Due Diligence

Barry Yourgrau, author of "Mess," talks decluttering, Jackson Heights, and shares fond memories of "old" New York

By BrickUnderground | March 16, 2016 - 1:59PM 

Charles Raben

In honor of spring cleaning time (spring starts on Sunday, people!), we checked in with Barry Yourgrau, author of MESS: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act, which chronicles the author's attempts to clean up his Queens apartment—a possible mouse problem was looming—and confront his connection to objects.

Yourgrau told us about his life post-straightening up, his surprising dream neighborhood (for a bohemian), and why he prefers old New York (and London).

1.  What neighborhood do you live in?

Jackson Heights, Queens.

2. Is this your dream neighborhood or is there someplace else in NYC you’d prefer to settle in?

My neighborhood is one of the most multicultural in the world. Walking out my door is like traveling. But after a decade and a half I'd be up for a change. I've always considered myself a downtown Manhattan kind of guy (old school). But oddly, if I had the money (and not the most that's required in NYC these wildly priced days), I'd look at the Upper East Side. Can't believe I'm saying this. But I love the park, and upper Fifth Avenue, and the museums. The Upper East Side would be such a change, [it'd] be like a new city for me.

3. Do you own or rent?


4. How’d you find it?

It used to be my girlfriend's. When she bought a place right around the corner, I took over here, as a writing studio and somewhere to keep my things.

5. What’s the one thing you love the most about it?

It's somewhere to have my books, and somewhere to display the ephemera I bring back from my travels. My girlfriend is a globe-trotting food writer, I accompany her. Plus we have a pied-a-terre in Istanbul. I return with postcards, tourist calendars, cafe napkins, a movie poster or two, maps, museum brochures. Et cetera. I love such stuff. A special pride: my Spanish "matador of the year" calendars from 2007 and 2008, gotten off a barman in Madrid.

6. If there’s one thing you could change about your apartment, what would it be?

Conjure a view out the window. I love a vista. But my apartment is in the back of the building, facing other backs of buildings. 

7. In three words, describe the first apartment you've ever lived in.

Cheap and small.

8. Do you prefer old NYC or this NYC?

Old. When I moved to New York in 1979 to join the arts scene somehow, there was a sense of edginess to certain neighborhoods. You felt that you were in New York because you really really wanted to be here. Thrilling times those were. Latterly, the city just feels a grand place for tourists, though developments like the High Line are pretty great. It reminds me of something they'd build in Amsterdam.

9. Tell us about the favorite apartment you’ve ever had.

In the late 1990's I sublet a sculptor's tiny live-in studio on the ninth floor of an office building at Fulton and Nassau streets. Primitive: The toilet was out in the hall. But the place had high sunny windows. At night the neighborhood was deserted, just the dark silent towers of Wall Street for company. I'd go up onto the roof, with the Woolworth Building and the World Trade Center looming above. It was lonely and romantic and magnificent.

10. And the worst?

In Los Angeles, where I lived in the early 90's. After breaking up with my then-girlfriend, I sublet a place right below the Hollywood Hills, which were nowhere to be seen from my tiny mole hole on the ground floor. It only had windows at the back, facing into a lot of bushes. It was very dim, and so claustrophobic I would desperately drive out to the beach every evening in my old Dodge and come scuttling back as late as I could. 

11. Name one NYC service you couldn’t live without.

The G train. Most of my friends live in Brooklyn.

12. What's your favorite spot in the city?

Oof, very hard choice. Maybe the midpoint of the walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on a sunny morning or at twilight. Or the Met Museum, for the art, the grand building, the park, the avenue.

13. Which would you rather: Brooklyn brownstone or a penthouse in a shiny, new condo?

Can't I have both, half a year each? Ok, I'll be perverse and say a condo. But not "shiny," please.

14. If you could live elsewhere, where would it be?

I would have answered London until recently, but its explosion of over-building is horrendous. So I'd say Istanbul, whose beauty prevails despite all the ravages (and more over-building). It's also a cheap short flight from anywhere in Europe.

15. Any advice for a recent New York transplant?

Walk the city. And get out to the boros.


Brick Underground articles occasionally include the expertise of, or information about, advertising partners when relevant to the story. We will never promote an advertiser's product without making the relationship clear to our readers.