Then & Now

“You’ll have to scrape my tired ass off this worn parquet flooring before I make my grand exit” from the East Village

By Joann Jovinelly  | January 7, 2013 - 2:46PM

The catalyst that enabled me to secure my fourth-floor tenement walk-up was also the worst event in the history of New York; that’s right, I ended up with my current East Village digs as a result of 9/11. 

I was already living there at the time, but my lease was a sublet. After the terrorist strike, revved up restrictions didn’t enable some people to re-enter the country, so I ended up with the place by default. 

At the time, my rent was a reasonable $900 and change for a stripped-down one bedroom handsomely splashed with fuchsia. The galley kitchen was painted in a citrus-like chartreuse. 

Back in 2000, the neighborhood seemed innocent, like it had forgotten the over-hyped 1980s. It still had a sense of community, but as a person who was drawn to the neighborhood that had existed there 25 years earlier, I was setting myself up for disappointment. I wasn’t living here for more than a month when I ran into Ann Magnuson, the actress and performance artist, on First Avenue.

When I asked her to sign my map, she wrote, “Downtown ain’t what it used to be.” Was this an omen? I thought, sure, I finally land downtown digs and downtown has moved someplace else.  

The East Village was not without its charms, though. It was still full (as it is today) with old Italian bakeries and unique shops, but they dwindle at an alarming rate, like urbanites can’t live without a half dozen sandwich franchises within a six-block radius. 

And back then I walked around on weekend nights without concern that I’d run into a drunken bridge-and-tunnel horde with poor street manners. I think the East Village has the bragging rights of being New York’s neighborhood with the most bars per square foot. Just ask anyone whose witnessed SantaCon, the annual bar crawl of thousands of drunken Santas.   

Admittedly, I have had poor luck with this apartment. For instance, there was so much mold inside it on move-in day that climbing the stairs (and heaving in massive quantities of filth, apparently) made me immediately sick with a respiratory illness. Not only did I develop an infection, but I became asthmatic. I thought, 'Wow, I’m an official New Yorker'—a small price to pay if it meant I could finally stop what had become an obsessive apartment search. 

And though I was able to clean it thoroughly, making sense of the apartment’s quirky layout remains a challenge that I cannot master. Forget feng shui, this is wabi-sabi. 

There is one L-shaped main room that wants to be two rooms but isn’t, a kitchen that requires juggling skills to cook, and a smallish, creepy half bathtub with a fake drain that leads directly to the floor below. And that’s just the beginning. 

I am likely more in love with the idea of living in Manhattan then actually dealing with the fact that I have outgrown my apartment and should have moved to Brooklyn years ago. 

Still, you’ll have to scrape my tired ass off this worn parquet flooring before I make my grand exit. Even though the East Village class war is on, I will fight to keep paying insane amounts of rent for the privilege of living in this broken-down tenement, circa 1887. Mostly, it’s because of my reverence for the neighborhood’s history.  

There is amazing energy here; the ghosts of everyone from Dylan Thomas to Allen Ginsberg walk these streets. There are iconic characters who still hang around Union Square, and older people who have lived here for decades who can for hours fill your head with stories of old New York, the gritty place your parents fought to leave and couldn’t understand why you fought to return. No matter if it's a parade, a protest, or a blackout, everyone helps each other. 

But that’s one of the reasons why it guts your heart every time another independent retailer closes shop due to rent increases—your neighbors are having the same trouble paying the rent. People stop in to say “hello” and then apologize for not buying anything. It’s that kind of place.  

But I have also seen darkness here. A few weeks after I moved in, a woman was raped in a playground. Jodi Lane was electrocuted trying to save her dog from ConEd’s ancient underground wiring. And a Jane Doe turned up in a suitcase in an empty lot around the corner from Kiehl’s on Third Avenue. 

According to my neighbor who lives below me, however, we have it good. He loves to tell me about a week in the 1970s when he was mugged twice by the same person. (The second time, he reached into his grocery bag, grabbed a pineapple, and beat the mugger repeatedly!) He said the area was so laden with crime back then that even cops avoided it. 

Last week I re-signed my lease, again, for another two years. There was little debate. Having gone to many rent guidelines board meetings at Cooper Union, I knew that this year’s percentage increase was modest (4 percent on a two-year lease). 

In January my rent will be $1,649. Can I afford it? Not really. I will tighten my belt a little harder. And I’ll never buy anything from a chain store like 7-11, which, incidentally, has now found what East Villagers are hoping will be a temporary home on Avenue A. Lately my favorite word is boycott.  

Then & Now explores how time illuminates the pros and cons of an apartment--and how what draws people to a place isn't necessarily what keeps them there.  Have a story to share? Let us know--we'd love to hear!

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