I've lived in apartments most of my life, places where a shared wall or floor—our floor, which was the bottom unit's ceiling, as it were—was all that separated us from the people around us, our neighbors. Of course, suburbanites have neighbors, too, but it's a different dynamic in the city, where living cheek to jowl—almost literally—means sharing your life with non-roommates in a way that shapes you, obsesses you, surprises you.
There were my neighbors in grad school who never spoke, and would rush in and out of their apartments so quickly they loomed large in my imaginings, fueled by a few brief glimpses I got of their always dark foyer and always scruffy floors: How many people actually lived there? What were they hiding? And do they ever turn on their lights?
And then there was the semi-famous writer—or so I was told, though I did look him up and he had, it seemed, garnered some buzz from a book—in the West 80s building who was rumored to have been evicted, a story later confirmed by a paper notice tacked on his door ordering him to move out. Apparently, a published memoir and notoriety does not a stable living situation make.
There was also the woman across from me further uptown who always said hi in the hallway and seemed to host many get-togethers, but never invited my family to any of them. We hadn't either, to be honest, but she was often hurried so I didn't want to disturb. Sadly, the only time we ever really talked was when her brother died and we paid our respects.
Where I live now, it's more collegial. We chat in the elevators, we inquire about our days. We watch each other's children grow taller, older, become themselves. The giggly high-schooler I once knew just graduated from her university, and leaves the building power-suited for her new office job every morning. The sweet, quiet two-year-old with whom my youngest once shared a nanny—another perk of living in a friendly building—is now a chatty and confident middle-schooler, always on her way to some such fun. I feel old just writing this.
Bob Dylan is famously quoted as saying, "New York was a city where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice." And it's true. In a city of millions, you can be as anonymous here as you want.
But in NYC, with neighbors living so close to each other, you can also be noticed as much as you want—for being noisy, messy, complain-y, indiscreet, in defiance (see: evicted semi-famous writer neighbor above), in love. You are known. There's a certain comfort and, yes, exposure to that.
This week, BrickUnderground looks at all the joys and annoyances of living with neighbors, from a building where nursing a co-tenant back to health is just a fact of life to proper neighborly etiquette to the most common neighbor fights. And we also hear from someone who doesn't deal with her neighbors at all—happily.