All things New York

An informative, irreverent, insider's view of the best that the City has to offer from a lifelong resident. Information on Manhattan, the outer boroughs, and Long Island at your fingertips.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Day at Fordham University, Bronx, NY

Yesterday I attended a forum on shrinking affordability of Bronx housing at Fordham University's Rose Hill/Bronx campus. It was a perfect spring day, so I took my camera and after the conference took some shots of the campus and the students. Here's one.

<> posted by Elvira Dark @ 4:05 PM 57 Comments

Sunday, March 04, 2007

New York Story: Real estate mania

Brownstones #2
Originally uploaded by MoToMo.
There's a legendary New Yorker magazine cover cartoon from March 29, 1976 by Saul Steinberg called "View of the World from 9th Avenue." It comprises a "map" of the world from a "New Yorker's" point of view. Looking west from 9th Avenue in Manhattan is the Hudson River. Beyond that is a flat plane of land with a few vague rocky landmarks depicting the rest of the U.S. On the outermost edge is New Jersey (from which many NYC workers commute). Also shown are Chicago, Kansas City, Utah, Las Vegas, and Texas. To the left of this is Mexico; to the right is Canada. Then comes the Pacific and beyond that, in the far distance, are a few little lumps of land representing China, Japan, and Russia.

Though New Yorkers may like to view themselves as "worldly" and culturally savvy, the truth is that many residents — especially those in Manhattan — are quite parochial. Aside from the xenophobic notion that New York City is a world unto itself, beyond which lies virtually nothing, many New Yorkers see their own little neighborhood in this fashion. For example, those who live downtown love to say with derisive pride that they never venture above 14th Street. And indeed, each square block is unique in this city. But as far as "snob" appeal, at this point in the city's history, as long as you live in Manhattan, you are at the top of the world.

There is another New Yorker cover of more recent vintage — March 7, 2005 to be exact — that expresses this sentiment exactly. Called "Unaffordable Paradise" by Marcellus Hall, it depicts a nude "Adam" and "Eve" slouching across one of the city's numerous bridges leading out of Manhattan. On the left bank is a mini-Manhattan skyline, bathed in light. Across the river is a dark, foreboding hinterland. The hand of G-d is pointing down from the sky toward the outer borough, commanding Adam and Eve to banish themselves to a neighborhood they can afford. Adam and Eve, recoiling in shame, horror, and sorrow at their plight, reluctantly proceed across the river to the darkness beyond.

A prime time version of this horrible plight is familiar to all Sex and the City fans who witnessed Miranda Hobbes' reluctant exodus from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The reason? In a word, adulthood — in the guise of marriage, baby, and mother-in-law — which translated into the classic "more space" versus "better" location dilemma.

The sharp division between Manhattan and, well, everywhere else is expressed quite clearly by the fact that when New Yorkers say "the city," they mean Manhattan. And if Manhattanites are divided into little neighborhood camps, the same goes double for those in New York City's "outer boroughs" (Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island) and surrounding suburbs. When I'm hanging out with my boyfriend BG in the Bronx and we want to venture into Manhattan (about a 30 minute ride to midtown), we say we're going to "the City." Similarly, when my ex-boyfriend L and I would take the train in from Manhattan to visit his relatives on Long Island — perhaps a 50 minute ride away — everyone there would invariably ask, "How's the city?" as if we'd just traveled in from a foreign country.

Although I was born in Queens, my parents had both passed away by the time I was 15, and I'd lived with my aunt and uncle on the Lower East Side of Manhattan till I went to college on Long Island. When L and I graduated and moved to the Upper East Side, I had a bit of an inheritance, and we immediately went to work spending it and enjoying the city to the max.

Though it was nice to visit suburbia for family get-togethers, L and I always breathed a huge sigh of relief when, having said our goodbyes, we boarded the Long Island Rail Road back to Manhattan. Forty-odd minutes later, we'd glimpse a bit of the Manhattan skyline on the train as we passed through Queens. We'd arrive at Penn Station, grab a cab, and race through the glittering nighttime city streets on our journey home.

"Home" for us was, for twelve years, the Upper East Side of Manhattan — where some of the most exclusive and coveted real estate in the country is located. Its boundaries run roughly from the East River to Fifth Avenue (which divides the east from the west side) and perhaps East 59th Street to East 96th Street. We lived in the east 80s between First and York Avenues in a fifth-floor walkup. There was nothing glam about the building itself, but the location was heavenly, except for the 15 or 20-minute walk to the subway. At that time, many young people fresh out of college came to live in the upper 80s on the east-east side. Many of the buildings were old six-story structures, and were still affordable--our rent was about $430 when we moved in, in 1979, and some people paid less. It was mostly only as you got farther west, more toward Park and Fifth Avenue, bordering Central Park that the rents got truly astronomical. However, nowadays, the same semi-dilapidated dump we lived in would likely go for three to four times what it went for then — if not more. Even in the Bronx, a comparable apartment might fetch twice that rent today.

Everything in Manhattan is on a much smaller scale than the suburbs. Our one bedroom abode was, perhaps, 300 square feet (or so L tells me--I'm terrible with that sort of thing) — a size that some realtors would now describe as "huge." As a result, wall space had to be exploited to its fullest potential. It was quite an art form to try to furnish a tiny apartment and still have room to actually walk through it. This meant one had to think vertically — high bookshelves and wall units were a must. Every square inch counted.

This Lilliputian alternate universe was further reflected in the small scale of virtually everything in the neighborhood. Most Manhattan supermarkets are shockingly tiny compared to suburban ones — the aisles are too narrow to accommodate more than one cart passing through at a time, and even the shopping carts are smaller. But at such mini-supermarkets as the Food Emporium and D'Agostino's, one could have quite a remarkable shopping experience. In keeping with the demographics of the neighborhood, the shelves were well stocked with expensive "gourmet" items and top cuts of high priced meat. The accoutrements of Manhattan life were both more pricey and exclusive than anywhere else.

As young Manhattanites, we had the typical tiny "kitchen" — no more really than a very narrow little expanse which only one person could pass through at a time. It held a fridge, a sink, and a small stove, with almost no counter space. Pathetic as it was, this was vastly better than studio kitchens, which are no more than tiny areas located in the living room itself. Our "dining" area consisted of a little round cafe table with two chairs in the living room. As a result, we wound up eating out most of the time — and we were hardly alone.

In our own little neighborhood alone, there were several restaurants on every block. We soon became international gourmands as we explored Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, German, Indian, British, Mexican, French, and Italian cuisines. We had several movie theaters to choose from; Barnes and Noble for books; a Gimbel's department store; a ton of bars. If we strolled about three blocks east to the river, we could walk along a lovely promenade. If we ventured west, we would hit the Metropolitan Museum and Central Park. On Sunday, we had our pick of brunch spots, or even a good old-fashioned diner.

Nightlife in the 80s was incomparable in New York. Most of the music venues were downtown, so we often whisked down in a cab. I still remember one adventure with one of L's friends from work who had moved to NY from the hinterlands of Upstate New York.

One evening we took him to the Ritz, a large downtown club. Even before MTV, New York clubs were playing the latest music videos on big screens and monitors, interspersed with the coolest 80s music spun by the resident DJs. The Ritz was a large bi-level club, with a dance floor downstairs. If you got there early, you could go upstairs and find a seat (there were bars on each floor) and watch the action below. When the place got crowded, you could look down and see the hordes dancing and writhing away all night. The bands didn't come on until well after midnight.

L's friend was completely awed by the scene. He confessed that this was exactly what he had envisioned New York to be like before he'd ever ventured here — like something out of a movie. (He was at that point living in Queens, so it was up to us "city folks" to show him around. And indeed, those from the outer boroughs or the 'burbs who ventured into the Manhattan clubs were always referred to derisively as "B and T's "-- or bridge and tunnels, because they had to traverse them to enter the Emerald City.)

Another time an old school chum of L's who had lived on Long Island (where L was originally from) and had since moved to New Hampshire came to visit for a few days. We decided to wow him with a real Manhattan night out. We fed him pot and booze, and took him clubbing. I recall that at one point he fell out of his chair. Afterwards we went for a bite at a Polish dairy restaurant called Kiev in the East Village. All he could do was gawk at all the hipsters sporting green and purple hair. It was all, simply, too much for him.

About 14 years ago, L and I moved again — this time to a coop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The neighborhood was not hip back then, but I knew it well because I'd lived there with my aunt and uncle when I was in high school. I was very reluctant to move there because, at the time, the Lower East Side was a cultural wasteland. We were on a waiting list to get into the coop, which at the time was still designed for middle and lower-middle class residents. When we bought the coop, it cost us all of $8,000, with no mortgage. A one-bedroom with a partial view of the river, it's about 800 square feet — a virtual palace by Manhattan standards. Maintenance, which included gas and electric, cost the same or less than our rent uptown.

Then, gradually and then more rapidly, came the hipster deluge, and rents started to rise accordingly in the area. Bars, galleries, boutiques, and restaurants sprung up in an area that had been run down and even dangerous before, until the neighborhood was proclaimed one of the hippest in the city.

A few years ago, our coop went private, and now prices have gone up to market value. Since we broke up quite a while ago, we're now in the process of getting ready to sell. The place will probably go for about $450-500 grand — still quite a bargain for Manhattan, where the same space might go for at least a million elsewhere, and that's a very low estimate. Since I co-own it with L, we'll split the difference. We should both be able to afford coops in the outer boroughs — he in Queens, and me in the Bronx, near BG.

Over the past few months, L and I have been cleaning out and selling stuff, but it has been a long haul. Part of the reason it's taking so long is that L has an enormous amount of junk, an inconceivable amount, which we've been trashing, selling, or boxing. It isn't ready for the market yet. But another reason, perhaps, is that the thought of giving up my American dream, Manhattan style, is so very painful to me. The outer boroughs — even the once-notoriously hellish Bronx — have started to become more fashionable, so it's no shame to live there. Most people can't afford Manhattan anymore, although, ironically, in the 70s people thought you were crazy and/or hopelessly poor if you lived here. And although I should be able to purchase a bigger place (approx 1000 square feet) with two bedrooms, it is still a tough pill to swallow to realize that Manhattan will no longer be "mine." Although the Bronx is right across the river — virtually almost close enough to "touch" — for this New Yorker it is, in another sense, an entire continent away.

<> posted by Elvira Dark @ 4:17 AM 0 Comments

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Adventures in real estate, part 2: the lawyer who "phoned it in"

Originally uploaded by splorp.
Selling and/or buying a home can be an aggravating, time consuming, and expensive endeavor which typically involves working with a team of “professionals,” all with their hands out for their cut. There’s real estate brokers, mortgage brokers, and real estate lawyers just for starters. As in all professions, some are good, some are bad, and some are just plain evil, greedy bastards.

For at least the past 7 years or so, I knew where I wanted to move as soon as my ex-boyfriend and I could finally agree to sell our old place. It’s a great coop complex in the Bronx near my current boyfriend BG. I’d first seen it advertised when I picked up one of those free “real estate books” they had in a kiosk on Fordham Road. The two page ad blew me away right then and there.

A few years passed, and I became manic and almost bought a place there—even put down a hefty deposit and signed a contract. But I realized that paying a mortgage as well as maintenance, though do-able, would be more of a stretch than I’d feel comfortable about, and I was able to get my deposit back.

But S, the guy I dealt with at the coop’s management company, remembered me when I called him again after we’d finally put our Manhattan coop on the market last fall. He told me to call back when we went into contract, and call I did.

Soon enough S showed me the home of my dreams. I got all my paperwork in order. I was paying cash, so no mortgage hassle was involved. He did a credit check, and informed me that I had an A-plus score.

S had a list of several lawyers he worked with on contracts and closings, and gave me two names to choose from. I called B and we got down to business, or so I thought.

B’s fee was relatively modest, especially compared to the lawyer we retained for the closing of our place downtown. But that lawyer met with us in his office and sat down with us for at least an hour and went over the contract line by line. He was friendly, courteous, and a pleasure to work with.

No so with B. He, too, was pleasant enough at first, but seemed to need to justify his fees by exaggerating the importance of his role. In any case, I expected contracts to be sent to me in short order.

Unlike our lawyer for the sale of our place, B did not meet with clients for contract review. Rather, he would messenger me my copy, I would review it, we would discuss any questions I had by phone, and I would messenger it back to him.

Nevertheless, quite a bit of time went by with no contract in sight. When I told S a few days ago that I hadn’t received it as yet, he was, and I quote—“shocked.” Though B had told me that the seller’s lawyer hadn’t sent him anything yet, according to S he just hadn’t bothered to send a messenger to pick the papers up from the seller’s lawyer.

Another problem was that B seemed to have some vested interest in convincing me that I could not have the speedy closing S had assured me of from day one. Since S obviously had clout with the Board, he assured me from the get go that he could arrange for them to meet with me for my board approval shortly after the contracts were signed.

But during every conversation I had with B—which involved numerous calls and messages, all in an effort to find out where my contract was—he insisted on telling me that there was no way I would close on March 2nd or soon after.

Although coop boards often meet only once a month or even less frequently, during which they consider potential buyers and schedule board interviews, this situation was different. S had been working there for years, and could get deals done in record time by surrounding himself with a competent network of lawyers and mortgage brokers who knew the process for this building backwards and forwards and could close a deal in weeks rather than months. And he had enough clout with the board to get a meeting set up for me to be interviewed within a week’s time or so.

In my final conversation with B yesterday, he once again told me that I would not close on March 2nd. I again explained that S had said I would, and he then advised me to “reach out” to S about the matter. In turn, I told him that S had again assured me that all was well, and that I had last spoken to him shortly before I called B (for the third time that day, having left voice mails and an e-mail in the interim).

He gave me the usual tired schpiel about having been in the business for years, etc. etc. but finally grudgingly said fine, if you’re ready to close it’ll happen.

Meanwhile, the contract was still not in my hands. Though S told me B definitely had it at this point, B said he wouldn’t get it til Monday. He needed time to “review it,” so we could probably go over it on Tuesday.

When I first spoke with B, he told me upfront that he had to review all contracts before sending them out. This gave me considerable pause, since most real estate contracts are pretty standard as far as I know. In fact, I’m pretty sure he could recite the while thing in his sleep by now.

When I talked to S after this, I asked him what possible motive this man would have for tying to put a monkeywrench in the works on what should have been a no-brainer transaction. S couldn’t imagine why, and we both noted that how soon I closed was really none of B’s concern.

I had to conclude that in an effort to prove to me that he was worth his fee, he had to try to make me believe that he was all-knowing and that the process was fraught with red tape. Moreover, he was simply lazy all the way around: too lazy to meet with me and go over the contract in person; too lazy to schedule a messenger to pick up the contract; and too lazy, dishonest, and deceptive to send them to me in a timely fashion.

I don’t know if he bought his own bullshit, but I don’t really care. After telling S that I’d give B till Monday to produce the contracts, I called S back later and said I no longer wished to continue my non-professional non-relationship with B. S said he’d get me another lawyer posthaste, and would talk to B on Monday.

At first I thought I’d give B a “kill” fee of a hundred bucks. But since he was too lazy to send me a retainer agreement to sign or to request some of his fee up front, I realized with great glee that I owed him nothing. In point of fact, he should have paid me for the aggravation and endless phone calls.

S believes in working with others who can get the job done., but the job can only be done well if those working with him cooperate and do their share. My most fervent hope is that S will think twice before offering B’s “services” to any more hapless buyers down the line.

<> posted by Elvira Dark @ 4:23 AM 14 Comments

Monday, February 12, 2007

Adventures in real estate, part 1: the broker from hell

"Yonkers, NY. One bedroom, 900 sq. ft, 139 K. Lg. unit in luxury highrise; updated kitchen, 20 foot terrace, doorman, security, pool, parking, express bus. Deli and dry cleaners on site. Near shops, restaurants; 25 minutes from Grand Central."

My ex-boyfriend G and I have co-owned a one bedroom coop in lower Manhattan for the past 15 years. At long last, we put the place up on the market this past fall. Despite all the talk of a bursting "real estate bubble," after a few nail-biting months we found a buyer who came reaasonably close to our asking price, and we're all set to close on March 1st.

Though I've already chosen my new dream home in the Bronx near my current boyfriend and will go into contract this week, G-d willing, G is still searching. Time is of the essence--if he's not secured in a new place pronto, he'll have to hang at his sister's house in New Jersey while he continues looking.

This past year, G was diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy — a rare, congenital form of adult muscular dystrophy. His doctor told him he might not live past 65 and would probably need a wheelchair down the line. His condition is already starting to deteriorate — his manual dexterity is very bad and he has fallen many times because the disease affects his gait. He's now on social security disability, so his income is modest though sufficient to buy a place between 100K and 140K, tops. Maintenance has to be reasonable too, and the apartment must be wheelchair accessible, close to shopping and buses, and at least as roomy as our 800 square foot place in case he has to maneuver with a wheelchair down the line.

One would think that with the potential 5 or 6 percent commission to be made in a now-slower market that real estate brokers would be jumping at the chance to show G places, but some have been bewilderingly slow toeven return calls. So it was a refreshing change of pace when I responded to an ad for a place in Yonkers--just north of the Bronx and the city line--and the broker responded promptly and proactively to my inquiry. The adlooked promising, and the photos looked good, so we scheduled an appointment to see the place last Sunday through the broker, Debby Frank of Century 21.

Debby told me that since at least one offer was already in the works, we'd best see the place or another like it ASAP since units, though somewhat plentiful, went fast. But when I explained the wheelchair access requirement, she said it wouldn't be right for G since it was on a hill. (Later, looking again at the ad, I saw no evidence of any stairs, obstructions, or hills - and with a power chair, G would probably be able to maneuver just fine. Plus, the fact that the alternate URL for the ad included the word "teasers" might have meant something fishy was up, though perhaps I'm just being too jaded.)

Nevertheless, she assured me she had lots of other nearby units similar in size and price range to show us. Although she seemed very proactive and responsive—good signs in a profession where some brokers are deadbeats just sitting back and waiting for the commissions to roll in, which plenty did during the recent real-estate boom — I soon found she was rather
condescending and more than a little ditzy.

Despite leaving her a message earlier that morning to try and set up a time to meet, by the time Debby called me back to confirm at around 11 am she insisted on meeting between 1 and 1:30 in the afternoon (somehow she couldn't narrow it down to a more specific time, but called my boyfriend's at 1 pm to find out why I wasn't there yet). G had to rush out the door and take a two-hour bus and subway ride to get there, which is tough on him because stairs are already posing problems. (When we met the week before to see a place not far from my boyfriend's Bronx place, it took him him two and a half hours by bus and train, followed by a long walk to the place during which he fell several times.) I arrived at about 1:15, and Debby wasted no time in whisking us off to the first place she wanted us to see.

The woman looked to be thirty-something and appeared to be a typical suburban JAP, or Jewish American Princess. (Since I'm Jewish, I'm allowed to say that, and was pretty sure my Jew-dar was in good working order.) She'd lived in Westchester with her husband and children for the past 20 years. I'd imagined she took up real estate--a favored option for many a bored housewife with teenage kids-- to supplement her hubby's (probably) substantial income.

Procuring a real estate licence in New York is not too tough, though that may be changing now due to a recent push for more stringent professional requrements. As it stands, becoming a broker seemed to be, as the Geico commercial went, "so simple even a caveman could do it"--- and from all I'd read, passing the license exam was not terribly challenging.

My first hint that the woman wasn't quite "right" was when, after commenting on the proximity of the complex to such fast food places as Dunkin' Donuts, she expressed surprise that pizza was high in fat and admitted that she and her family practically lived off the stuff. So much for informed motherhood.

Things just got progressively worse as we drove down the highway and I quickly realized that we weren't in Kansas — or rather New York City — anymore. The 'hood was exactly the kind of strip mall monstrosity we both thoroughly loathed, but the real fun began when she showed us the first place on her list--the ground floor unit of a two-story garden apartment which had several steps leading up to the front door. This, after I'd told her over and over that G had to have wheelchair access in case he was chair-bound down the road. The apartment seemed cramped and the view depressing--and the toilet didn't work.

The second prospect was a high rise, but when we realized this involved steps to the front door as well as some in the lobby, she shit-canned that idea and we went on to the third. This was also a high rise complex. No steps this time, but the one and only elevator bank was out (most better coops have two), though they were in the midst of repairing it. Luckily the unit was on the second floor, so we schlepped up the one flight and after some impressive fumbling with the lock she showed us inside.

Though I'd specified repeatedly that G both wanted and needed 750 to 800 square feet minimum, this dump looked to be 650 tops and featured charming view of a fire escape in the bedroom. G got out his tape measure and quickly realized there was no way this was gonna work. The broker quickly tried to "get creative" by suggesting he could always put some of his living room furniture into the bedroom, and implying that the size was only off by fifty square feet at the most.

G joked that he could always suspend his sofa from the ceiling, but she didn't seem to enjoy his good-natured attempt at a bit of real-estate humor. She also kept asking when G's doctor had said he might need a wheelchair. This mystified me until I figured out her probable angle, which I've elaborated on in the e-mail below.

In short, the meeting was a total time-waster for all involved and left a bitter taste in my mouth concerning the moral bankruptcy of bad real estate brokers in particular, and humanity's perpetual greed and dishonesty in general.

I'm a big believer in karma, and when Debby prattled on about how she was going to give her car to her son after he got his license — but not before he got lots of lessons — I couldn't help but envision her precious child in a DWI down the road. Not that I'd want it to happen, but I've found that sooner or later, bad things do happen to bad people.

She also had no clue about our Lower East Side Manhattan 'hood, but mentioned that her parents (and thus, I assume, she) used to live in Coop City in the Bronx before moving to Florida. I concluded that she was probably one of those folks who live an hour's ride or less from the "city" (or, as the ad said, 25 minutes), but almost never ventured there.

Most likely, I mused, she was deathly afraid of having any contact with "colored folk." My suspicions seemed confirmed when I asked about the safety of the 'hood and she reassured me by saying: "But of course, this is Westchester!" She probably assumed that we were desperate to leave the melting pot of Manhattan for whiter pastures up yonder, no matter how small and depressing the quarters might be. Never mind, Debby couldn't pay me enough to live in your seemingly lily-white, strip mall-infested, gilded suburban ghetto.

After a depressing evening spent ruminating on the darker side of humanity,, I decided to dash off an email to Debby in the wee hours of Monday morning, and forwarded it to G as well. It's pretty self-explanatory.

To: G

From: Elvira

Forward: RE: Our meeting yesterday.

"I just sent this to Debby the Ditz. I just couldn't resist. I know it's unwise to burn one's bridges, but hers is one bridge I never intend to cross again - unless we go through with our plan to go back someday to run her down and power-chair her sorry ass into oblivion." (Just a joke, folks.)

To: Debby at Century 21

From: Elvira

RE: Our meeting yesterday

"After our meet-up yesterday, I feel compelled to tell you that I was extremely disappointed. It was a total waste of time for you, me, and G, and involved a two-plus hour subway ride, which is bad enough considering he already has problems maneuvering stairs.

I'll try to be mercifully brief:

After giving G and I very little notice — and after I'd tried to contact you at least once earlier in theday to confirm time and place — you were miffed at the fact that I did not arrive at 1 pm sharp when you yourself could not seem to commit to a definite time, but instead insisted on saying 1-1:30. Is your time so much more valuable than ours?

After going over G's financials again and again with you in painstaking detail, I thought we were on the same page. Basically, G would be able to afford his monthly expenses... .and if not, all sorts of fail-safe measures would be in place so he could always pay his maintenance. After all that, you still kvetched about 'stupid' members of the board who just wouldn't 'get
it.' All I can say is if the board members are that clueless, I wouldn't want to live in their development in the first place. It doesn't bode well for their management style.

After chastising me for reminding you that G needed wheelchair access, the very first place you showed us had steps leading up to the building. In general, your condescending attitude and reluctance to listen instead of talk over me was disconcerting to say the least.

Why did you so tactlessly inquire as to when exactly G would be confined to a wheelchair? Was it perhaps to try to convince us that this could be a 'starter home' for G, and that if and when he needed wheelchair access he could always move again?

After leading me to believe that the apts you would be showing me would be 800 square feet and up, I quickly found that this was not at all true. Aside from the fact that G would like more space (just because who wouldn't), he would have considerable difficulty maneuvering around in such a cramped space in a wheelchair. He would likely not be able to access the kitchen, and the hallways and foyers were narrow as well.

I'm sure that with all your years of experience, you knew good and well that the square footage was much less. Looked to be 650 at most - certainly more than a foot or two off, or even 50. The apt I am buying was advertised as 750 square feet right up front, to avoid wasting everyone's time — and I didn't need a measuring tape to confirm this. We've lived in an 800 square foot space for 15 years, and we're not blind —nor were we born yesterday.

The neighborhood and complex were also drab and depressing. We are city folk, and we were not interested in a low-rent version of the 'burbs. Asking G if he had a car after all I'd told you — including the fact that we don't — seemed a tad bizarre to me.
know you've been in the business awhile, but I also know that there are all levels of real estate brokers. Some put the bottom line first at all costs, and some have compassion and insight.

Tell me: would you live there? Would you want your parents to?

Was the ad I originally saw just a come-on? If so, that's reprehensible.

I'm sure you're very successful and you certainly don't need to make another sale based on dishonesty. As I said, it was a total waste of everyone's time.

In a word: what were you thinking?

No reply is expected or desired; just food for thought."

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. However, in this case, I'll take mine piping hot and still steaming. Who knows; maybe Debby will get fired, go back home to her probably one-mill plus mansion, and learn how to cook her kids a decent meal in the interest of their cholesterol levels at the very least.

In addition to posting this on my personal blogs and cross-posting in on Blogcritics Magazine, where I do a feature series entitled"New York Stories," I also left a comment over at my favorite snarky New York real estate blog Curbed, but this kind of routine fleece job is undoubtedly so rampant that the world-weary, jaded Curbed editors and readers probably found it a total bore.

Nevertheless, verily I say unto you:

Let the unscrupulous, greedy, money grubbing, dishonest broker beware: Hell hath no fury like a native New Yorker taken for a chump.

<> posted by Elvira Dark @ 3:42 AM 9 Comments

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Bronx is da bomb

Originally uploaded by Pro-Zak.
Well, my friends both old and new, it's been quite an exciting couple of weeks for Elvira Dark here in her native New York City. As some of my Shithouse Rat or BlogCriics readers already know, my ex-boyfriend G and I sold our Lower East Side Manhattan coop, and today it was official--the buyer passed the board interview, which was the last hurdle in the process (we went into contract a month or two ago.) So there's no stopping it now! We are all set to close in the beginning of March.

Meanwhile, I am now the proud almost-owner of a large, fabulous northwest Bronx one bedroom coop apartment, in a gated community with 24 hour security. The complex is comprised of a private, leafy oval ringed by eight high rise apartment buildings and its own little private park.

And no, it's not in Manhattan--that magical, now-rarefied island where prices are so high that it would make most ordinary, non-millionaire's heads spin to contemplate. Verily I say unto you, it is not--but in some ways, it's even better.

Manhattan's renaissance began many decade ago. as the city gradually emerged from a horrible all time low during the nearly-bankrupt '70s. Back then, the mere mention of New York brought to mind a witch’s brew of-- to paraphrase Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver--skag whores, junkies, and pimps,

And here we are, a scant three decades later, and Manhattan has once again become the nation’s, if not the world's, Emerald City--now boasting some of the most expensive real estate known to man or womankind.

I was away at college on Long Island during the latter part of the 70s when things were at their most dicey here, but when I returned in mid-'79 the city was doing a bit better. Even so, there were still many, many sketchy neighborhoods where bums and junkies carried the day. Having lived in New York all my life, I was savvy enough to move to the gilded ghetto of the easternmost part of the Upper East Side—“Mr. Goodbar” territory--which seemed to be inhabited by every 20-something new graduate who needed an affordable place to live in a nice neighborhood of Manhattan.

During that time, many young people just like me found their own first city apartment there, and life was sweet, especially if you had some spending cash to take advantage of all the clubs, bars, restaurants, and other cultural wonders that emerged during the manic 80s (think Oliver Stone's Wall Street, where Charlie Sheen's character escaped the then-"tacky" upper west side and moved to the Upper East as soon as he made his first big bonus and became a "player.") But that was a different Upper East Side from the one I inhabited. No penthouse view of the glittering city for me--two of my four apartment windows faced onto a brick wall, and the only real "view" that could be culled was via the roof. No doormen, no fancy lobby or swank elevators or obscenely bloated square footage for us---our post-college starting salaries were much too modest, and only the most driven, or even ruthless, go-getters of the New York stock exchange and investment banks could afford the Good Life west of Park Avenue.

But it was an idyllic time for me. All through our twenties G and I had a ball, despite residing for the next twelve years in a small, cramped fifth floor one-bedroom walkup. My dad, who'd died when I was 15, had left behind enough money for me to live a fairly luxe city life for a good chunk of years. And live we did--fancy restaurants of every stripe, hot clubs, and cool music venues—all while living a mere five avenue blocks east from the true "Wall Street"=era region.

But as we entered our thirties, we found we’d grown a tad weary of still living the life of overgrown teenagers, despite having the whole city as our personal playground. Our "stuff" quickly outgrew our limited space. We'd grown tired of the four flights of steps up and down with heavy groceries and two months worth of laundry in tow. Tired of a kitchen the size of a postage stamp that made eating in an involved and difficult--albeit considerably cheaper--endeavor, and entertaining well-nigh impossible. Tired indeed of the dingy hallways, the indifferent super, the greedy landlord, and the 20 minute schlep to the nearest subway. So as we entered our mid-thirties, I heeded my aunt A's advice and procured an apartment in her Lower East Side Manhattan neighborhood.

Glam it was not--the area was a veritable ghetto of unhipness. But our new coop was huge and cheaper than our old place. At the time it was still a haven for the less privileged middle class--say, teachers, social workers, and others of semi-modest means, as well as Orthodox Jewish families. They had all settled in many decades ago, check to jowl with the poorer tenement dwellers of the area—which had long been the first haven for the "teeming masses struggling to break free" who headed here from all points in Europe and beyond at the turn of the last century.

Our new Lower East Side coop apartment had every amenity we had learned to do without for 12 years--24 hour security, large, gleaming lobby, elevators, a laundry room bigger than our old apartment, and beautiful views of the East River, the downtown "Wall Street"/World Trade Center area, and across the river into Williamsburg, Brooklyn from every window.

I'd already blown my savings and we were well into credit card hell when the apartment became available. Cheap as it was, we had no cash left to buy it with, so we had to borrow money--four grand from my aunt and another four from G's parents--to pay for it. No, not for the down payment, but for the entire thing.

The complex, one of several developments on the Easternmost section of Grand Street ending at the East River, was originally designed by union leaders who wanted to build decent, affordable housing for working families of modest means. These were true coops--each shareholder had a little piece of real estate to call their own, with affordable maintenance payments.

We bought in '91 for 8000 dollars, free and clear--no mortgage. It was a good deal even back then, but about 10 years before we were ready to sell the board of directors voted to let the coops go free market. Prices were increased gradually, but by the time we left our once-dowdy neighborhood had become red-hot and trendy.

And this is how a couple in their late forties of modest means were able to sell the apartment they’d bought for $8000 free and clear a mere 15 years ago for $450,000.

After factoring in flip taxes (an astounding 17 1/2 percent), as well as lawyers and broker's and closing fees, we still had enough after splitting the remaining proceeds to each find another coop in New York. Not in Manhattan, of course--we couldn't afford a closet there anymore--but in the one of the surrounding outer boroughs of Brooklyn (though most apartments there were well beyond our means by this point as well), Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.

All other once-affordable if rather shabby areas of Manhattan had not –so-slowly but surely become the enclave of the well-to-do.. Countless neighborhoods that most newcomers once feared to tread had been transformed into clean, safe havens for residents and tourists alike. Times Square, for instance, had morphed from a dirty, dangerous hellhole, chock full of prostitution, cheesy peep shows, and drug related crime, to a major tourist area ringed by hotels which now charged insane amounts per night for a room in this newly revitalized, user friendly "center of it all."

During his two illustrious terms, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had turned the city around from a once crime-ridden, dirty disgrace into a top worldwide tourist destination. Suddenly, everyone wanted to visit here; and many of those who did came to stay for good.

The cramped, grimy SROs where BG could once afford a room even in the leanest of times had long been refurbished and re-opened as expensive homes away from home for the urban traveler. One of the few last remaining bastions of affordable Manhattan rental housing--the massive complexes of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town--were bought up this year by developers for a record sum, and long time tenants fear they will soon be priced out of their long-time homes.

So from the moment we decided to sell, G and I both lost our foothold in Manhattan just as it was becoming the most expensive real estate on the planet. But still and all, we got what most would consider an enviable consolation prize. Living together there was no longer a viable option--I'd met BG nine years before, and though G and I remained friends, I needed a place of my own near BG's modest but affordable studio apartment in the Northwest part of the Bronx, where he'd also moved from Manhattan nearly a decade ago.

Now the Bowery flophouse BG resided in during his most desperate years is way out of his range, as the owners recently converted some of the space into small, cheap hotel rooms primarily suitable for visitors abroad looking for modestly priced overnight accommodations in the now-vibrant Lower Manhattan area. Certainly, a room there is still cheap by city standards, but now too rich for BG's blood. As I speak, the area--across from the newly defunct legendary rock club CBGB's and once a place of last refuge for alcoholics and transients, is also emerging as a haven for the newly moneyed scenesters of downtown Manhattan.

What happened there was also occurring in virtually every nook and cranny of this small overpacked island during our now-two to three decades-long housing boom, during which ordinary folks made a fortune renovating and flipping properties in former hellhole 'hoods. What were once DMZ zones--Harlem, the East Village/Alphabet City, the Bowery, and countless others--had morphed into glittering, gentrified oases for the successful urban professional.

As Manhattan became more and more costly, some forward-looking souls discovered the allure of the outer boroughs, especially those areas right across the river from Manhattan such as Williamsburg in Brooklyn,and Long Island City in Queens. Here, emerging artists looking for ample and still-cheap living and studio space were soon joined by others seeking a still-trendy but more affordable lifestyle.

Although the Bronx has benefited rather modestly thus far from the Manhatttan overspill, it still has a long way to go before being restored to its former glory days. The Grand Concourse area of the northwest Bronx where BG resides is the long-ago haven of the more well to do urban escapees in the early decades of the last century. In fact, the "Grand Boulevard and Concourse”—cutting a 50-odd block swatch through the western part of the Bronx and modeled after the Champs Elysees in Paris--was then considered the Park Avenue of the borough. Improbably, forty blocks (two miles) north of BG's one can encounter the tony areas of Riverdale in the northernmost Bronx, and beyond that the wealthy enclaves of Westchester County just beyond the city line.

Before I'd met BG, I'd never have imagined myself in this much-maligned borough--which became a national symbol of urban decay in the 70s, with burnt out buildings and dire, dangerous living conditions.

Nevertheless, when I first met BG in '98 and came up to visit, the Bronx seemed eerily familiar to me. It was, in point of fact, the current day counterpart to the Lower East Side of a mere few decades before. So I wasn't scared or intimidated by the mostly working-poor, new immigrant/Spanish speaking and African American natives. Most were hard working people with families just trying to keep a foothold on the lowest rungs of the American Dream. Many of BGs neighbors buy their provisions with food stamp cards and receive federal "Section 8" housing subsidies so they can afford to live here. But folks here are way cool--cooler in general than the oftimes pretentious,, materialistic residents of Manhattan. Indeed, most seem to this observer to be infinitely more civilized, courteous, and down to earth—despite being feared and even despised by the still unenlightened sheeple of Manhattan. .

There is a lot to be said for this parallel universe right across the river. The mostly pre-war Grand Concourse apartment stock is still in solid condition and ripe for renovation and coop development, with its Art Deco touches and pre-war sturdiness and charm. The South Bronx--til recently, hands-down the most blighted area of the borough if not the entire city and country--is starting to revitalize as well, with a slowly emerging local arts scene. Big money is being invested by developers to create a new Yankee Stadium in the shadow of the old, despite the protests of community leaders who fear the disruption of their modest but still-affordable way of life.

Coop and apartment prices here, though still ridiculously cheap, are slowly rising as well. The unit I'm buying into is selling for roughly twice what it went for eight years ago. Moreover, as the city under our current mayor Michael Bloomberg has committed to investing in the economic and cultural development of all five boroughs, some of the same transformations I saw in Manhattan are beginning to take hold here as well.

For many, the change is nearly invisible, but to me, it's unmistakable and inexorable. The Bronx is now an area of increasing interest to potential homeowners, landlords, and developers alike, with good housing profits to be made. Some of the old mom and pop businesses have begun to be quietly eased out by big city chains like Duane Reade. The recent opening of a brand-new, state of the art Public Library down a block or two from BG's and across the street from the well-worn old one, was big local news. The once vibrant and grand Paradise Theater---about 10 blocks south of BGs-- which had fallen into neglect for decades has now been restored to its former glory as a venue for concerts and other community events. Just down the street from BG's place, the Kingsbridge Armory--an huge local landmark which has languished nearly vacant for many years--is now primed for new commercial development. Much needed amenities like a bookstore and movie theatre as well as other retail shops, classrooms, and inexpensive athletic facilities are slated to arrive in the near future.

I've talked endlessly of these slow but real developments many times before over at Shithouse ratt. And though it's sad to leave Manhattan behind, in another way I feel extremely lucky to soon call the Bronx my home.

The coop I'm moving to is a five minute bus ride across the river into upper Manhattan. Transit options are plentiful--two major subway lines get you to midtown Manhattan in about 35 minutes; numerous Bronx buses go to all points of the borough; car services and taxis can whisk you into upper Manhattan in about two minutes; and express buses can take me to the city in style, quite literally from my door.

And did I mention the panoramic river view? The spacious living room? The eat-in kitchen and generously sized dining area? The lovely, large bedroom? The 24 hour security? The phone intercom system. keeping out all unwanted intruders? The proximity to bountiful low cost shopping, the Bronx Zoo, the Botanical Gardens, Little Italy, and other local treasures? The free Bronx neighborhood trolleys that take visitors to the hot cultural spots of the south Bronx as well as the more northernmost attractions noted above?

Manhattanites lacking trust funds or hefty Wall Street bonuses are slowly discovering that even if they have a toehold in the city, their pocketbooks are stretched to the breaking point by ridiculously high prices for goods and services-- in large part due to the exorbitant commercial rents in Manhattan. Everything there is sky high, with virtually no bargains left to be had, unless you factor in our nearly half-million dollar coop which is still a steal by Manhattan standards. The cost of Food, clothes, and entertainment alone has become formidable for all but those who needn't ask how much it all is because they can, indeed, still afford it.

So aside from the fact that, yet again, I've lucked into a coop which is beautiful but still affordable before the rest of the world fully catches on, I know I'll be perfectly content living a stone's throw from Eden, where the price structure of housing and necessities is as different from Manhattan as Mars is from Venus. My new coop--approximately the same size as the old one (around 750 square feet), is huge by Manhattan standards. Based on the amenities and size, you can get an incredible bang for the buck here. I will pay 110K cash--once again, no mortgage needed due to the proceeds of our sale--to purcase my own little piece of New York heaven, My very reasonalble 750 dollar maintenance will include gas, electric, and basic cable. There are even a few delivery options available from further uptown--a welcome relief from the cheap, nasty Chinese takeout joints and pizzerias which were our only dine-in options until very recently.

Having lived in New York City all my life, I can see the writing on the wall as plain as day--my coop will almost surely multiply in value in the years and decades to come as the 'hood slowly becomes more desirable and even "trendy”—‘til it, too, hjts that magical tipping point where it becomes unaffordable to the average working Joe.

So, in a word, right now I'm happy as a pig in shit. Many folks who haven't lived here all their lives and don't remember the changes, good and bad, that have occurred in this city for the last 80 years or so don't have the frame of reference necessary to see the writing on the money-covered wall. If areas like Harlem and the Lower East Side have become hot properties, how long will it be before this area right across the river becomes a full-fledged "emerging" neighborhood too? It is, in point of fact, already coming to pass. In the 9 years since I first met BC, I've seen the signs of "progress" day after day, year after year, albeit evolving so slowly that the casual observer would not even notice.

Meanwhile, about 20 or 30 blocks north of BG's is another parallel universe--the wealthier suburban/urban enclave of Riverdale (the northernmost part of the Bronx), and Westchester (just north of the city line.)

G and I ventured into this tony territory when he went looking at a Bronx apartment last week. There was a snafu and the realtor never arrived, but we got to chat with a friendly tenant and the super in the lobby for quite a long time. They were both very cool and friendly—the super had been in the building for the last 25 years and knew enough about its economic history to assure us that the asking sum was way overpriced. The young, long-time tenant assured us that the 'hood was very safe--the neighbors all looked out for each other each like family. Nearby Van Cortlandt Park, designed by the same architect who created Manhattan's Central Park, is a massive and welcome slice of urban greenery offering ballfields, golf courses, and the historic Wave Hill mansion and gardens. (In fact, the Bronx boasts the most parklands of all the five boroughs.)

Since BG hates to dine out, being a former cook and knowing what goes on behind kitchen walls, I looked forward to a dinner with G at Jake's Steakhouse in Riverdale--a top rated place known citywide. When we arrived around six-thirty on a Friday night, the impeccably appointed bar and two-story restaurant with park views was just beginning to fill up; by the time we left at 7:30 it was mobbed to the gills with high spirited young professionals chilling out with friends and coworkers after a long workweek. The scene was virtually identical to any well-rated place in Manhattan, both in atmosphere, food, and service. When we went outside to call a car service, several other diners were waiting in the rain to retrieve their cars via the restaurant's valet parking.

It seems inevitable, then, that the more gentrified aspects of Riverdale will slowly edge south more and more towards BG's still humble abode. Kids graduating from college now could never afford my former walk-up digs on the Upper East Side without considerable help from well-to-do parents--or by shacking up, roommate/dorm style, wtih a bunch of friends and splitting the exorbitant rent.

Now the rental prices here are about in line with what I paid in '79 dollars back then. Studios start at about 750 or 800, and one beds at about 1000-1200, while similar, much smaller spaces in Manhattan can go for many times more. As the area slowly becomes more "livable" to those with more bourgeois sensibilities--and as Brooklyn and Queens becomes ever more pricey—I predict that more and more young folks will find a home here. This may make the cost of living rise, but so will property values.

As for me, I have the best of both worlds--an affordable place to live in a beautiful, spacious river view coop,literally a stone's throw away from upper Manhattan, in a steadily developing area that still offers a much more affordable standard of living.

Some day soon, many others who lacked the foresight of this life-long New Yorker may be kicking themselves for not getting in while the getting was good. And that time, my friends, is right now.

<> posted by Elvira Dark @ 4:07 AM 6 Comments

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Welcome to the dark side!

A New York Morning
Originally uploaded by pmarella.
This is a companion blog to Elvira Black's Shithouse rat, devoted exclusively to everything and anything about New York--real estate, neighborhoods, safety, 9/11 issues, things to avoid, must-see and off the beaten path attractions, one day and weekend getaways, insider tips, local news and politics, and more.

Generally, there will be several different categories of posts:

Detailed information about all aspects of New York City living, with plenty of features covering all five boroughs and points beyond with directions on how to get there, plus lots of useful links for further information.

Invaluable info from a born and bred New Yorker you won't find in the guidebooks--or probably anywhere else.

Culled from Elvira Black's "New York Stories," a regular feature column that can also be found at Blogcritics Magazine,along with plenty of brand new posts for good measure.

Got a question about New York? Just ask and I'll give you the lowdown.

Suggestions for topics you'd like to see covered are welcome.

Comments, both naughty and nice, are warmly encouraged. So lay it on me, I can take it!

<> posted by Elvira Dark @ 11:26 AM 0 Comments