Jean-Paul Sartre said hell is other people and in New York City, hell can more precisely be described as your downstairs neighbor—especially when there’s a business on the ground floor and the foot traffic makes you want to hit the road. Case in point: When the smell of cigarette smoke from bar patrons hanging around outside wafts into your apartment upstairs.
Since New Yorkers are spending more time than ever at home because of the pandemic, these everyday annoyances can feel like a bigger deal.
So new NYC renter, beware. It’s just as important to pay attention to what’s downstairs when apartment hunting. Worrying about having enough closet space may seem silly when you discover roaches from an eatery below crawling over your clothes. Even if your apartment initially seems like heaven, your downstairs neighbor can quickly turn it into a hell. Or at least a horror story to tell over the years.
Editor's Note: Brick Underground's series “Living Next to” features first-person accounts of what it’s like to have an iconic or unusual New York City neighbor. Have a story to share? Drop us an email. We respect all requests for anonymity.
Even NYC rental veterans who know how to do an apartment search can sometimes end up with an unwelcome neighbor below. It’s impossible to predict every scenario—or anticipate what will replace the nice, quiet boutique you were so happy to land an apartment above. To wit: Who knew I’d end up living above a hair salon that turned into a sketchy “massage” parlor at night and have my apartment bell rung at all hours with shady and persistent men arriving for their “appointments”? Or how could I have ever guessed living next to beautiful Gracie Mansion would become so stressful during the protests against the mayor last summer?
The best newbies can do is take tips from old pros to hopefully avoid some pitfalls. And keep in mind, what may be a deal breaker for some may actually be a find for others. Here are some of the worst we’ve encountered.
Living above a bar or club
I lived across the street from a noisy bridge-and-tunnel bar where party buses would pull up on weekends. The music and talking under my window was deafening, and the cops would be called at least once per weekend.
If I only looked closer and saw the flyer on its windows advertising Jello wrestling! Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice…Sadly, I eventually ended up living above a bar where patrons would loiter outside and gab loudly under my window. So the lesson is: If you’re a homebody who’s sensitive to noise, think about looking elsewhere.
Living above a subway stop
It might seem convenient to be close to a subway stop but one New Yorker found they could hear everything that happens in the station or on the platform in their living room. “Weekends are especially stressful because people can be rowdy heading back from bars. And, it’s a subway station, so it can be smelly,” she says.
Living near the Midtown Tunnel had a surprising drawback: “It’s not just highway-style noise that I have to tolerate. I get a lot of soot,” explained one renter. Extra laundry or dry cleaning bills are certainly something to consider.
Living above (or next to) FDNY
Sometimes the places you expect to be the noisiest are not so bad. In the case of one New Yorker who lived next to a NYC firehouse, the sirens turned out not to be a problem because the crew of Engine 84 didn’t turn them on until the truck pulled out of the station. And the firefighters not only once fed her a huge meal, but they helped her put together furniture, taught her neighborhood history and even helped fix a perpetually leaking bathroom ceiling. Sometimes you need to see if the good outweighs the (noisy) bad).
Living above a school or daycare
While it is typically impossible to spend a lot of time in an apartment before you sign the lease, keep your ears open while checking it out. And if at all possible, visit during at different times, day and night.
Living next to a school or daycare may not seem to be a problem when you work in an office, but these days you're likely working from home and it may drive you nuts (although not everyone feels that way). The start and end of day may involve idling school buses and if there's outdoor space—you've got the sounds of kids at play at recess. The same goes for a doggie daycare—the incessant barking could ruffle some fur.
Living above a smoker
Inhale deeply in the hallway—you don’t want to be living next to a smoker if you are sensitive to the smell. The same goes for living above a pothead (every building has at least one).
Buildings are required to have a smoking policy, and if living in a smoke-free building is important to you—check out the building’s policy and how violations of the policy are handled. (The smell of smoke in a so-called smoke-free building would be a big clue.)
Living above a bakery or restaurant
Living over a restaurant is a classic NYC dilemma—sure it can be very convenient—you might even get chummy with the staff—but odors, trash, and vermin are something to watch out for.
A New Yorker named Robert was plagued with mice and roaches when living over a chicken restaurant. “After [the exterminator] sprayed, it was like the stampede scene in ‘Jumanji.’ All the insects and rodents fled up to our apartment—mice, roaches, and those giant, winged water bugs,” he said. Need we say more?
Living near an exhibitionist
While you might initially be more concerned with a great light or a water view, sometimes it’s the things you can see from your window that can be the most upsetting.
A New Yorker named Briana lived next to an exhibitionist and had to keep her kitchen shades down if she didn’t want to see him doing his dishes naked. ‘We'd get brave and open them for a while and then we’d be treated to the full Monty yet again,” she explains. Again, what’s a deal breaker for some is not a deal breaker for all.
Living above a flood light
A friend has recently kvetched to me about being kept up all night ever since his neighbor installed a motion-activated flood light.
The neighbor is afraid someone may sneak into her backyard to break in and murder her, ironically now my friend wants to do exactly that—if the neighbor doesn’t adjust the setting to not flash into his window. To be sure, New Yorkers know everything boils down to a Seinfeld episode. Try to see your potential apartment at night to be sure there are no neon signs flashing into your space. You don’t want to end up like Kramer when a new chicken restaurant moved in across the street.
Living next door to a cemetery
Living next door to a cemetery might be off-putting but consider the benefits—more quiet and better parking. Some find them beautiful even. At the very least you will have a daily reminder that you are alive.
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