Best of Brick

Why sheltering in NYC is unlike anywhere else: An essay

You now look forward to walking the dog in Brooklyn's Prospect Park for an hour every morning like your life depends on it, which it does in a way.

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2020
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Riding out the coronavirus in a typical New York City apartment has not been the same—not even close—as sheltering in a suburban house. Think of the rooms and the ancillary places—the backyards, porches, garages, attics, and basements that houses have—where suburbanites can go to escape each other, or get some fresh, socially distant air to breathe, or just avoid a pile of unfolded laundry.

NYC apartments, on the other hand, especially post-war ones, with their combined living and dining rooms (sometimes kitchens too) feel more cramped now than ever. These days you spend so much time in your place you look at it differently. Those built-ins and shelves that reach the ceiling (so great for storage!) now feel oppressive. You realize every square inch of your space is being used. There’s nowhere to rest your eyes. You’re sick of looking at your own stuff and the clutter makes you feel like you are drowning. Why didn’t you notice you lived like this before?

You find yourself stopping mid-rant often (because you rant even more than usual these days). Of course, being able to complain about your NYC apartment is itself a luxury: You are grateful to be alive and healthy. Everyone here knows many people who were very sick. Most people know someone who has died. New York City has lost over 20,000 people. It is unfathomable. The lack of solidarity across the U.S. is outrageous. Why isn't our nation mourning together? 

The pandemic has laid bare all the fault lines and all the inequities. It has shown us the weakness in our planning, in our leadership, and in our thinking. It has shown us that the lack of affordable housing compounds infections through overcrowding.  


[Editor's note: This article was originally published in May 2020. We are presenting it again here as part of our summer Best of Brick week.]


Even as you question why you live here, you remain fiercely protective of your city. Always. That’s just how it is. So you may find the concept of quarantine fatigue floating around social media kind of silly. Are you really in lockdown if you are free to roam around a house? A yard? Can we agree that people who live in small apartments are the only ones who can claim quarantine fatigue?

Of course, lots of New Yorkers left the city for the suburbs or rural areas—lucky them—where their pandemic experience appears to involve foraging for oatmilk and complaining about spotty wifi. In the burbs, they don’t seem to take social distancing as seriously as New Yorkers—they are holding lots of play dates with friends they deem safe and getting haircuts in their kitchens—at least that’s how it looks. For the New Yorkers who stayed behind, the lockdown experience has been profoundly different and unsettling.

The allure is missing

The thing about NYC—even if you are well off by non-city standards, you can’t get everything you want. Renting or owning here is a high-stakes game of compromise, and now the trade-off between what you give up and what you get for living here has evaporated. It’s not clear when or if the balance will return.

“There's the old saying to justify the insane rental prices here, ‘You're not renting the apartment, you're renting the city,’” says Constantine Valhouli, founder of real estate research and analytics firm NeighborhoodX. Your apartment might be a 400-square-foot studio, and it could cost you north of $3,000 a month, but at least you are in the center of one of the most brilliant cities in the world.

“Except now, almost all the things which drew us to the city are shuttered—there's no nightlife, no theaters, no movies, no outdoor concerts, or Shakespeare in the park,” Valhouli says. The list of all the things that are closed (a few permanently) is endless. What is New York City without its arts, cultural institutions, shopping, bars, or restaurants? It’s a terrible question.

The peril of tiny spaces

When you’re a New York Yorker, your place is typically so small and so stuffed that when your spouse or partner buys something new you have long discussions about where to put it and what must be discarded to make room for it. These sometimes end in arguments. You regularly sneak your children’s art projects into the trash at night and hope they won’t ask about them, just for the sake of freeing a few square inches. There are tears in the morning when your crime is discovered.

And now your apartment is doing triple duty as home, office, and school. You never even heard of Zoom before and now it rules your family’s weekday hours, dictating what rooms you sit in and when. Everyone fights to be in the back of the apartment where the Internet connection is strongest. It is madness.

“How different would our apartment choices have been if we had been told to choose a place that you'll basically be living in 24/7. What made tiny apartments bearable in the past is that we spent so little time in them,” Valhouli says.

Apartment rebellions

Your apartment seems far needier than ever before. The kitchen sink fills with dishes everytime you turn around and the bathroom sink won’t drain (and someone is always in the bathroom when you need it. You dream of having a second bathroom). The oven seems to coat itself with grease overnight. The bathroom door knob falls off and you’re tempted to leave it off until it’s safe to add to the building’s handyman’s list (after all, who is coming over?) but your children shriek at you. Apparently it is unacceptable to have a three-inch peephole in the bathroom door.

Think of the appliances and fixtures that are “getting a much more thorough and round-the-clock workout than before,” says Jeff Schneider, president of Gotham Brokerage. “More cooking, more washing, more laundry—if you are fortunate enough to have a washing machine. With more usage comes a greater chance of the perils that can be covered by an insurance policy: Broken pipes, clogs, overflows, experimental baking leading to fires.”

So why don’t you leave? 

You could always leave, you know that. It wouldn’t be comfortable, or easy, to squeeze in with relatives outside the city temporarily and then find a place of your own. But it’s not comfortable or easy to stay either. So why don’t you leave? The question rattles around your head.

You think of all the good things that have emerged in recent months, like the 7 p.m. clap for the heroes, which is now a mini-block party each night. The UPS drivers start it off, emerging from their trucks with brown packages held over their heads like prizefighters as your neighbors bang on stock pots with wooden spoons. Everyone hangs around on their stoops, waiting for the bus driver to make his way down the block. He leans on the horn and the cheers start up again. 

You now look forward to walking the dog in the park for an hour every morning like your life depends on it, which it does in a way. You find nature paths in Prospect Park that in 15 years of living here you never knew existed. You talk about the park and plants growing in it, and people doing things there like it’s your own backyard, which it is.

You have endless conversations with your spouse on these morning walks. You create pacts based on algorithms, then find yourself bogged down in questions that destroy your logic: If schools remain closed, then we leave. If schools reopen, then we stay. But how can city schools reopen safely? It seems impossible. 

You return home each morning with nothing figured out except that for now, you are staying put in NYC, as hard as that may be.