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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.

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


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