When my husband and I started dating, I was sharing an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with two roommates and he lived alone in Astoria, Queens, a neighborhood I’d barely visited, except for one trip to its century-old German beer garden (that I’d soon learn was actually Czech, along with other things I’d come to know, like what to order in a proper Greek diner, the rhythms and regulars of his local dive bar, and the wonders of wash-and-fold laundry). One evening, I came over to his building, a humble structure named the Lady Patricia, and he told me to buzz a different apartment number. Confused, I walked up to the fourth floor to find him hanging out with three other guys in what I eventually gathered was his friend Sam’s apartment, shared with Sam’s girlfriend, Bari, and an awe-inspiring drinks collection. It transpired that Scott lived in the building too, on the third floor, and Jon had moved out a few years before, but was still in the neighborhood. It was his wife who’d first connected Tony with the building. I thought, What is this place?
In some ways, Tony’s building epitomized a bygone era of New York apartment life, when people stayed in one place for years, got to know their neighbors, watched each other’s kids, and grew old walking the same shabby hallways. But this millennial version of communal living wasn’t quite that—in fact, the network that created it existed first online. Tony and Sam first became friends on Metafilter, then in person at a meetup for the group (where he also remembers Elizabeth Spiers walking around in a T-shirt advertising her brand-new website, Gawker). They met Scott online the same way, and when he decided to move from North Carolina to New York, he crashed on Tony’s couch until an apartment opened up on the third floor. He’s in Seattle now, but we still occasionally get his mail.
As someone who’d mostly made friends through school and university, this casual online intimacy struck me as strange, even risky—I couldn’t imagine opening up my apartment to someone I’d never met in person. But I knew those lines were blurring every day, as I kept finding myself at weddings of couples who’d met first online. The sheer chance of meeting Tony—at an East Village dive bar, through friends of friends of friends—was no more “real” than being matched by an algorithm.
And then I made the leap myself. A few years after I’d moved in with Tony, I was home alone, drinking wine and scrolling Twitter, when I saw that a writer I followed and liked was detailing her apartment-hunting woes. For some confluence of reasons—the aforementioned wine, the fact that I’d recently been to an event she’d hosted so I felt that we’d sort-of met, but most of all the example of our unusual little building community, it didn’t strike me as all that weird to reply that there was an apartment free in my building. I direct-messaged her the info, she came over in the pouring rain to take a look around our place, and before long, she and her cat moved into the apartment directly above ours. Michelle stayed for three years, marveling at the fact that we’d somehow wound up living inside Friends. She’s in LA now, but we still get her mail.
There isn’t anything about our building that would make it particularly conducive to friendships with neighbors. It doesn’t have any of the shared spaces, the gyms and lounges and roof decks, that newer, flashier buildings advertise as a hedge against urban isolation. We don’t even have a shared laundry room. The Lady Pat is a 20-unit building with classic prewar qualities, good and bad: wood floors with inlaid borders, high ceilings and archways, big rooms, deep closets, steam heat in the winter that’s fierce and uncontrollable, wonky doors that don’t close right, and off-white paint that never quite scrubs clean. When I first moved here from London, where rental units are a patchwork of carved-up older houses, flats above shops, and gleaming, paper-walled new buildings, I was surprised and charmed by the uniformity of prewar apartments. I liked the fact that friends in the East Village and on the Upper West Side had the same light switches, faux-oak cabinets, bathroom tile, and wooden floors as I did in Morningside Heights and then in Astoria. When the city around you is becoming a forest of glass-fronted condos, there’s something comforting about calling a solid, modest, red-brick lady home. Apart from a couple of coats of paint, the Lady Pat looks the same in 2019 as she did in 2009, when I moved in, and probably pretty much as she did in 1939, the year she was built.
This kind of functional, unflashy middle-class midcentury housing, and the generations of tenants who have called it home, haven’t left deep marks on city history. Yet there’s something about it that feels steady and democratic, a reminder that over the years, New York has not only welcomed outsiders with big dreams but also raised and nurtured its own. As someone born and raised in cities, and planning to raise a child in one, the liveable ordinariness of buildings like ours is something to cherish.
Tony’s theory about the origin of our building and its sister next door (the Lady Hamilton) is that they originally housed nurses and staff from the local hospital. Now a branch of Mount Sinai, back then it was a private institution, Daly’s Astoria Sanatorium, which had a reputation as an excellent maternity hospital, delivering upward of 800 infants a year during the postwar baby boom. Perhaps some of those busy nurses came home to these convenient studios and one-bedroom apartments, and some of those new parents brought their babies here and found a corner for them to sleep. As for why they’re named for this pair of women, I’ve found nothing conclusive. I always thought the Lady Hamilton might pay homage to Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and her decades of charity work on behalf of orphans in New York, but I have no proof. The Lady Patricia is more elusive still. It’s a name shared with a ship, a horse, an obscure play from the early 20th century, and one of the nieces of Queen Victoria, and I can only guess at why the husband-and-wife real estate company that built the apartments might have bestowed that name on it. She’s no more and no less than ours.
The challenge of finding somewhere to live in New York is so all-consuming that it’s usually a happy accident to discover a place that can also be a home. I moved in with Tony a few months after we met, when the lease on my Williamsburg apartment was up, on the accelerated romantic timeline forged in the culture of scarcity and desperation that is the city’s real estate market. But one of the reasons I felt able to do so was because the building was home to him. It had been a place to land after a series of housing disasters of various magnitudes—from unforeseen rent hikes to a burnt-out building—but it was where he’d been able to settle. So for the past decade, we’ve shared this ground-floor one-bedroom. Ten years is a long time in one apartment, but I’m comfortable in imperfect spaces, too sentimental to move often, and also lazy. Besides, the building’s flaws are nothing compared to what keeps us there, the two urban intangibles: community and cheap, stabilized rent. We’re expecting a baby, but we have no plans to move. We’ll do what we can to rearrange the space, knowing that we have friends like family upstairs.
Joanna Scutts is a writer and curator, and the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It (Liveright, 2017).