Then & Now

My $56,000 Forest Hills apartment outlasted our marriage, so I moved upstairs

By Dave Gil de Rubio  | March 7, 2019 - 10:00AM

Forest Hills, Queens, where the author fell for the charm of a prewar apartment building.

Salon NYC/Flickr

Forest Hills, Queens, has played a major role in my life, from my early adult years through fatherhood and to the present day. But when I was growing up—a Puerto Rican kid among a mixed crowd of Irish, Italian and Portuguese kids in the Long Island town of Bay Shore—it wasn’t even on my radar.

A few years after I graduated from college, I moved to Forest Hills with my then-wife and our eight-pound poodle. One of the reasons I was drawn to the neighborhood was the subway. That probably sounds strange to native New Yorkers, but to a kid born and raised on the island, where having a car and a license is pretty much the only (expensive) ticket to freedom, the subway seemed like a dream—especially the ability to ride 24 hours a day, seven days a week, pretty much anywhere in four of the five boroughs for a nominal fare. 

Editor's Note: Brick Underground's Then & Now features first-person accounts of what attracts New Yorkers to their apartment or house, and how their initial impressions evolve over time. This piece previously ran in August, 2018. We are presenting it again in case you missed it.

To find our Forest Hills apartment, we had searched the classified ads in the New York Times, coming across an open house for several co-ops in the same prewar building. They all had high ceilings, killer molding and an old-fashioned elevator with an outer door that you had to pull open to enter. 

Being a sucker for those kinds of quirky amenities, I was even more impressed by the apartment line we were shown. It had gorgeous hardwood floors and a sunken living room. It was a junior-four, meaning the second bedroom didn’t have a closet, but it was on a corner and looked out over the intersection. Best of all, it was two blocks from the local G and R stop. The dream of living by a subway was within striking distance.

We looked at a few other apartments in the building, but knew the first one was the right one. Oddly enough, we were only offered a one-year lease despite our efforts to secure a two-year lease. Our big concern was that we would be there for a year and after that, the building management would either say we had to buy or get out. We were assured this wouldn’t be the case and we moved in.

There was lots to love about the neighborhood. The building was pet friendly, it had an on-site laundry room, there were good places to eat nearby, including Knish Nosh and a closet-sized sushi joint that had great sashimi and rolls. There was even an old-school single-screen movie theater called The Trylon that had balcony access. And did I mention the subway was right up the block?

Fast forward a year and the lease renewal that should have appeared in the mail did not come. We called the management office and were informed that we weren’t getting one. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we had got in right before the start of a major real estate boom in the area and the management company wanted to sell the dozen apartments they had been renting. 

Since we were already living in our place, we were given the right of first refusal. Otherwise, we had to move out. The asking price for our junior four? A mere $56,000. It sounds like peanuts now, but the year was 1998 and it felt like $56 million to us. We panicked at first, but the apartment’s pros far outweighed the cons and with a bank loan and some financial assistance from my then mother-in-law, we were able to swing the purchase.

Two years later, our son arrived and after a few years, and we needed more space. I was using the second bedroom as my office (I am a freelance writer) and our boy needed his own room.

In 2001, as luck would have it, our son’s godfather, who had been renting the one bedroom next to our apartment, was planning to move down to Florida with his boyfriend when his landlord offered to sell the place to him. He declined the landlord’s offer and said his friends next door might be interested. 

We struck a deal for a one-bedroom apartment that was half the size of what we had and wound up paying $86,000. After more loans and financial assistance, we were able to combine both units into one. 

While work was being done to create a passage between the two apartments, I got to see inside the walls of our 1939 building. Surprisingly, there was a significant amount of raw material in there, it wasn’t a lot of empty space. No wonder the place felt so solid and quiet. Nothing slapdash here. There was obviously a lot of craftsmanship involved. It made me love my building all the more.

While the building remained in my life, the marriage did not. After our divorce, I was intent on remaining a major part of my son’s life. So when a one bedroom directly above where my son lay his head down to sleep came on the market in 2012, I jumped on it. I had to do another major renovation, but after a year, I was ensconced above my boy, able to see him far more frequently than was the case with my pop when my own parents split. Even though my life had taken a circuitous path back to where I started, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I still had the hardwood floors, sunken living room, prewar building accouterments and did I mention, I still live up the block from the subway? 


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