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As one half of podcasting duo the Bowery Boys—who cover all corners of New York history, from the first-ever apartment building to the original gangs of New York—it's fair to say Greg Young has a better rotation of cocktail party stories than the average New Yorker.
On the heels of their most recent episode about Typhoid Mary's days as a tabloid fixture, we caught up with Young about making the move from downtown to Brooklyn, how much noise is just the right amount, and the importance of knowing your neighborhood's history (if not necessarily returning to it):
1. What neighborhood do you live in?
Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.
2. Is this your dream neighborhood or is there someplace else in NYC you’d prefer to settle in?
It's a fun and beautiful neighborhood (once you step off Smith Street). Being a New York history podcaster and blogger, I have maybe 15 to 20 dream neighborhoods, depending on the time of day.
3. Do you own or rent?
I’ve always been a renter. Being in Brooklyn in 2015, I unfortunately don’t see that changing anytime soon!
4. How’d you find it?
It’s actually a good friend’s old apartment. I used to visit it in the 1990s and so I had all these nostalgic memories of it before moving in.
5. What’s the one thing you love the most about it?
There's lots to love. It’s not a very old building but I’m surrounded by so much history. The cluster of micro-neighborhoods (Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens) still have much of their original architectural charm intact. And you cannot beat all the subway access.
6. If there’s one thing you could change about your apartment, what would it be?
As New Yorkers we’re always finding the right noise balance in our lives. You live on a noisy street then move to a quiet street —it takes some getting used to. I’m on the opposite end of that equation today! I actually love the sounds of the city and prefer street sound to utter quiet. Maybe not so much at four in the morning, though.
7. In three words, describe the first apartment you've ever lived in.
"23rd/Park/$300" or "Absurdly fantastically cheap." I moved to the city in 1993 and had a corner apartment at Park Avenue and 23rd Street with two other roommates. For the first six months I paid $300 a month. We moved out after six years because rent was getting too high—I think I was paying almost $600! For a bedroom where I could look out and see the clock from the Metropolitan Life Tower from my bed. If only we knew.
8. Do you dream of old New York or prefer the 2015 version?
I’m not a total nostalgist. I love New York City history but in most regards I wouldn’t want to return to it. We should take lessons from old New York to make our current city a better place to live. We should strive for a city that is both livable and workable while keeping its history prominent. This is not a new development. Old and new must cohabitate. We don’t have to be like the center of Paris—the ultimate city-museum. But we are here because of New York’s established history. Ignoring it would, to an extent, be destroying the city and eventually our livelihoods.
9. Tell us about the favorite apartment you’ve ever had.
For almost a decade I lived in the Lower East Side in a rent stabilized railroad apartment. It was here that my interest in New York City history really came alive. The block was filled with synagogues and most of the businesses on the street were Chinese-owned. The space was totally, ridiculously big but in terrible shape. The building was over 100 years old and my apartment had occupied dozens of immigrants over the decades. I was completely aware of being an outsider, an interloper. Every day I came home to it, I wanted to know more about my surroundings. It was inspiring.
10. And the worst?
Did I mention that it was in TERRIBLE shape? The kitchen ceiling collapsed on an annual basis, frequently creating a natural waterfall that would occasionally destroy most of my furniture. You’ll put up with a lot for a rent stabilized apartment!
11. Name one NYC service you couldn’t live without.
Living in a walk-up apartment, you realize how many times a month you go down to take out the trash. So thank you, Department of Sanitation!
12. What's your favorite spot in the city?
This answer literally changes once or twice a day. There are many spots that I love but rarely get to visit—like Wave Hill or Sailors' Snug Harbor. I often find myself on Valentino Pier in Red Hook and think, “Goddamn I love this city!” And I think my idea of heaven might be getting lost in a perpetual maze of West Village streets.
13. Which would you rather: Brooklyn brownstone or a penthouse in a shiny, new condo?
A Brooklyn brownstone, warts and all.
14. If you could live elsewhere, where would it be?
Somewhere where I could have easy access for returning to New York City! I’m as much an aficionado of Americana as I am of New York City history, so I do fantasize about returning some day to the area of my roots—the Ozarks or the Blue Ridge Mountains. Every summer as kids we used to visit my grandparents in Chattanooga, Tennessee. One of the most beautiful states in the nation. Of course I’d miss the culture, the diversity of NYC. But on the plus side—biscuits and gravy!
15. Any advice for a recent New York transplant?
Find out everything you can about the neighborhood that you live in. You’re part of that history now. The more you learn, the more you will appreciate the place. Your expensive rents will seem less painful if you realize your historical place within a neighborhood. If you can pass by your corner every day and think, “Something cool and important happened here one hundred years ago,” you’ll soon understand the city in general. And that’s how you eventually become a New Yorker. One day you’ll wake up and be a part of it all.