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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


At Saturday, February 10, 2007 , Blogger JM said...

We had considered buying a place in Alphabet City when it was still dicey, but I was reluctant to believe that the "re-gentrification" would occur. Silly me!

At Tuesday, February 13, 2007 , Anonymous capriwmn said...

I agree on the title =D We might look into Kingsbridge Heights or Pelham Parkway co-ops in a year or two.

I also agree on the people in the BX. A lot of them are just cool and open-minded. Real New Yorkers.

At Wednesday, February 14, 2007 , Blogger elvira black said...


How dicey was dicey? My b/f BG moved there shortly after he first came to NYC in 1969, and was mugged at knifepoint twice, robbed once, and his next door neigbor (a porn actress, I think) was murdered in her apartment.

It's hard to know when the "tipping point" between "sketchy" and "developing" unless you live in, or visit the area in question regularly. The changes can be subtle. My b/f still doesn't believe me when I say that his 'hood will become more and more gentrified with each passing year--or even month. All the usual signs are there for those who have eagle- eyes to see it.

At Wednesday, February 14, 2007 , Blogger elvira black said...


The Kingsbridge Heights area, as well as Woodlawn, are both particularly nice. Parkchester has a lot of spacious, still cheap condos and coops as well, with lots of nearby amenities.

One caveat: prices are climbing steadily higher even as we speak--the unit I just bought has, if memory serves, doubled in price over the past eight years or so.

In any case, good luck!

At Friday, June 22, 2007 , Anonymous political forum said...

The's got some nice parts to it, I guess. It wasn't quite to my taste, but I didn't grow up there so that could be why. I hear what you're saying about living in an apartment. I think it would not be a bad setup to live in some kind of condo arrangement when you could just buy an apartment and not have to pay rent. It sucks just giving money away and not getting anything back.

At Wednesday, August 01, 2007 , Anonymous Mott Haven resident said...

It's interesting that you found your friend BG's neighborhood "to be full of cool, real people, much better in many ways to those of the city"; Yet you chose NOT to buy/stay in that neighborhood but instead the much nicer, and whiter, area of the Bronx. Seems like you moved to a location where all those uncool, fake Manhattanites are moving to as well. Weren't you try to get away from all those Manhattanites in the first place? Something doesn't make sense. I guess when you are not just stopping by for tea but actually have to live somewhere that is overwhelmed by extreme and intergenerational poverty, drugs, violence, and thuggery, the people don't seem all that cool anymore.


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