Places I’ve Lived: New York Edition
One-bedroom apartment in dormitory building, Union Square, New York, 2008 (~$1,400/month)
When my dad moved me into my dorm during my transfer to NYU, after we had an all-night road trip bringing my stuff up from Georgia, I didn’t realize just how convenient the location was. Union Square was literally across the street, a major hub to a variety of major subway lines. I could easily walk down University Place to my classes from our dorm, and I got a part-time job at the Barnes & Noble literally diagonally across the park from the building. I used to come home sometimes on my lunch breaks and take a nap, both a luxury and occasionally a curse when I’d wake up groggy and have to drag myself back across the street to finish my shift.
Convenience, however, was the dorm’s only real perk. My bedroom was one of two beds in the common area, and two other roommates shared a private room. I had little privacy — I was sometimes an unwilling witness to arguments or gossip sessions in the common area while I was just trying to lie in bed. I liked my roommates, but they were very social. The first time I met one of my roommates, I was coming back to what had been an empty dorm after a dinner date with a friend and was met with a full-on rager when I got home.
“We moved the carrots you had in the fridge to make room for the beer,” said some boy I didn’t know when I got through the doorway.
The seven months in this dorm were spent having a “college” experience I hadn’t previously had in Georgia or California. There were a lot of parties at our place, late night trips to the 24-hour McDonald’s or deli downstairs, cigarettes, and random adventures. We left our door unlocked most of the time, which alarmed me when I first moved in but weirdly ended up being okay. I was in this dorm for the spring semester and through the summer before moving on to a new dorm set up for my last year of undergrad.
Three-bedroom apartment in a dormitory building, Chinatown, New York 2008-2009 (~$1,400/month)
My new NYU dorm was right near Canal Street, which was convenient for catching the subway but an absolute nightmare on the weekends when it was clogged with tourists and people selling fake handbags. The apartment-style dorm was larger than my last one, and while I still shared a room, at least my roommate and I had a private room. We had four other people living with us, though I was hardly ever home between my part-time job, internship, and full class schedule.
The neighborhood had a lot going on. One of my favorite Vietnamese places was only a couple of blocks away, and there was plenty of cheap Chinese food and soup dumplings close by. On the way home, I would pass a rescue mission that was right next to a dance club owned by Andrew W.K. Coming home late at night after closing the bookstore, there were rarely people around, but on Saturdays I would have to fight crowds to get to the subway. I had a fine time living there while I had to, but I wasn’t particularly sad to graduate and move on to my first real apartment.
Two-bedroom, Murray Hill, New York, 2009-2010 ($900)
One of my former Union Square dorm roommates and I decided to get an apartment together and quickly learned the frustration and heartbreak of apartment-hunting in the city. We saw several places with many real estate agents, including a beautiful Upper West Side apartment we almost signed on until they tried to jack up the price at the last minute, and a two-bedroom in Gramercy we never even got through the front door to see — but we did get to witness our real estate agent try to get in a fight with another tenant and then also hit on us.
Eventually we found an apartment in Murray Hill that we were able to rent directly from the owner, whose nephews ran the deli downstairs and often held our packages there. I got the smaller room, which neatly fit a twin bed and a dresser, nothing more — but that also meant I paid less rent. We made the most of the place, hosting friends and coworkers. My office was a straight shot down 34th Street from where we lived, so I was able to forgo buying a metro card for many months in favor of walking. Once winter came, I got overwhelmingly lazy and started taking the cross-town bus.
One of the biggest hassles was that there were no washer/dryers in the building, and there was no self-serve laundry in, like, a nine-block radius. My roommate and I used to pack up our suitcases and wheel them down to the laundromat, and the whole exercise would take so long that we would usually end up getting dinner out. Eventually, my roommate started sending her laundry out to be washed and folded, and considering how much money and time I was spending, especially while working two jobs, I was happy to do that as well.
What we considered home really took a turn when I was doing dishes one night and a mouse brazenly ran over my foot. Never having dealt with mice in a home before, it was completely traumatizing and I started to have dreams about mice where I could swear I could hear them squeaking. I could also hear the spring traps our landlord set up going off in the middle of the night. Once, I was watching a movie while my roommate was gone and I saw a mouse run along the wall under the TV. Less than an hour later, I saw a different-colored mouse run back in the opposite direction. Mouse anxiety was at an all-time high, and I was very relieved to leave that apartment.
Two-bedroom flex duplex with 1.5 bathrooms, UWS, Manhattan, 2010-2013 ($1,300)
Two of my coworkers at the bookstore had been living in a one-bedroom duplex on the UWS that had had the bottom-floor one-bedroom converted into three very, very small bedrooms (enough room for a full bed and maybe a bedside table and that’s it). My coworkers were moving out, but one of their roommates wanted to stay, so I told them to put me in touch. Even though I was sort of being set up on a blind roommate date, Steph ended up being one of the best people I lived with and we decided to stay in the one-bedroom duplex but tear down one of the downstairs walls, giving me a bigger room. Steph still had a small room, but she also had the wall with the closets.
While I realize how unusual our sleeping spaces were, the apartment itself was the height of luxury. We had a beautiful living room space upstairs that was perfect for entertaining and a separate kitchen (with dishwasher!) that we used to prepare “family dinners” for our group of friends. The apartment had one-and-a-half bathrooms, meaning that Steph and I were almost never competing for mirrors or sinks.
We lived on a beautiful tree-lined block only steps away from the subway and Central Park. There was a Shake Shack four blocks away, a fancy Italian place with a gelato window around the corner, Levain bakery at the end of the block, and both a Fairway and Trader Joe’s a blissfully short walk away. We’d see Shakespeare in the Park and walk home, and I would always think of how lucky I was to be experiencing this side of the city in my 20s.
I had dreams of living in this apartment forever, perhaps eventually taking over the lease for myself when I was making a lot more money and eventually sharing it with a partner until we had children. Things changed, however, when Steph moved home and a subletter took over her lease. Realizing that what made the small apartment so livable was the fact that Steph and I were so in sync, I decided to move out when the lease was up and resolved to find a place on my own.
Studio apartment, UWS, Manhattan ($1,550)
I got really lucky and found a realtor almost immediately that was also from Hawaii and lived a block away from me, so we immediately had a connection and a level of trust. After a bunch of meh apartments, she showed me this studio at the top of a five-floor walk up and I instantly fell in love. The place perfectly fit me and my things — it was just big enough for my furniture, had a full bathroom, and included a small-but-separate kitchen. It was a steal for the location and I signed a two-year lease to make sure I could afford to stay for a while.
While it was further north than my last apartment, it had a lot of similar perks: I was close to Riverside Park, the train, and a lot of diners and shops. One thing I could do without was the thinness of the wall between me and my neighbors— I felt like I was constantly hearing them either watching The Office or having sex.
This was also the first time I had laundry in my building since college, and I would happily haul my armfuls of clothes up and down the flights of stairs to save some money. The one thing I didn’t like was that there weren’t any super-close grocery stores, so I would indulge in grocery delivery to save the trek of getting groceries and hauling them up the stairs. I always tried to tip generously since the delivery men would often be sweat-covered by the time they reached my door.
To say I loved that apartment would be an understatement. It was the first and only time I lived alone and I revelled in it. I felt safe, comfortable, and really owned that it was totally mine. I even had a professional photo shoot in that apartment for an article I was featured in, and I remember loving that they couldn’t even fit all the equipment in my little place, having to keep most of it out in the hallway instead.
Of course, a little less than a year there, I met my current boyfriend, Josh, who lived pretty far out in Brooklyn. Our commutes between one another’s places could take up to two hours, so he would often stay at my place. It was also much more convenient, since we both worked in the city at the bookstore so it cut down on his commute. We shared the apartment easily, but knew we’d need more room in the future. When my lease was up, we decided to move in together, and I kissed the UWS goodbye in favor of Brooklyn. The owner wanted to increase my rent by $200/month, so I wouldn’t have been able to stay anyway.
One-bedroom, Midwood, Brooklyn, 2015-Present ($1,525-$1,695, split various ways over the years)
We saw well over 20 apartments before we finally found our current place. It checked all our boxes — it was close to a major subway line, was spacious (over twice as many square feet as my last place), and had laundry in the basement. We were only about a 30 minute subway ride from the city if all was running smoothly, but we quickly realized that there were frequently issues that ran our commutes closer to an hour to get to work.
The longer we’ve lived here, the more we’ve noticed things about the building that makes our house less hospitable. A leak in the upstairs neighbor’s bathroom caused a nasty problem in our ceiling over the tub. Last summer, we had literal holes in the ceiling and even though they’ve been patched up, they have reappeared over time and are currently being held together by duct tape after witnessing a giant cockroach run back into a hole in the ceiling after being chased by me with a shoe in hand. Our upstairs neighbors also seem to have acquired a child over the last year that just runs and stomps from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., just about every day.
Our area also doesn’t have much to offer as far as creating a neighborhood feel. We feel safe, which is important, but there aren’t really any restaurants within walking distance we really like going to and there definitely aren’t any bars or places where we’d want to just hang out. We have a good variety of drug stores and bodegas, but no real grocery stores, particular any that carry decent meat. Our neighborhood, like our apartment, is perfectly serviceable, but we hope that our next place will have more options of things to do close to home.
Still, we’ve been happy here. Our place has become a great place to host friends to watch wrestling pay-per-views and let out of town guests stay on what we have been told is a very comfortable pull out bed. Every year, we’ve hosted some kind of Christmas party and this has been the first home where I’ve even be able to have a full-size Christmas tree to put presents under. We also have had the space and time to truly create a home that is both of ours. We’ve furnished the place together and brought pieces of our childhood into it. Though it may not be the best building I have ever lived in, it is certainly home.
Kimberly Lew is a writer of plays, blogs, and the monthly check when the rent is due. www.kimberlylew.com
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