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Archicritics Reveal The Seamy Details Of Their First Rentals

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It's de rigueur for media to cover any apartment a celebrity has ever breathed on and the humble first dwellings of, say, political candidates. But what about polling the architecture critics and the design writers, those whose folks very job it is to turn a lens on the homes we inhabit and the city neighborhoods we traverse every day? Curbed asked six of the true experts to reflect on their first experiences renting an apartment in New York City, in places from Morningside Heights to the Upper East Side to Sunset Park, and ended up with a handful of vivid tales lived out in a somewhat grimier time—even if that time was 2008. Hey, everybody's got to start somewhere. Read on for stories by Justin Davidson, Michael Kimmelman, Alexandra Lange, and more.

Justin Davidson
Title: Architecture and Classical Music Critic, New York magazine
First rental: Morningside Heights, $680/month

I moved to New York to go to graduate school in 1988, so I was in a Columbia-owned apartment. My rent was a little subsidized, which helped. It was one of the buildings they had bought relatively recently—414 West 120th Street—and they were converting SROs to graduate student housing. At the time I lived there, there were only a few Columbia people, and the rest were people who were grandfathered in. (They didn't evict people.) It was a 10- or 15-minute walk to the subway, and my now-wife would come back late from the library. I was studying music and she was studying fine arts. On 120th street near Morningside Park, it was a small one-bedroom.

It must have been a W-shaped building, which, at the time, was kind of scary. Off the street, you went in and there were two arms of the building that came out towards the street, and one of them you went into, and that was the entrance. There was always that scary moment going into the lobby, and especially the elevator. We had two adjoining rooms. Our bedroom looked out onto one of the Us [of the W] and our other window had the fire escape, [onto] like an air shaft—to call it a courtyard was enobling. I was always a little worried about that. I just always envisioned if you actually had an emergency, fumbling with the security grate, pulling that aside, getting on the fire escape, getting down. I'm pretty sure there was a gate between that little courtyard and the street that was locked.

It was kind of an adventure. There was an old guy who lived downstairs from us who must have been one of these hoarders. He had papers piled up to the ceiling. He would boil eggs and leave them on the stove and forget about them. The whole place would fill with smoke, and he wouldn't open the door when the firemen came. We became very friendly with the firemen. Also on our landing was a guy named Al. He was 6'3", maybe weighed 125 pounds. He was emaciated. He could have been anywhere from 35 to 65. I'm sure he was a crack addict; he had all these friends sort of parading into the building. After awhile, I learned to avoid his knock. He had a slow Grim Reaper-like knock—three heavy bangs. He would loom in the doorway and say, "Can I make a local call?" And he would call his drug dealer. I just wanted to be neighborly, you know. Eventually I learned not to answer the door.

The violence [in the neighborhood] was just unbelievable. It was a different time. It was skeevy inside the park [Morningside]. It's beautiful now, but it was really kind of a no-go zone. We would hear gunfire out the window at night. One time, we bought a futon—one of those lightweight foam couches—from someone who lived on the other side of the park, so we just carried it. And I remember the crack vials crunching underfoot.

It was about $680/month, and that was a good deal because it was partially subsidized. It went up—by the time we moved out in '91, it might have gone from close to $700 to close to $900. And then when we moved to Queens we were paying $1,000 for twice or three times as much space. We were glad to get out of there. We moved to Sunnyside; for the same amount of money or a little more, we had a beautiful sunny two-bedroom apartment near Sunnyside Gardens.

Alexandra Lange
Title: Blogger, Design Observer
First rental: Park Slope, $450/month (per person, for a two-bedroom)

My first apartment was on Park Place in Park Slope, on the top floor of a brownstone owned by an elderly Haitian woman. She lived on the garden level, one grown daughter lived on the parlor floor, a second grown daughter lived on the second floor, and, at the top: me and my roommate, the soon-to-be ex-girlfriend of a childhood friend.

The creaky staircase was covered in plastic, as was the living room furniture, but the bones were still there: pressed paper wainscoting in the hall, thickly painted moldings. We often got in trouble for walking too loudly in our clompy shoes up to the top floor at night.

We paid $900 together, and each of us got a big bedroom. We had a tiny TV room in the front, and a yellow kitchen in the back (yellow walls, yellow cabinets, yellow ceiling). I remember eating Goya Spanish Rice with broccoli and ricotta cheese quite often.

I was only making $21,000 a year as an editorial assistant at New York magazine ("Kurt Andersen's office. May I help you?") but paying $450 per month meant I could actually save. I stayed in that apartment for four years, three with that initial roommate, one with a different childhood friend.

But eventually the bathroom began to get to me. It was basically uncleanable, with scarred red linoleum and a freestanding tub with a shower curtain all the way around. I began to dream of subway tile.

So I moved to Cobble Hill, to an apartment renovated by and shared with an architect friend. I think I started paying $800; it was a two-bedroom plus den, eat-in kitchen, proper living room. My share eventually rose to $1,200. My window looked out on a bus stop rather than a tree, but I never regretted trading up for a better bathroom. And a dishwasher.

Michael Kimmelman
Title: Architecture Critic, New York Times
First rental: Brooklyn Heights/Cobble Hill, $700-800/month

My family grew up in different parts of the Village, and my parents had left their rent-stabilized place just before I moved back ... to the city after a brief stint working in Philadelphia. This was in the late 80s, around '89 or '90, and of course I wanted to move back to my own neighborhood. But even then it was just way too expensive for me.

At that time I was still a freelancer. I was moving back to the city on a contract, on what wasn't an incredibly stable income. I looked in different neighborhoods around the city, and finally looked in Brooklyn, which, at the time, was not considered a highly desirable place to be. I happened on an advertisement in the newspaper for an apartment on Atlantic, which turned out to be directly on top of Damascus Bakery. I got there and smelled the spinach pie. The back of [the apartment] was right where the vents were, and that's where our bedroom was. Twenty-four hours of smelling spinach pie changes your opinion on how awesome it is.

I lived there with my girlfriend. The apartment was kind of a ratty one-bedroom with an extra room, which was just large enough for me to cram a desk in there with a computer. It was right on the fire escape, so I would constantly look over Atlantic Avenue. I kind of liked the light on the street. Even if the apartment was a little grungy, there was a feeling about it that was open, even if it was small. It was just one step up from a really really grungy tenement.

I came to love it, even though it was very much a bleak place. That's where I proposed to my [now-]wife. I kind of felt proudly back then that I was living in a place where my friends in Manhattan refused to go, because Brooklyn was still terra incognita for so many people from Manhattan. The cabs would always refuse to go there... anybody over a certain age knows this as a matter a fact.

It was between Court and Clinton, not far from Sahadi's. It really was a very Middle Eastern neighborhood, and that gave it a very different character and feel—different form what it is now now, and different from the Heights, which is just a few blocks away.

It would have cost maybe $700 or $800 a month. Whatever it was, it was on the border of what I could afford. I was also writing about music at the time, and out late, and had to add the cost of a taxi to the cost of the monthly rent.

I did feel like I was homesick, too. It didn't feel like my own neighborhood. Being a native New Yorker, we think of the city in very small parts. But once I realized that I would never be able to afford to live in my own neighborhood again, I made peace with it. Going back to the Village, I feel like I did when i was coming from Berlin back to New York—like an expatriate.

I was happy to live there before it took off, at a time when it still had some of its underdog character, and real old-school neighborhood feel. I remember very much the feeling that it was far away for the people who were so Manhattan-centric. For me, that itself was like the first move to—it wasn't a foreign place—but a place that wasn't entirely familiar to me. I enjoyed that aspect of it. I liked that I was discovering something for myself.

The neighborhood was downtrodden then. To now see this new entrance to Brooklyn Bridge Park and the playgrounds just at the end of the street—that was an area you would never walk to. It was just totally forbidding. It's difficult to imagine how on the edge it was then, though not as much as Morningside Heights.

Wendy Goodman
Title: Design Editor, New York magazine
First rental: Upper East Side, $300/month

It was on Lexington Avenue, and it was above an Indian restaurant, and it was about the size of a thimble. It was a studio, and it was maybe 200 square feet. I mean, it was so tiny. It was the mid-70s and, of course, there was no internet. You had to wait and get the Sunday Times and look in the real estate section on Saturday night—and literally run out to try to be the first one. There was one newsstand that had the paper first, so you'd go there. I must have done that. On the surface, it looked like a really good apartment because it was near Bloomingdales; it was in one of those little little brownstones.

The Indian restaurant was on the second floor, and my apartment was above it. There was a lot of intense curry, a lot of great, interesting food smells. If you're living above, it's a little too much. My bed was a day bed, so it would look like I could try to have people over. From my parents house I brought a lamp. I had some fabric. I had great pride in it because it was my first apartment. I tried to make it as good as it could be with practically nothing. I remember I had a big plant—that was the thing to do, was to have a big plant. For some reason, I was very obsessed with having this big plant, because that would make it so luxurious.

I remember coming home from work, and the front door seemed to not work properly, so there was a homeless man sitting on the stairs. He kind of made the stairwell his home. He had a proclivity toward fire and lighting matches—as I passed him, he would light matches and throw them at me. That was my welcome home from work.

It was quite an adventure. At night there were these trucks rumbling down the avenue. I felt like I was sort of living on the street, because of the restaurant, because of the traffic, and because there wasn't really a lock to the front door... I discovered. And then there was a robbery. So I decided I had to move. I imagine I was paying about $300/month or something like that. I really couldn't afford very much, and it was just so small. I was working at Harper's Bazaar as an assistant editor. I did everything from getting coffee for models to packing suitcases to doing expense accounts.

I think I spent a little under a year there. The thing that was scary about the robbery was that I had hidden the little jewelry that I had, and the jewelry was found, but things weren't ruffled. So it was like someone knew.

The next apartment I got was above a bar on 31st Street, and then there was a shootout at that bar. So, at the beginning, I was living in all these wonderful New York places. When I was going through it, I was thinking, "Hmm, this might not be so great." When you're young and starting out and have no money, you live where you can.

Raquel Laneri
Title: Managing Editor, Architizer
First rental: Sunset Park, $700/month (per person, for a two-bedroom)

I moved to New York City in January of 2008 for a job. When I first moved here, I was staying with my grandparents in Long Island. I was very anxious to move out of my grandparents' room, which I had lived in when i was a little kid, and had pink wallpaper and dolls everywhere. So I was probably a little hasty in my apartment search because I wanted to get out of there. I love them, but my boyfriend lived in Manhattan, my best friend lived in Brooklyn, and going in and out of Penn Station every day was horrible.

So I ended up moving to Sunset Park. Someone I went to graduate school with was subletting an apartment in Park Slope and needed to move out by March. As most people who probably move to New York since the year 2000 or so have, we used Craigslist. We saw a lot of really terrible apartments. These were our first jobs in New York City, and we didn't have a lot of money. But we found this one place on 6th Avenue and 23rd Street. It was advertised as "South Slope," but we found out later that it was Sunset Park, in the area that's now trying to be rebranded as Greenwood Heights. We probably did end up paying a little bit more than we probably should have.

Though they told us, when we went to see it, that people didn't want to live there because it was on a corner across from the cemetery. They had to bring the price down twice because people didn't want to live next to a cemetery. But worse than the cemetery—it was catty-corner to a power plant. The apartment was quite lovely, and there were a lot of windows, a lot of natural light, and during the day we never had to turn on the lights, and we had this really beautiful bay window... but it looked out on the power plant. You could see the Statue of Liberty waaaay in the back.

It was an interesting time to move there. It was right before the economic collapse, and you could tell they had been starting to rebuild the neighborhood before. Across the street from us, there was a nice apartment complex being built, but it kind of halted during the collapse. And there was a fire in the building next to us, so we lived next to a burned-out place for two years. Another thing that made living in Sunset Park a drag during the time was that my boyfriend was in Yorkville, on the Upper East Side, so it was like being in a long-distance relationship. The neighborhood was predominantly Mexican, with great food. We were in the most remote, most depopulated corner of this area. I liked it because I speak Spanish. But if I would get home at midnight and we didn't have toilet paper, I would say, "Well, too bad."

The area was sort of being seen as a new one for gentrifiers, and that movement came to a halt because of the collapse. It was in this limbo stage. By the time I moved out, there was a coffee shop two blocks away, and a restaurant three blocks away. It was a sign that people were starting to move there and were willing to pay more to live there. Things had picked up. Now it didn't feel like we were cut off from civilization.

We paid $1,400/month. Now I look at that and think, "Those were the good old days." We were both in kind of low-paying jobs, and we didn't have any furniture in our living area, which was a big open room. It was also a one-bedroom that had been turned into a two-bedroom, so I didn't have a closet in my room. I am quite the clotheshorse, so my roommate let me have half her closet. I also had one of those wheeling racks from Ikea in my room, and then i had another wheeling rack in the main room, which had no furniture. We had a bear chair from Ikea meant for a five-year-old, and I used to sit on it cross-legged and type on my laptop. On one side, you had a table and chairs passed down from my aunt.

The kitchen was a good size—and this makes me kind of wish I still lived there even though it was kind of inconvenient and off the R...—there was a washer/dryer in the unit. I never had to go to the laundromat. I didn't have to pay to do laundry. It was just the best. It was such a luxury that was very rare in New York City.

Aside from the problems, I do look back on my first apartment rather fondly. We lived there for two years, and then my boyfriend (now husband) and I found a place in Carroll Gardens.

Philip Nobel
Title: Writer, Architectural Digest, New York Times, Dwell, and others; working on a new book about American homeownership called Dream House with Thomas de Monchaux
First rental: East Village, $250/month

It was the summer of 1989, between my sophomore and junior year. Two college friends from the University of Wisconsin-Madison—boys—and a woman who was one of the friend's friends from home in Ohio somehere. We rented a studio on Third Avenue, across from the Cooper Union building between St. Marks and 7th Street. It was a building that was new then, and we were all appalled that it was so new. It had a Dominos pizza on the ground floor, which, in the East Village at that time, was a point of contention. That was before the Gap opened on St. Marks a few years later.

You came in, and there was a closet to the right and a galley kitchen to the left, and it was one big room. We settled into corners, but because of the way the room was shaped there were only three corners. The three boys ended up in the corners, and the woman, whose name I don't remember, who went on to become a kind of famous yoga person in LA... she was kind of floating in the middle of the floor. We were like 19 or whatever. You're ready for a little bit of discomfort. But the idea of her in the middle of the room bothered me.

We paid the exorbitant sum of $1,000/month, split four ways, and we felt it. Because people who were living further east, in the older buildings or tenements, were paying probably $750, $600, or something ridiculous.

That part [finding it] was out of my hands. Someone had gotten to the city a few weeks earlier and waited for Village Voice on a Tuesday night. Downtown, the Voice would come out on Wednesdays, and if you stood in Astor Place, where there was a newsstand right above the 6 train, they'd get the first drop. There would be a line of tech-deprived people waiting to scramble for the listings. We felt clever doing this, like we had finally had cracked the code for the city.

At the end of the summer, I was in a junior-year architecture program at Columbia; the fall was in New York and the spring was in Paris. I moved uptown to, like, a $600 one-bedroom. You couldn't ride the subways late at night then. The idea of commuting from Columbia to the East Village was just...

When I moved back, one of my friends had gotten there earlier. He was from Minnesota and he didn't know from the city at all. This was probably all being communicated by postcard or aerogram or carrier pigeon. He said, "I found a great place in the East Village." It was on Third Avenue and 30th Street. He said, "It's only a 20-minute walk."
· All Renters Week 2013 coverage [Curbed]