My husband and I moved to Connecticut 27 years ago in 1989. We reluctantly left our apartment in Brooklyn Heights — the one with a view all the way to the Harbor and the Verrazano Bridge — for a small cottage in the country with a 2 hour commute door to door back to Manhattan. We became Country Bumpkins; we had kids; we built a house and grew a garden. We grew our kids. And then one day with our kids pretty much grown, I looked around and realized how much I missed the city.
Wait, let me back track on that a little. Because it wasn’t just a one day awakening. My city lust came on me slowly over the course of years. And I’m pretty sure it started when the kids were still young. Was it the trip we took one Spring when we stayed at the Plaza just before it closed for the renovations that turned it into Luxury Apartments instead of just a Luxury Hotel? Was it when we stayed over during the Christmas Holidays so we could immerse ourselves in the Christmas Spirit as only NYC can provide? It could have started on any one of our many day trips in when the commute made NY seem a tiny bit too far away. I am pretty sure what cemented my deep desire to be back in NY was the many Saturdays spent wandering around Union Square and Gramercy Park while my daughter took classes at the School of Visual Arts.
In order to make her class which began at 10 am, we had to get up at 6:30 am, leave the house by 7:30 am, and catch the 8:13 am train from South Norwalk. Arriving at Grand Central Station at 9:20 am left us with enough time for my daughter grab breakfast and a cab downtown or maybe even a fast walk on a nice day. We’d part ways on 23rd Street and then my adventure would begin. I’d make my way over to HU Kitchen, a Paleo restaurant (believe me, there are none of those in Connecticut) where I’d get a Bulletproof coffee that they have aptly dubbed “Crack” and something lovely to eat. Then I’d meander my way back through Union Square, changing my route as I saw fit, through the Farmer’s Market, to the Barnes and Noble or shop my way up Fifth Avenue. I’d wander and walk through familiar neighborhoods and haunts — I used to live on 17th Street and Third Avenue so the Gramercy Park/Union Square area still feels like home to me. Some days I’d change my routine up and spend the morning in Midtown at the MoMA before heading back to pick Clare up and make our 2 hour way back to Connecticut. By the time we were headed home we were pretty worn out.
I loved my Saturdays in the city. And then one Saturday my daughter decided she didn’t need or want me to come in with her. She was 17 years old and she could make her own way to class. Because I’m the kind of mom who wants to foster independance in my kids, I let her go. (I promise, I will not tell you about the time I sent my now 21 year old son on a trip to the city but made him walk through his route with me on Google Maps first.) With there no longer being a need for me to go in with her each Saturday, I dropped her off at the Metro North station and went home to bide my time in the country, my city lust gone unfulfilled.
I wasn’t sure what prompted my husband to tell me to start looking for a place to rent in Manhattan. Was it my non-stop whining and complaining about how I didn’t want to grow old and die in our house in Connecticut where we are completely dependant on getting into the car for everything including finding a safe place to go to take a walk? Was it my insistence that we come up with a 5 year plan that ultimately ended with our selling the house and finding a retirement option in a walkalble city preferably closer to the ocean? I thought so, but after more and more conversations, I’m pretty sure the deciding factor became what’s in it for him. And that worked for me, as he now had a vested interest in what I thought was only my dream.
At first I didn’t take him seriously in his offer. Then I started peeking at options online. Then I blew my expectations out of the water and started showing him places we really couldn’t afford. I started confusing the issue by trying to make the apartment fit the needs of my soon to be out of the house kids. He reigned me back in and we began the search for a place in earnest. What would be a reasonable rent? What kind of space would work for us? Where did we want the apartment to be? I was looking at studio apartments because they were less expensive but I had a feeling they wouldn’t give us the flexibility we needed if by any chance all of us were to be there at one time. I had to be reminded that this was our apartment — my husband’s and mine, not a place we were getting for our kids. So how was I to make this work?
A friend of mine who I grew up with and now keep in touch with through Facebook had mentioned that his brother was a Real Estate agent who worked in the city. What better than to have someone with a personal connection, I thought. So I got his number and gave him a call. Armed with a list of prospective one bedroom apartments that fit our meager budget, we started off on our first foray into the world of NY rental Real Estate.
While I knew his brother fairly well from my childhood days I don’t think I’ve ever met Real Estate Bob (not his real name.) But we had friends in common, lots of them, of course. And many of them are people I have reconnected with over the years, mostly through Facebook. Despite these connections, when we met I knew RE Bob was not going to be the guy to find me the perfect place to live. He was pretty unkempt and way too casual for my tastes and I knew he wasn’t impressing my very business like husband. But I was going to give him a chance because — well — connections. So we went through the list of places he had prepared for us to see. And each one of them was your typical lower end of the spectrum NY apartment.
If you have ever looked for a place to live or better yet lived in the city then you know what I mean. The word “apartment” in New York City take on it’s very own meaning and in many cases it’s a stretch to call these chopped up little boxes living space. There was the apartment that had a windowless dungeon like room in the basement with only a narrow spiral staircase as access. When I asked my husband what he thought we’d be able to get down those stairs he responded, “A wallet.” I asked the agent showing us the apartment how she thought we could get furniture into that room and she just looked at me and shrugged.
We saw an apartment where it would be impossible to open the refrigerator door and the bathroom door at the same time. You would have to climb over the toilet to get into the shower. In one apartment every window looked out onto an air shaft but “Great building and great space,” said the showing agent. There was one apartment where the bathroom smelled so strongly of mold and mildew that I couldn’t walk in. Most of what we saw were 4 and 5 story walk ups. They were all tiny. And every showing agent wanted you to know it was the best you could expect in that price range and it would go fast. And so it went.
RE Bob drove us from place to place in his car filled with crap and cigarette butts, getting lost at almost every turn despite the fact that “he’s from the city.” When he had shown us everything he had on his list, my hubby and I breathed a sigh of relief and went to regroup and get coffee. What to we do next? We had dinner plans with friends and a few hours to kill. We set off walking and found ourselves in front of the leasing office at Stuy Town.
I have always loved Stuy Town. My Auntie who was my Mother’s best friend from their Nursing School days had lived there from the early 80s until she moved into Assisted Living. I didn’t live far away from her on 17th Street near 3rd Avenue and I went to her place to visit every now and then. Stuy Town is a neighborhood unto itself and is unlike any other place I know of in Manhattan. There is green space and playgrounds and meandering pathways that take you away from the street noise of the city. And trees. And black squirrels. Did you know that for a while Stuy Town was the only place in New York City with black squirrels?
After one visit to my auntie I vowed that one day I would have an apartment in Stuy Town.
Built in the 1940s, the apartments had been upgraded over the years and while many of them are probably still rent controlled the ones that come on the market now are much more expensive to rent. We decided to take a tour anyway and see what we could see.
I am pretty sure that the models they showed us are much larger than most of the available apartments but even so, the spaces are very well laid out and beautifully appointed. We saw the gamut from a smaller one bedroom in Stuyvesant to a 2 bedroom in the much larger Peter Cooper Village community. I was sure that the space would be perfect for us but I filed it away because I was certain that even the smaller and less expensive apartments were above our budget.
We made a call to another real estate agent completely cold and from a listing on the web. She couldn’t see us that day but we arranged to meet her at her office on a day when she had listings to show us. That’s when we met the landshark of Real Estate Agents who shall remain nameless. She zoomed in on her motorized scooter, handed us paperwork that promised we would turn over our firstborn plus 15% of a year’s rent and then turned us out onto the cold, rainy streets of Manhattan with one of her younger agents, a very sweet young woman who really wanted to act but was paying the rent with real estate.
This was to be a much more promising day. We saw apartments with actual bedrooms, real living room spaces and amenities like elevators and doormen. Most of them were on the small side but we weren’t surprised at that. Some of them even had great views. Many of them had been taken before we had even walked in the door but that’s the NY Real Estate Market.
The question of neighborhood kept coming up. If we were going to spend the kind of money it would take to get a decent apartment and then hand over 15% of a year’s rent to the landshark, just where did we want to end up? Did we want to be on the Upper East Side with proximity to Central Park but a subway ride to the school my daughter had applied to and the place my son might be working part time? Did we want midtown which would give us access to Grand Central Station for our comings and goings from Connecticut but would be noisy and crowded during the day? Did we really want to give access to our firstborn and 15% to the landshark in the first place?
That’s about when my honey and I realized that the very best choice for us was to make a call to the Leasing office at Stuy Town and find ourselves a one bedroom apartment that in the end wouldn’t cost much more than the places the landshark had showed us. Sight unseen, (yes, I said sight unseen,) we signed a 2 year lease on an apartment centrally located near the fountain at Stuyvesant Town and picked up the keys on 8 March 2016. As of this moment, I don’t think we could have made a better choice.