread-type houses lining it. There are just so many neat things up here that owning would be an honor. We are close to the A and 1 trains and my daughter still goes to her great public school on the Upper West Side by Zabars.
I’m slightly obsessed with the thought of buying in the PS 90 condo development on 148th STreet, which is an apartment building made from a converted school. There is still a percentage of units unsold, they are affordable and there is a tax abatement. That neighborhood is even more convenient for us because my gym is there, there is a way better supermarket and even a Starbucks. It’s just that it is hard to commit to buying.
I know you now have four dogs. No problem with your management company having that many pets?
Considering our neighbor sells pot out of his apartment, our super has seven feral cats and a huge cage of birds and the owner has pit bulls, our pets are the least of anyone’s concern. When will filled in our rental application, on the line where it asks how many dogs we had, I put an unintelligible number in.
What’s the best and worst thing about your apartment?
Higher crime is the worst. It just seems more dangerous here compared to the Upper West Side. Our views are the best.
What’s the weirdest [or scariest] thing that has ever happened to you living in NYC? I guess the Ex-Convict story would count as an odd roommate story, but any other odd stories?
On Christmas Eve two years ago we had an upstairs neighbor dragged out by the cops.
Not the pot dealer?
No, a different neighbor. Telling by his wife’s screams, it was a domestic-violence situation. A real downer on the holiday.
I know you have four dogs—tell me a bit about raising dogs in NYC. What are the constraints? What are your favorite dog-friendly places or things to do around Manhattan? Was it ever hard to find a pet-friendly building?
Transporting them is the hardest. Also housebreaking is a problem if you don’t have a yard. If you want to take a dog out you have to put the leash on and get the elevator. If you are housebreaking, they usually have already gone in the hall or elevator by the time you get outside.
You also have a child. What are the differences for you raising a child in the City as opposed to where you grew up? What are the best and worst things about raising a kid in NY?
The best thing is that it is never boring. There are always fun things to do with my daughter here. Parents also get to be more involved with their kids because you can’t just send your child out to play by herself.
The worst is not being able to drive somewhere. Subways to school are a real drag especially in bad weather. It’s so much easier to be able to drive somewhere in a car and park without schlepping.
What’s your dream home?
A doorman apartment building in the West Village. A $10 million mansion would stress me out. I just want good space and a great view.
What is the one thing you’d change about living in Manhattan?
I still want my own washer and dryer. I mourn the loss of it. I feel like a ‘50s housewife on a game show, but having them is real liberation.
How (if at all) does living in NYC affect your writing or career? What are some of your favorite things in NYC that relate to writing or your literary career?
Because writing is such a solitary career and I do it from home, I like that even though I’m in all day by myself I can see so much life outside my windows and can run out and meet people for lunch. I’m madly in love with this city and always have been even as a little kid. I dreamed of living in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. After dreaming it and you are finally here, it is different, but still wonderful. The best part is constantly stumbling on unexpected things---signs painted on sides of buildings in 1939 that show up when an adjacent building comes down.
What about food in NYC? Do you cook? Take-out? Go out to eat? What are some of your favorite places or things relating to food in NY?
Fresh Direct is my Mecca. I get a big delivery once a week and go to Zabars for fill-ins. We are eat-at-home people, particularly because my daughter is a picky eater. I really love the prepared foods from Fresh Direct and that they supply stuff already cut up for stir-fries. Amazingly all the places from our old place in the 90s deliver up here for like $1 extra!
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- Kelly Cutrone: My elevator has a secret life
- Fox 5 Julie Chang's 5th floor walk-up: "I buy umbrellas like packs of gum"
- NY1's Roger Clark: His heart belongs to Forest Hills, his rent check to Yorkville
- I-Can't-Believe-I'm-Still-Single Eric Schaeffer: Chicks dig hammocks
- Author Michael Gross: Real estate isn’t fair.
- “You don’t pick a rent-stabilized apartment--it picks you” (Q&A with Jason Sheftell, NY Daily News real estate correspondent)